Isiah’s gaze was direct but gave nothing away; if eyes are the windows to the soul, he had his blinds drawn. Within his handsome suits, he seemed guarded and constrained. Maybe the dailies’ avid deathwatch had unnerved him. Or maybe it was the coach’s minder, hovering just outside our circle as he speed-tapped at his BlackBerry: Jonathan Supranowitz, the Knicks’ vice-president for public relations. Official eavesdropping was de rigueur at the Garden, ever since Dolan got surprised by a 2001 Times Magazine story in which Charlie Ward waxed on about the Jews’ killing Jesus. Players could not speak to the media unless monitored, while assistant coaches and executives like Mills were off-limits entirely. Before introducing Walsh last week, Dolan hadn’t talked for more than a year, leaving writers to tea leaves and conjecture.
The Knicks have a fraught relationship with the reporters who follow them day to day. Before a Boston game, as I loitered by the court, Supranowitz warned me about hanging around the beat writers: “Most of them try to be fair, but not all of them, and I hope you keep that in mind.” He contended that the News’ Frank Isola—whom the New York Observer had described as excommunicated—“was covering the Knicks out of spite—and okay, that’s good, we’re going to take that into account.” For his part, Isola sees the Knicks as obsessed with image over substance, “with everything except their record.” (He also acknowledges “personal” issues with Supranowitz, whom he calls “the Quote Nazi.”)
Before coach Jeff Van Gundy jumped this ship-be-sinking in 2001, he posted a sign in his office: if you think they’re all out to get you, you’re not being paranoid. you’re being perceptive. In the February issue of Philadelphia magazine, Larry Brown said he believed the Knicks had “spies throughout the arena” when he coached there two years ago. According to Isola and Newsday’s Alan Hahn, two sources (one of them an assistant coach) confirmed that the Garden kept a “hot” microphone at the scorer’s table before the game, when writers chat with players and coaches along the sideline. “You better watch what you say out there,” Hahn’s source told him. “They’re listening in.”
I got my own taste of Big Brother just before the Knicks’ West Coast swing in late January. One night in the home locker room, seeing the BlackBerrys distracted, I stealthily approached Malik Rose, the team’s Yoda and resident straight-shooter. Sotto voce, I asked when I might call him on the road. He replied, just as softly, that he’d be reachable at the team hotel any off-day afternoon.
Marbury got wind that Thomas planned to bench him. “Isiah has to start me,” he said. "I’ve got so much on Isiah ... You have no idea what I know.” Nobody puts Starbury in the corner.
Two days later, in San Francisco, an e-mail popped up from Supranowitz: I just spoke to Malik … he asked that you don’t call him in his hotel room on this trip … you can grab him anytime pre- or post-game in the locker room … Sorry. In Los Angeles, I asked the player how I’d been found out: Had he gone to Supranowitz (unlikely, I thought), or had the flack come to him? Rose glanced around the locker room and said, “Let’s just say that they figured out you were here.” I wondered aloud if the walls in New York had ears. “You were very discreet,” he agreed, and we shifted to less provocative ground.
In a conversation with Barry Watkins, the Garden’s senior vice-president for communications, I asked whether the arena’s sideline was bugged. A hail-fellow sort with a clipped red beard, Watkins seemed momentarily rattled. “Of all the ridiculous things I’ve heard,” he said, “that’s the most ridiculous.” After the game, he asked if I’d consider spiking the rumor: “It sounds terrible, even though it’s ridiculous.” The following week, after I’d declined to make any promises, Supranowitz e-mailed that I’d get no more game tapes for my research “until a decision is made about the ‘bugging’ issue.”
Though the Garden policy isn’t leakproof (as Marbury showed while he was awol by text-messaging his favorite, the Post’s Marc Berman), it does keep the vitriol flowing toward the home team. As a beat writer told me, “We all feel like we have nothing to lose by destroying them every day.”
Scary things happen on a midwinter NBA swing to the West Coast: a large woman clutching a Chihuahua as she sings the national anthem, the dog’s ears quivering at the high notes; a dance team of preadolescent girls, jiggling their hips in heavy makeup and hot-pink stretch tops; monochromatic white crowds armed with thundersticks, dancing to “Y.M.C.A.” And that’s not even counting the ethnic drum ensembles or mascots on motorcycles—or the Knicks, who had yet to win on the road against the West when they left for Oakland in late January.
Still basking in post-Marbury euphoria, some dared playoff dreams. “We have a chance in the upcoming months to do something special,” said fan favorite David Lee. “And it starts with this road trip.” Through all the defeats and disappointments, Lee had kept his can-do spirit; you had to feel for him.
Three losses later, the team staggered into Portland. It was Randolph’s homecoming, a date he’d surely circled, yet he was a half-hour late to the arena from his house in a near suburb. “I almost got lost,” the no-necked power forward joked. But hey, “The game doesn’t start till 7:30. I’m only going to take seven [practice] shots from each spot.”