Even the most apoplectic WFAN caller can recite the multi-count misery litany that has saddled the Knicks with the league’s highest payroll ($88 mil, more than $20 million higher than the Lakers, more than $44 million over the future-killing salary cap). The unbroken dossier of foul-ups reels the mind: the Ewing deal (trading him before his $15 million could be subtracted from the cap), the Glen Rice deal (four years, $36 million for a washed-up shooter), Allan Houston’s $100 million (why not $200 million—Allan’s a churchgoer and a coach’s son to boot), the Antonio McDyess draft-day fiasco, and on and on. As for Layden’s Utah fixation—bringing in all those overpaid Beehive State players, Anderson, Eisley, and the rest—what was up with that? Who cares if Layden (and former Garden president Dave Checketts) used to work out there? We didn’t need to import the whole Mormon Tabernacle Choir. We’re from New York—what do we know from Utah outside of the fact that Brigham Young said black people couldn’t get into Heaven?
The last straw in this madness was the bad-hatting of Sprewell, which actually seemed to make some basketball sense (Spree was playing out of position at forward; the team was undersize). Van Horn (University of Utah, ’97), taller and younger, does look good on paper. But . . . Spree for a guy who wears those tighty-whitey socks? . . . Geez.
This was the limbo state of Knicks things, the team sitting at 10–18, Jay-Z throwing in to move the Nets to Brooklyn (and how about “Welcome to New York City” instead of that Sinatra dreck at the Garden?)—at least until the sun came up on day one of Isiah Time.
Not that everyone rose to praise the new king. Sure, he had those rings. At Toronto, he picked Tracy McGrady out of the high-school lunch line. But there were defects. When he was boss of the Continental Basketball Association, the whole league folded. He’d just been fired as Pacers coach by team president Larry Bird. Some said it was an old grudge, that Bird would never forgive Thomas for saying that if Larry were black, “he’d just be another good guy.” Still, it had to be embarrassing, the great Bad Boy chumped by a Celtic.
Even Spike Lee evidenced trepidation. “It is a start,” Spike said plaintively from his courtside spot. “It couldn’t get worse.”
Then, after Isiah’s manhood-rattling invocation of Pistons toughs Laimbeer, Rodman, and Mahorn in the wake of the Spree game (mild-mannered Allan Houston asked quizzically, “Clothesline a guy for talking?”), the winning started. Yeah, the teams were bad, but in the piss-poor Atlantic Division, where the composite record of the teams last week stood at 90–132, a W is a W. In a parity of losers, no one is ever really out of it.
In Isiah Time, what was down is up, what was last is first. Frank Williams, once lost in the fog lights, has become the point guard the Knicks have hunted since they dumped Rod Strickland (more character issues) a dozen years ago. Asked if Williams reminded him of himself, Thomas, never one to denigrate his own consummateness, decreed F-Will to be “the crafty type,” on the order of Walt Frazier. Clyde, somewhat skeptical, did not disagree. Winning is so easy to buy into.
Even Van Horn, suddenly paired with a penetrating guard, has become unstoppable, worth at least half the $13 million they pay him. During Layden Time, Antonio McDyess was considered the last, best hope. Stretching before his first game back following his crippling injuries, McDyess could only smile wanly as fans screamed, “Dice! You’re the savior. You’re gonna save us!” Now, in Isiah Time, the forward, still hurting, comes in when Kurt Thomas gets his fouls, snags a rebound or two and no one cares. Instead of dreaming of 20 and 10, Dice’s big number is 13, the millions that come off their cap if the Knicks don’t re-sign him.
In Isiah Time, redemption is possible. Jim Dolan is now just one more well-meaning guy who might have been a tad too loyal to his friend Scott Layden but eventually saw the light, i.e., hiring Thomas. Even Layden, a decent man, is absolved. He drafted Williams, got Van Horn, didn’t he? Who knew the man was building a juggernaut?
This is the magic of Isiah. “You know,” Thomas says, “Scott Layden has always been good to me—100 percent professional. I’ll never second-guess him. If I have to make changes, well, that’s my job. And a bloody job it is.”
That’s it: He’s got the knife, and the team knows he’ll use it. There was always a little bit of the sadist in the way he played, and the smiling assassin is still extant.
“He’s like a man with a box,” says Dikembe Mutombo, the locker-room wise man. “There are animals in the box. The man shakes the box. Hard. Then he looks in the box, to make sure the animals stay shook up . . . When Isiah stands there looking at you, you can feel the heat on your neck. You better play.”
Asked if his players are afraid of him, Isiah laughs a bit. “No. I think they are inspired. Fear can inspire, and so can love. We just need to win.”
Then Isiah was remembering a game he played against the Knicks, a triple overtime in the first round of the playoffs in 1984. The Knicks had the great Brooklyn scorer Bernard King then, and he was, as they say, “on fire.” Isiah recalled: “I had to start shooting.” So he did, scoring sixteen points in 1 minute 33 seconds. No one who watched it will ever forget it. What did it feel like to be that hot? “You feel relaxed. Excited, but relaxed.” Asked if he ever felt that way off the court, Isiah said certainly. It was possible to get hot in many walks of life, in business, with your family, in a conversation.
“Like now. Right now, I feel hot.”