After splitting their first four games, the Knicks failed by three against a dreary Miami team on November 11. Though Marbury suffered a typical late-game meltdown, he was hardly the lone offender. After the horn sounded, says Frank Isola of the Daily News, “I watched Dolan. He marched into the locker room after that game—he made a beeline.” The next day, on the team’s charter flight to Phoenix, Marbury got wind that Thomas planned to bench him—and responded with a threat. “Isiah has to start me,” Marbury was heard to say, according to the News. “I’ve got so much shit on Isiah and he knows it. He thinks he can fuck me, but I’ll fuck him first. You have no idea what I know.” Which reminded you why the self-proclaimed “best point guard in the NBA” was on his fourth dysfunctional team in twelve years. He was a serial coach-killer: Stephon Rex.
Nobody puts Starbury in the corner. He skipped the Suns game in a snit to fly home, and New York lost by eleven. (“I couldn’t have a guy like that on my team,” LeBron James said at the time.) By the time the Knicks captain rejoined his mates in Los Angeles, the other core players had voted against letting him play that night. Thomas benched Marbury at the start, and then—in a move that shouted turning point—subbed him in for starter’s minutes. “He was probably worried about losing Stephon,” an insider says, “but instead he lost the rest of the locker room—and probably lost Stephon, anyway.” Doubtless jet-lagged, Marbury missed eight of twelve shots. The Knicks fell by three.
The bond between Thomas and his protégé was ruptured. Just months before, Isiah and Stephon had gabbed late into the night, musing over life and the high screen-roll in one of their neighboring manses. But that was then. Now Thomas would say, in a Rudyesque public kiss-off, “I’ve won with people I don’t like.”
The Knicks lost all four times on the road trip and ran the streak to eight at home. You could see Marbury pulling into himself as game after game got away. On the bench he’d drape a towel over his head in capitulation, the Bizarro version of Red Auerbach’s victory cigar. His more impressionable teammates followed his lead: Zach Randolph in casual mimicry; Eddy Curry veiling his mouth like a bandit; Nate Robinson with a niftily tied kaffiyeh. As they perp-walked back to their locker room under a hail of fan disdain, the surrender towels were as close as they’d come to solidarity.
I caught up to Marbury after the Knicks’ first loss of the New Year. It was a month since the death of his father, two weeks since he’d last tried to play. Under the Knicks’ less-news-is-good-news protocol, which essentially cloistered the players from off-site interviews, the locker-room scrum was do-or-die time for the press. And unlike David Lee, who held forth in a towel, or Curry, who schmoozed in his boxer briefs, Marbury had a rule: No questions until he was fully, gloriously dressed. A dozen journalists ringed the star in hemispherical rows as he stood with his back to us, facing his wooden locker. To begin, enough moisturizer for the Mojave, slathered from gleaming dome to toe. Then the fine white shirt, slowly buttoned and suspendered, and the painstakingly knotted silk tie; the designer suit, the ear bling. We stood there rapt, breath baited. It was like a striptease in reverse.
At last Marbury turned toward us on the Knicks-blue carpet. His face defaulted in a scowl; his voice was low, with little affect. “I’m still going through things,” he said. “But I’m back for good.” Twenty days later, he’d get season-ending ankle surgery for bone spurs, a procedure the Knicks implied could have waited. (“I can’t be hurt?” Marbury asked a reporter in indignation.) Soon Thomas would refer to him in the past tense. Freed from their captain’s glower and ever-pointed finger, his teammates exhaled, even played a little better. For the pride of Coney Island, the biggest name in the city game since Lew Alcindor, it was as Marbury himself had once prophesied in New Jersey when he scrawled his elegy on his ankle tape: all alone.
An hour before tip-off, Yao Ming sat in the visitors’ locker room, all seven foot six of him, massive chin in massive hand: the Thinker. As he fielded queries in two languages, his eyes never wavered from the 36-inch Panasonic that replayed the last Knicks-Rockets game. Yao watched Yao attack New York’s big men, get slammed, make two perfect foul shots. The art of war.
On my way out, I found a copy of the Rockets’ internal scouting report. It told all you needed to know about why these Knicks were doomed to disappoint:
Stephon Marbury: “Tends to go into or under every pick and will leave his feet on shot fakes.”
Zach Randolph: “Doesn’t work on the defensive end of the floor … slow in transition defense.”
Eddy Curry: “Gets lost on defensive rotations … labors to get back. He seems to only play hard on the offensive end of the floor.”
Jamal Crawford: “He allows dribble penetration + doesn’t expend a lot of energy on defense.”