A s the Knicks wind down their seventh-straight losing season, a biblical drought of ineptitude and ill grace, all hands seem ready to bail. The owner, the cable-TV scion with the bully’s temper and sad goatee, is rarely seen in his baseline seat. The $9 million–a–year milquetoast center cannot live with the $13 million nightclubbing power forward, who in turn can’t wait to be traded. The $20 million prodigal point guard, hobbled by foot surgery and a gangrenous attitude, sits embittered in a big house in Purchase—just a full-court heave from the home of his coach and erstwhile father figure, to whom he is now dead. And that $6 million coach counts the days like a guest at Guantánamo as he waits for an older, wiser head to end his misery.
As Tolstoy might have observed: All winning teams are alike, but each losing team is wretched in its own special way.
When the venerable Donnie Walsh arrived on Wednesday as the Knicks’ fourth president in seven years, he supplanted the least-loved incumbent since LBJ. During the four years and change of the Isiah Thomas era, the team lost more than 60 percent of its games, a ratio that got worse after Thomas added the title of head coach in 2006. Over that span, the Knicks have amassed the largest payroll (peaking at more than $160 million with luxury tax) and the third-worst record in the National Basketball Association. Never has so much been spent for so little in the world of sports. They’ve been called the worst team in the history of pro basketball, but they’re really much worse than that. These Knicks are worse than the fire-sale ’41 Phillies or the expansion ’62 Mets or the ’76 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who were perfect in their winlessness. They’re the worst of the worst because of how they’ve lost, in petulance and complacency—and with management that bulldozed any critic it could not ignore.
It’s now hard to remember, but this season began with some promise. After adding the potent Zach Randolph, the Knicks were pegged for 35 or so victories and a shot at the playoffs in a weak-sister Eastern Conference. At the Church of Lowered Expectations, where Knicks fans have worshipped ever since Cablevision CEO James Dolan donned the cardinal’s hat, mediocrity would have spelled progress, even vindication.
Instead, the Knicks bottomed. They cowered and caved. As ofthis week, they sat 35 games below .500, hurtling toward the draft lottery—the NBA’s booby prize—for the fourth year in a row. They ranked dead last among 30 teams in assists, and averaged the fewest blocked shots in the stat’s 35-year history—in short, they neither shared nor cared. A 104-59 rout in Boston led one New York fan to fling his blue-and-orange jersey onto the playing floor in self-loathing. Untold others sat in numb despair. More often than not this season, Knicks games were an exercise in agony.
Now that the Thomas era is dead, the obituary can be written. The temptation in these moments is to gloss over the faults of the deceased—to remember through a lens, brightly. But Isiah’s tenure was so contemptible—so bereft of redeeming value, on court or off—that such tenderness is hard to muster. In the Knicks’ me-first self-regard, they’ve blasphemed the most gorgeously collaborative of games. Worse, they’ve severed the connection between players and fans, that idealized first-person plural that makes us part of something large and wondrous. It’s not so easy to love a pro sports team in the 21st century, yet we’re willing to lend our heart, and get hurt, and lend it again. The Knicks have made that impossible. The storied brand of McGuire and Frazier and Ewing has been rendered unlovable.
Let’s lay sentiment aside, then. With this annus horribilis limping to its finale, and Walsh now in place as the Knicks’ latest longed-for savior, it’s time to assess what he stands to commandeer—and to take a hard look at how a proud franchise got laid so historically low.
Like most man-made disasters, the latter-day Knicks were a complex compound of error and hubris, tradition and pathology. It began with Dolan, the volatile owner who admitted to having “no basketball skills, physically or mentally.” In theory, his one good quality was his open checkbook, courtesy of Cablevision’s shareholders. In actuality, his heedless spending set off the chain reaction that would do the Knicks in. Freed from fiscal constraints, Thomas bet the farm just two weeks into his tenure on native son Stephon Marbury (a.k.a. Starbury), a player in his own image. As pointed out by David Berri, an economist at Cal State–Bakersfield and preeminent basketball-stat geek, both Isiah and Marbury were supremely skilled point guards—and also turnover-prone, low-percentage, high-volume shooters. But where “Zeke” Thomas once ruled the court with heart and guts (plus a cadre of superior role players), Marbury was all gall and spleen. Through a seven-year NBA career, he’d estranged teammates in three time zones and had yet to win a playoff series. Isiah sank $80 million (and counting) into a lead guard who could not lead. Marbury was his fatal attraction.