Or so it seemed until Dolan came calling. By 2003, Dolan had become perhaps the country’s most ridiculed owner (when fans weren’t booing the lowly Knicks, they were booing the equally hapless Dolan-owned Rangers). In need of someone who could turn things around fast, Dolan first called Magic Johnson to talk to him about the job. The Laker great begged off, saying he was overextended with multiple business ventures, but gave Dolan Isiah’s number. Three days before Christmas, Dolan fired then-GM Scott Layden and installed Thomas. “Isiah is one of the most celebrated figures in the history of the NBA, and we believe he is the right person to lead this team into the future,” Dolan said. “His set of skills and experience will reinvigorate this team to achieve our only goal—delivering a championship-caliber team to all Knicks fans.”
Most observers immediately deemed the move a triumph of celebrity over substance. An anonymous league executive told ESPN, “He would have been the last human being on earth that I thought would’ve gotten that job. That’s the premier GM job in the NBA, the team is a mess, and the Knicks need someone with experience to get them through this. Isiah Thomas isn’t that guy.”
Still, many New Yorkers were willing to give Thomas a chance. It’s how these things work. Sports-executive hirings are generally met with a honeymoon from the local media and hosannas from the fans: The faithful hope that next year will somehow be different, especially when there’s a new boss. And there were reasons to believe in Thomas. As a player, if not a coach or GM, Thomas had earned a reputation as a winner. Besides winning the NCAA title with Indiana, he had led the Pistons to NBA championships in 1989 and 1990. He also had a well-deserved image as a fierce competitor. Look closer at the smiling face, and you’ll see a slew of scars. Some date back to Thomas’s Chicago youth, but many come from his playing days.
Barely two weeks into his general-manager tenure, Thomas pulled off a blockbuster trade that brought Coney Island legend Stephon Marbury and four-time All-Star guard Penny Hardaway to the Knicks from the Phoenix Suns, respectively, in exchange for cash, draft picks, and a passel of nonentities. It was widely hailed as a great move, especially the Marbury part. Marbury, whose high-school basketball superstardom is the stuff of legend, had long been seen as one of the game’s purest talents, but he’d had an ugly NBA career to date, burning through three teams in eight years. Bringing Marbury home to New York, it was thought, would inspire him to live up to his potential. Less than two weeks later, Thomas canned coach Don Chaney and hired Hall of Fame coach Lenny Wilkens. At 66, Wilkens was the winningest coach of all time and a venerated figure known for his ability to bring along young, undisciplined players. He was hired in other words, to shepherd Marbury.
At first, Thomas’s moves put a charge into the Knicks. After starting the 2003–2004 season with a record of 15-24, the team went 24-19 under Wilkens and squeaked into the playoffs. For a short time, columnists raved about how Thomas had made the Garden the place to be again—Baldwin brothers again graced center court! Despite the Knicks’ improvement, however, the team was knocked out of the playoffs by the New Jersey Nets in a first-round sweep. The early sugar rush of the Thomas-Marbury era had given way to a crash.
The eleven-month marriage of Isiah Thomas and Larry Brown was a romantic comedy turned Greek tragedy. For all his many faults, Thomas is a world-class seducer—witness his continual employment despite sucky results—and Larry “I’ve coached seven NBA teams” Brown loved to be courted. The 2004–2005 season had turned out to be a grim affair. Thomas made a number of ill-fated deals and forced out Wilkens in favor of company man Herb Williams, and the team went 33-49, missing the playoffs. After that debacle, Thomas was looking to make another fresh start. Even before the Pistons had been eliminated in the 2005 NBA Finals, there was talk that Brown was ready to move on. Fed up with Brown’s wanderlust, Pistons owner William Davidson bought out Brown’s contract and set him free. That Thomas then hired Brown may not have been a coincidence. It’s been rumored that Davidson had promised Thomas a front-office job after retirement, but the two had a falling-out and the job never materialized. Thomas is a notorious grudge-holder. During his Knicks tenure he is said to have sent Dikembe Mutombo and Keith Van Horn packing largely because they were represented by David Falk, longtime confidant of Thomas enemy Michael Jordan. What better way to get back at Davidson than by hiring his coach?