And so the die was struck. If Thomas inherited an aging, overpaid roster, he parlayed it into a younger, faster disaster flick, a Kurtzian horror of bloated contracts and hyped ne’er-do-wells. He kept binging on overvalued gunners with cap-killing contracts, splashy names with no postseason bona fides: Jamal Crawford, Eddy Curry, Steve Francis, Zach Randolph. There’s a caustic phrase in the NBA for players of this ilk: Just good enough to lose with. Before injury and melodrama intervened, the Knicks were starting five stone scorers this season—five players who saw each shot as rightfully their own. The result, Berri noted, was that you had “four guys pissed off on every possession” and disinclined to do the little things—like setting a good screen or moving without the ball—that help an offense flow. In jock argot, this is known as lousy chemistry.
Not surprisingly, the current edition leads the league in forced shots, blown assignments, sideline spats, mini-mutinies, and wholesale mockery. Old nemesis Reggie Miller, now on TNT, called the Knicks “a leaguewide joke.” The Phoenix Suns’ Leandro Barbosa was distraught when a prankster said they had traded for him. “My heart was hurting,” the Brazilian said. “I went a little crazy.” The Knicks knew they were in hell when Mike Dunleavy—head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers, once the NBA’s poster child for utter fecklessness—pitched a plea for sanity in long-term contracts. “Anything else,” he said, “and you become the New York Knicks.”
There’s something about Isiah that makes for schadenfreude. People forgive ruthlessness and self-love in an NBA icon, but Thomas’s smug transparency puts them off. As a former Knicks associate says, “There’s a feeling of superiority about him. You wish once in a while that his tie was not up so tight.”
“He thinks he’s a genius,” says a Western Conference scout. “There are so many people who are happy that this is happening to him—not to the Knicks, to him.”
Thomas came to the Knicks two years after Dolan replaced Garden president David Checketts with a duo of more pliable executives, notably “Silent” Steve Mills as head of MSG Sports. Mills knew just how to please a boss who fronts a vanity blues band: big names. Preparing to oust Scott Layden as team president, he first approached Magic Johnson, who already had a full-time job (as Magic Johnson) but recommended a dear old friend. Despite a checkered executive history, Thomas was hired within days. Dolan wasn’t put off by Isiah’s famous truculence. As the owner later told Sports Illustrated, “That’s part of what I like about him.”
Soon enough, though, Isiah’s alpha-dog behavior would prove costly. In October, just a week ahead of the team’s preseason debut, a Manhattan federal jury found in favor of former marketing executive Anucha Browne Sanders in her sexual-harassment suit against Thomas and the Knicks. After exposing the Garden as an overaged frat house (where Ranger execs allegedly kept a Kama Sutra wish list for various cheerleaders), the trial torpedoed the defendants in a pair of video depositions. There was Dolan in his best black T-shirt, rolling his shaggy head like a caged grizzly, haughty and dismissive but creepy most of all. And there was Thomas with his lesson on race and gender: that it would be “highly offensive” for a white man to call a black woman a “bitch,” but “not as much” for a black man to do the same.
“They’re probably very much alike,” Browne Sanders says. “They’ve played by their own sets of rules their entire lives. If you don’t buy into their way, you’re gone.”
But it was Marbury, coming off a strange born-again summer (highlight: a cheery televised slur of his wife as “my better ho”), who stole the show. Yes, he said from the stand, he’d called Browne Sanders “a bitch,” though not “a black bitch.” Yes, he’d had sex with a 21-year-old Knicks intern, falling back on his go-to pickup line: “Are you going to get in the truck?” Damage done, Marbury sang his way out of the courtroom, then mugged for the photographers—huge grin, tongue unfurled like the Stones logo—from the back of his blue Rolls-Royce. The truth had set him free.
With Marbury, you got the whole mishpocheh—including a cousin named Hassan Gonsalves, whom Browne Sanders hired on Dolan’s orders via Mills. When she learned that Gonsalves was sexually harassing several women in her office, Browne Sanders drew the line. “It was so sordid,” she says. “I said [to Mills], ‘You have to deal with this.’ And I was fired within the month.”
The jury awarded Browne Sanders $11.6 million; she settled for a few dollars less when the Knicks dropped their appeal under heat from NBA commissioner David Stern. “I’m very innocent,” Thomas claimed, but his adverb seemed as damning as the verdict. In a huddle with the team’s beat writers, he worried that the case would taint what remained of his career. Dolan, meanwhile, had to be steaming after Stern chastised the Knicks as “not a model of intelligent management.” But he wasn’t ready to can Isiah, the living legend with the killer smile and a fresh eight-figure extension. The stage was set for a fall guy—and who better than a compulsive ball hog with satanic eyebrows and a perpetually pissed-off vibe? Who better than Marbury?