After multiple trips by plane, train, and helicopter to Brown’s Hamptons home, all breathlessly reported in the tabloids, Thomas and Dolan made a love connection with the hometown boy Brown—the dowry took the form of a $50 million, five-year contract, the richest coaching deal in NBA history.
Dolan and Thomas introduced Brown to the media at the Garden in July 2005 with a video tribute featuring Simon & Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound.” It was a touching moment, but reality set in quickly. At 64 and not in great health, Brown was past the point of gut-and-rehab projects. When he took over the Pistons, the nucleus of their championship team was already in place. The only established star the Knicks had was Marbury, and Brown wasn’t a fan—a year before taking the Knicks helm, Brown coached the 2004 Olympic team and reportedly tried to bounce Marbury from the team for his shoot-first-pass-last style.
Yet Thomas proceeded to acquire players who were the antithesis of the Brown model. Thomas’s most head-scratching move was picking up 22-year-old Bulls center Eddy Curry. It seemed like such a bad deal that some wondered if Isiah was some kind of Manchurian candidate, sent by outsiders to dismantle the Knicks from within. It’s not that Curry wasn’t talented; coming out of Chicago’s Thornwood High School, he was nicknamed Baby Shaq. But Curry had yet to prove himself in the NBA—in fact, he’d earned a reputation for being soft (even Thomas questioned his “manliness” this preseason).
There was a more important reason Curry was available. Late in the 2005 season, Curry was sidelined with an irregular heartbeat. It so alarmed Bulls general manager John Paxson that he asked the about-to-be free agent to submit to a DNA test to see if he was genetically predisposed to heart failure. If the test was positive, the Bulls would ask Curry to retire and pay him $400,000 a year for the next 50 years. Curry balked, and the Bulls put him on the trading block. Thomas bit, swapping unheralded forwards Michael Sweetney and Tim Thomas, and guard Jermaine Jackson, plus what turned out to be a 2006 lottery pick and the possibility of another in 2007, for Curry and veteran forward Antonio Davis. Not only did the Knicks now have an unproven center with a reputation for being meek, but his heart might explode. (Thomas has insisted Curry will yet prove his worth.)
Quicker than Micheal Ray Richardson could say “The ship be sinking,” the Knicks were finished. After the team opened with an 0-5 record, Thomas suggested Brown run a freewheeling Phoenix Suns–style offense. Brown is said to have responded, “Why don’t you fucking coach the team?” Brown began complaining about Thomas’s roster and would periodically bench Marbury and Curry, the twin cubic zirconias in Thomas’s crown.
By November, Brown and Marbury were clashing daily in the greatest New York sports feud since Billy and Reggie, minus the victories. In March, Marbury declared that he was sick of doing things Brown’s way. “I went into this year trying to do something, to put myself in a situation where we can win, okay? To help the team win games. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. So, what do I do now, as far as the way I play? I go back to playing like Stephon Marbury, a.k.a. Starbury. I haven’t been Starbury this year. I’ve been some other dude this year.” When told that Marbury had claimed Brown’s regimented offense was stifling his creativity, Brown answered, “I never left a team in worse shape than I got it. Not once. Now, think about that. Think about me and think about the guy who’s talking.” Marbury fired back, “That sounds like a lot of insecurity going on.” As the season went down the drain, Marbury’s carping wore on Brown, who eventually missed three of the last four games with stomach ailments.
On some teams, Marbury’s insubordination would have resulted in a trade or suspension. With the Knicks, it got him a vote of confidence from Thomas. Earlier, Isiah had begun babysitting Brown and monitoring his Hall of Fame coach, making sure he accompanied the team on Dolan’s annual road trip lest the owner and head coach bond. Not that Brown was being Mr. Maturity. In February, he persuaded Dolan to acquire Steve Francis, a point guard who mirrors Marbury in selfishness, surliness, and inability to play well with others. Brown clearly hoped that by adding a Marbury clone, Thomas would be forced to trade Marbury.
It didn’t happen. Instead, the players quit on Brown and the team finished 23-59. Only the Portland Trail Blazers had a worse record.
Beyond the “He made this bed” remark, Dolan has never said why he sided with Thomas and fired Brown. In a final kick to the crotch, Thomas and Dolan refused to pay the $40 million owed on Brown’s contract, implausibly citing the fact that Brown spoke to reporters outside of a Knicks-sanctioned media opportunity as one reason for making the contract null and void. The dispute was turned over to NBA commissioner David Stern, who brokered a settlement last week; as part of the agreement, all parties agreed not to discuss the details.