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Book of Isiah

With a bloated payroll, an injured superstar, notoriously clueless management, and a perpetually hangdog look, the Knicks were basketball's walking dead. Then Isiah Thomas arrived, and a sudden quickening occurred. What's behind that smile?


Grin reaper: New Knicks president Isiah Thomas, center, holds a ball with owner James Dolan, left, and president of sports operations Steve Mills.   

David Blaine, the Brooklyn-born magician and Knickerbockers fan, who once encased himself in a block of ice in the middle of Times Square, had come over to Madison Square Garden to show Isiah Thomas a few card tricks. Breaking into his un-matched Cheshire-cat smile, Isiah, newly anointed sheriff– general manager of Knickland, known to perform a bit of prestidigitation with the ball during his Hall of Fame playing career, was suitably impressed. Not that he asked Blaine how the tricks were done. He knew magicians don’t tell, that it is far more marvelous to allow yourself to be wonder-struck. Besides, Blaine might be the new Houdini, but he’d still be hard-pressed to match the Scripture-like feats performed by the prophetically named Isiah this past Christmas week. He rose a whole basketball team from the dead.

Truly, it has been magic, or some kind of unholy sorcery. Campaigning like an alderman, never less than an ultraconvincing salesman, Isiah, pointing out that his Detroit “Bad Boy” champs won even though they had “only one top-50 player—me—while the Lakers and Celtics had two or three,” says his goal is “to make our team play over their heads.” He didn’t say anything about making them play out of their heads. Last Tuesday’s crushing of Miami at the Garden was their fourth straight win, the third in a row by twenty or more, something the Knicks hadn’t accomplished since the relatively halcyon days of 1996. It is so that Miami, as well as other victims Orlando and Memphis, basically sucks, but two weeks ago these games would have been life and death.

Now, headlong into Isiah time, the winning seemed almost routine. As the Knicks motored to a 30-point lead against the Heat, the Garden crowd, either stunned or still hungover from two years of watching coach Don Chaney’s “why me?” look, took it in stride, as if transported back to the myth times when Clyde, Earl, Willis, and Bradley spent evenings casually dismantling dregs like the Buffalo Braves or the Kansas City Kings.

“When Isiah stands there looking at you, you feel the heat in the back of your neck. You know you better play.”

The Knicks fan with the basketball jones, which compels him to watch his team no matter how overpaid, under-motivated, or haphazardly coached they may be, cannot help but wonder what is up, what Zeke (Isiah’s equally biblical nickname) has wrought. Has there been a change of feed or medication? Is some giant, hidden electromagnet drawing the perimeter-hugging Keith Van Horn toward the hoop? Has Dikembe Mutombo been somehow lubed up with gallons of WD-40 (in his case, maybe WD-50) so he no longer creaks like the Tin Man when he bends over? Why does Shandon Anderson no longer blow the layup? Has a Faustian bargain been struck?

Ask Isiah and he will oblige with reams of Jungian/shamanic/Baptist/corporate self-help analysis. “Our team was down, collectively,” he says. “We were a sick patient, emotionally sick as professionals and as men. What was needed was to be put back together, a healing. In sports, things can turn around fast. Faster than you think.”

Then he will smile, that spreading “trust me” smile. Because he knows: You can cut guys like Slavko Vranes, figure out a way to palm the portly Clarence Weatherspoon off on a supposedly savvy Jeff Van Gundy, order your coach to finally start Frank Williams, and let your players know that if you’re not happy with what you see, their millionaire ass will be grass.

But in the end, after the hard work and planning, the game is “full of mysteries.” There are questions you don’t ask when things are going good, tricks the magician won’t tell you, even if he knows. What a difference a week makes. On the Tuesday before Christmas, Isiah’s first game after replacing the owlish, roundly mocked Scott Layden, the Garden was a more ominous place. The game against the Minnesota Timberwolves was barely on and Thomas, called “Saint Knick” in the morning tabs, didn’t have to check his list twice to know his new crew was nice—far, far too nice. This was made graphic by the grinchy, prodigal return of Latrell Sprewell, once the naughtiest of Knicks. Spree was dropping 31 on his former (non)running mates, not to mention cursing out his former boss in full view of 19,763 people.

“Did he say, ‘Take that, motherfucker’?” asked one bemused resident of the second-string press box above Section 64 after watching Latrell slam and then proceed to the baseline area, where James Dolan, Knicks head of state, was seated.

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