More daunting still, Walsh must navigate a rogue corporate culture that dates from the seventies, when cable pioneer Charles Dolan took on the network titans in his grow-or-die war for survival. The founder’s youngest son is a creature of the old company mind-set: belligerent, paranoid, infallible. Though James Dolan appears chastened by the team’s recent turn, he’s still a reformed alcoholic who rules by fear and makes chaos his natural habitat. And the Knicks are still his $600 million candy store. As Browne Sanders says, “There’s no way to fix the problem when the problem is ownership.”
In the best case, with Walsh at the helm and Isiah sent packing and Dolan on new meds, the Knicks’ near future looks bleak. Even were the team to draft well in this year’s lottery, it’s a Dutch-boy proposition. There is no post-Stephon point guard in place, no dynamic small forward, no defensive anchor. Barring a takeout or buyer for Randolph or Curry or both, the franchise could be hobbled by the NBA’s salary cap through 2010, when LeBron comes up for bid. While a deft hand at the top may speed the team’s revival, this Augean mess won’t be cleaned up in a day. As Walsh acknowledged, “There’s no magic wand here, all right?”
The one near certainty is that Thomas’s coaching days are numbered. As he played out his lame duck’s string, Isiah’s smooth face grew tighter, his on-cue charm nearly spent. In the cinderblock chamber where he grudgingly met the press, the ghosts of coaches past—Don Chaney, Lenny Wilkens, Larry Brown—hovered in the air. Whatever their flaws, they were honorable men, all left to twist slowly before their beheading. Thomas knew how the drill worked; he’d swung the ax, after all.
You could almost feel sorry for the guy, if he didn’t keep beating you to the punch. “We need to build a culture here, a foundation,” he’d said earlier this season. “The guy who poured the concrete never gets a chance to live in that beautiful house.” It was a classic Thomas conceit: earnestly delivered, velvet-voiced, hollow at its core. Because Isiah’s Knicks were nothing if not a monument to grandiosity—and a teardown for the next master builder, who’d be starting over again, from scratch.