Thomas, meanwhile, seems unfazed by the pressure. Throughout his career, he has insisted (almost ad nauseam) that the demands of basketball are nothing compared with those of growing up around poverty and violence. Basketball, he says, should be played hard, and to win, but it should be fun. Maybe that’s an ingenious way to liberate a team of young, overcoached soon-to-be superstars or maybe it will only enable a bunch of rich, spoiled brats. Maybe it’s an artful stroke of self-protection for a man facing the professional gallows, or maybe he actually believes it.
It’s opening night in Memphis for the Knicks, and the excitement level has never been lower. Perhaps it’s the 5,000 empty seats, or it could be the commercial-break entertainment by Dave the Horn Guy, but you get the distinct feeling that the Knicks’ beginning the season near Graceland might be a subtle dis from the NBA schedulers.
Still, before the game, everyone is in high spirits. Marbury trades jokes in the locker room with backup center Jerome James while Francis reads GQ and gets his ankles taped. Then Marbury heads out to the court for warm-ups, and strokes jumper after jumper. There’s even a smile on his face as he stops to sign the shirts of two preschool kids clad in tiny No. 3 Knicks jerseys.
Submitting to his pregame media inquisition, Thomas looks serene. He’s a vision in dark blue, his seven-button vest matching his four-button jacket. Thomas spent most of the day fielding messages from well-wishers. “I didn’t even know Western Union was still around, but I got telegrams, flowers, phone calls. Everyone from grade school to college to the NBA. I didn’t know I was so liked and missed so much.” One call came from Thomas’s college coach, Bobby Knight. “He just told me to be who I am and coach like I know how to coach,” says Thomas. “Along with some other words, but that’s as cleanly as I can say it.” When someone asks if Dolan has called, Thomas is about to say no when a PR flack chimes in, “He’s about to.” About a half-hour before game time, Dolan, flanked by two flunkies to keep press away, makes an in-person appearance, chatting with Thomas in his office and offering the players some encouraging words.
At first, the game goes better than Thomas or Dolan could have dreamed. The Grizzlies, one of the league’s weakest teams, are playing without their sole All-Star, Pau Gasol, who’s rehabbing a broken foot. Without anyone to challenge his manliness, Eddy Curry piles up points and boards. Marbury actually runs Thomas’s up-tempo offense and attacks the basket. When defenders collapse, he dishes to Quentin Richardson, who hits three three-pointers by halftime.
During the intermission, Dolan seems so comfortable with the Knicks’ lead, his thoughts turn to seventies rock bands. He can be heard excitedly telling one of his attendants that he’s going on the road next month with Joe Walsh.
The Knicks lead jumps to nineteen with nine minutes to go. After another Richardson basket, he and Marbury do a celebratory hip-check dance, a good sign since the duo nearly came to blows after a practice (police had to be called) during last year’s debacle of a season. Thomas pumps his fist, struts a bit, and smiles that smile.
But then the Knicks collapse like the hoops Ponzi scheme many suspect they are. The Grizzlies guards, who might be playing in the CBA if Thomas hadn’t all but killed it, start driving around the spaghetti legs of Marbury and Francis with disturbing ease. Curry, who also appears fatigued, vanishes in plain sight. On offense, there’s no ball movement, just Marbury and Francis squandering the shot clock before launching bricks. Faster than you can say severance package, the game is tied. Ten rows behind the Knicks’ bench, Dolan runs his hands through his shaggy salt-and-pepper hair. Not even Brown’s Knicks gagged a late-game lead so spectacularly.
On the sideline, Thomas paces, wandering onto the court between free throws, barking instructions. With just a few ticks left on the clock, Crawford holds the ball like he did back in Philly. But this time the defense is tighter, and he badly misses a twenty-footer.
The game trudges on through two overtimes, with Crawford botching another jumper at the end of each one. Why Thomas doesn’t call a different play—Crawford missed nine shots in a row at one point—is a baffler. Francis fouled out in the first OT, and he was quickly followed to the sideline by Marbury (the troika of Knicks guards finished a ghastly 10 for 41).
After more missed Knicks shots in the third overtime, the Grizzlies take a three-point lead, and it looks as if the Thomas regime is going to open with a loss for the ages. Then the refs bail the Knicks out. There are two questionable calls and an inadvertent halting of a Grizzlies’ fast break when an official gets in the way of the ball. Improbably, the Knicks find themselves ahead by a point. A Memphis shot at the buzzer doesn’t fall, and the Knicks escape with the victory. Yes, they won (in three overtimes), but imagine what will happen when they play Indiana and San Antonio (two of their next three opponents), not to mention Miami and Dallas.