Maybe he’d overslept. The night before the game, according to the Portland Tribune, he’d hosted an affair at a local club that segued into a street brawl at 2:30 that morning. (Randolph admitted getting Maced by police outside the club, but denied that the party was his.) Trouble seems to find Randolph. His pre-Knicks rap sheet ranged from three juvenile arrests to a suspension for punching a Portland teammate and breaking the man’s eye socket. In his last season in Oregon, he stopped at one strip club while on bereavement leave and turned up outside another when a gun went off.
He was a mixed bag on the court as well. For all his gifts as a “twenty and ten guy” (points and rebounds), the new Knick couldn’t guard a Zamboni. And unlike Curry, who simply could not pass, Randolph didn’t see the profit in it. “He likes his points,” says Geoffrey Arnold of the Portland Oregonian. “He has a physical hunger to score.” You could hear his stomach rumbling when he drove headlong into double-teams or fluttered his hands high like a Pentecostal—I’m open!—on a cut through the lane. Or, less charmingly, as he sulked back on defense when feeling neglected. “He’s selfish,” the Eastern scout said bluntly. “If he was [still] in Portland, I guarantee you they would not be so successful.”
Randolph’s most telling play of the year came in a December bludgeoning by Indiana, when he got upset over a missed foul call. Back on defense, he took up his harangue with the baseline official, flapping his arms in frustration. Which might not have been so bad, save that Randolph was supposed to be guarding Troy Murphy, who’d stopped twenty-odd feet away to do what he did best: bomb a three-pointer. When Randolph saw Murphy get the ball, he turned and stepped toward him—duty called, after all—but ultimately couldn’t be bothered and wandered back to the ref, still jabbering. Murphy could have set up a surveyor’s tool and downed a macchiato. As the ball splashed through the net, Randolph bared a flash of annoyance, though not an iota of chagrin.
“That,” said Mike Breen, “is inexcusable.” But Isiah apparently excused it: no benching, no teaching moment. The HMS Thomas was a loose ship. Practices went short, with scant focus on defense and off days galore. When Isiah got bored, he’d invite a special guest like boxer Roy Jones Jr. to join their drills or hang around the locker room. Perhaps the Knicks ran out of things to do, as their playbook was the slimmest in the league. “Scouts love going to see them because it’s an easy night,” the Eastern scout said. When in doubt, Thomas fell back on “isolation,” where Randolph or Crawford went one-on-one before chucking. This didn’t take much practice; the players had been doing it since they were 8 years old.
Predictably, laissez-faire became lawlessness. Quentin Richardson, the hair-triggered swing man, barked openly at Thomas when benched too soon for his liking, a scene unimaginable in the age of Riley. The Knicks were not a close team—“fifteen players, eight or nine cabs,” according to Channing Frye, who went to Portland in the Randolph deal—and eventually they turned on one another. During one time-out, Randolph threw a cup of water on the hyperactive Robinson, who returned fire with a towel; in another, after defensive lapse No. 5,063, Richardson screamed hysterically at his teammates until he had to be restrained.
Laissez-faire became lawlessness. During one time-out, Randolph threw a cup of water on the hyperactive Robinson, who returned fire with a towel.
With the group crying out for a leader, Jamal Crawford tiptoed into the vacuum. But some wondered if the skinny guard was too much the blithe company man, “just happy to lace up and wear that orange and blue every night,” as he told me. He’d been an unabashed fan of Thomas from boyhood, even wearing the same number. Crawford, says Percy Allen, a Seattle sportswriter who’d known him since the player was 15, “likes to please whoever he’s with at that minute.”
“There are a lot of Robins in the NBA,” notes another Western scout, “but very few Batmans. I don’t see a Batman on that team.” By February, Randolph was itching to be traded—and indeed was shopped hard, but his contract was too larded to move. Ditto for Curry, who has an uninsurable heart condition. It appeared that they’d be stuck with each other for some time to come, like the rest of us.
Against all odds, the season kept getting worse. Within the last month, Randolph went down with a bruised foot, Crawford with a bruised hand, Robinson with a sprained knee, Curry with torn cartilage. Despite a year and $22 million left on his contract, Marbury was a nonperson, his name never passing the coach’s lips. Down the stretch, Isiah shelved his able-bodied regulars to start the young players he’d buried all year. At press time, in full tank mode for the draft, the Knicks were alive to lose a franchise-worst 60 games: the Thomas legacy and imprint, for as long as records are kept.
Then, finally, a mote of hope. In a March 17 radio interview, Commissioner Stern predicted a “potentially transformative off-season” for the league’s marquee franchise. A week later, ESPN reported that Donnie Walsh was onboard to succeed Thomas as team president. “David Stern’s handprints are all over this,” said Robert Gutkowski, the Garden president before Cablevision bought the joint in 1994.
Gregarious and accessible, Walsh has been hailed with hosannas by a demoralized media corps. In last week’s baptismal press conference, Dolan declared that he’s giving the New York native carte blanche over the basketball operation, with “autonomy” to normalize the team’s media policy. Walsh’s initial statements were marked by refreshing plain talk: “We can’t keep losing and going nowhere,” he told MSG TV. Less auspicious was his characterization of Thomas as “a great basketball mind” who’s “got the skills to help this franchise.” The man who steered the Pacers to six conference finals has a soft spot for Isiah, whom he hired as a novice coach in 2000. (After losing three straight first-round playoff series in Indiana, Thomas was fired by bitter enemy Larry Bird.) “I had Isiah as my coach and I liked him a lot,” Walsh told me in February. “The [Knicks] franchise was in a difficult position when he took over. He’s made some amazing changes that haven’t added up, but it hasn’t been for lack of trying.”
For veteran Knicks watchers, the notion of Isiah hanging on—even in a reduced front-office role—was mind-boggling. “There’s got to be a divorce,” Gutkowski said. “The wound has to be cauterized.”
Was Walsh waxing diplomatic or sentimental? Had Isiah actively lobbied for Walsh’s appointment, as conspiracy theorists had it, in a last grasp at survival? As the answers sort out over the next days and weeks, the decision could signal whether the 67-year-old out of Fordham Prep has the stomach he’ll need to reinvent the Knicks. For all his savvy and experience, Walsh couldn’t stop the Pacers from unraveling in the wake of their traumatic brawl with Pistons fans in 2004. And after a quarter-century in Indianapolis, he’ll be grappling with the hyper-scrutiny of New York—and the stubborn myth that ticket-gouged New Yorkers won’t stand for the lean years of rebuilding.