Three… Two… One...

Photo: Evan Kafka

The Knicks have just finished a preseason practice, and Isiah Thomas, wearing a black Knicks polo shirt and shorts, makes his way over to the pack of reporters gathered for his daily briefing, pausing just long enough for a team PR man to affix an autism-awareness pin to his chest. Thomas is a marked man—during the off-season, Cablevision CEO and Knicks owner Jim Dolan made him the team’s coach (he was already the general manager), then promptly gave him one season to turn the team around or meet his coaching maker. But if Thomas is feeling the pressure from the potential end of his Knicks career, and possibly his managerial future, he’s not showing it. He’s flashing the same trademark Cheshire-cat grin that basketball fans have known since 1981, when he led Bobby Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers to an NCAA championship at age 19.

Just before Thomas sauntered over, Stephon Marbury had been singing his new coach’s praises. The two men grew up in similarly desperate neighborhoods, Thomas on Chicago’s West Side, Marbury in Coney Island. Both were basketball prodigies who became point guards, and both now live across the street from one another in Westchester. “Isiah and me are the same person,” said Marbury. “We’ve walked the same line. I trust him completely.”

He’d better. More than ever, the two men’s fates are intertwined. Marbury is the centerpiece of Thomas’s Knicks. To be judged a success, and keep his job, Thomas needs Marbury to morph from the hypertalented but underachieving pouter he’s been into the ultra-elite star he’s long been expected to become. For Marbury, who’s 29, this season may be his last chance at redemption. If he can’t orchestrate a career makeover under Thomas, his chosen mentor and close friend, he’ll be relegated to that special level of hell for gifted athletes—the Land of No Championships.

Marbury has said that he’s happier than he’s been in years and that playing for his new coach will help him and the team. When I ask Thomas about Marbury’s new attitude, the eleventh new attitude of Marbury’s eleven-year career, Thomas fiddles with his autism pin, flashes his smile, and praises his not-so-young charge effusively. “I have a real soft spot for him,” Thomas says in a gentle voice. “He’s the kid that loves everybody, but he’s been kicked around. He’s the guy by himself. I gravitate to those guys. I was an outsider too. He’s the kid at the park who puts a hard layer on to fit in, but deep down inside, he’s a nice guy.” Thomas’s words run so contrary to the accepted view of Marbury that, for a moment, there is only silence from the other reporters. Finally, someone suggests that maybe Isiah is speaking figuratively. After all, both Marbury and Thomas were heavily wooed by recruiters and cheered from the age of 12. Outsiders? Loners?

Thomas slowly shakes his head. “When you’re Mr. Popularity, you’re off from the group, and you just want to be part of the group. I’ve explained to him that it’s okay to be the nice guy. You really don’t need to carry all that armor. The fight is over. In the game of life, you’ve already won, from where you came from to here. It’s okay to let the shy kid out.” A moment earlier, Thomas had observed, “They say it’s lonely at the top; they didn’t make that shit up.”

Isiah Thomas was supposed to be the savior. From the moment Patrick Ewing was sent packing in 2000, the Knicks had suffered from a decided absence of big-time talent and a chronic lack of heart. Brought in as the team’s general manager two months into the 2003–2004 season by Dolan, Thomas was touted as the answer—the former NCAA champion and two-time NBA-title winner with a cherubic face and 10,000-megawatt smile that belied an up-from-the-mean-streets personal success story and a rabid competitive streak.

Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the promised land. In his almost three seasons with the Knicks, Thomas has managed the team to an anemic 85-127 win-loss record and zero playoff victories. Along the way, he has churned through dozens of players and four coaches in a manner that’s been politely described as befuddling but could just as well be called grossly negligent or patently insane (thanks to Thomas’s machinations, for instance, the Knicks currently owe $41 million to players no longer on the team—check that, the figure is probably double that with the league’s salary-cap penalty).

Last year, Thomas played a starring role in what turned out to be one of the sporting world’s all-time great melodramas. The CliffsNotes version goes something like this: Thomas hired veteran coach and native New Yorker Larry Brown (most recently of the Detroit Pistons, Thomas’s former team) to bring discipline to the young Knicks, especially Thomas’s star acquisition and would-be protégé, Marbury. The famously team-minded Brown immediately clashed with the famously Marbury-minded Marbury, and chaos ensued. Brown called out Marbury, and Marbury called out Brown. Thomas publicly supported Brown but was widely suspected of privately backing Marbury. (Sordid subplot: A former Knicks executive sued Thomas mid-season for sexual harassment.) The players eventually quit on Brown, finishing the year at a dismal 23-59, forcing Dolan to make a choice: Keep Brown, fire Thomas, and in effect give up on Marbury. Or bet the franchise on Thomas and Marbury.

Clockwise from top, Dolan, Brown, and Marbury.Photo: John Amis/AP (Brown); Kathy Willens/AP (Dolan); Julie Jacobson/AP (Marbury)

On June 22, Dolan bet on Thomas. The Knicks owner promoted Thomas, in fact, making him head coach as well as general manager. When asked why he made the move, Dolan said, “He made this bed.” Dolan insisted Thomas was the right man for the job—“There’s nobody better than him to make this thing go forward”—but didn’t exactly offer his new coach a long-term vote of confidence. Instead, he gave him an ultimatum. “He has one season to do that. At this time next year, Isiah will be with us if we can all sit here and say this team has made significant progress toward its goal of eventually becoming an NBA championship team. If we can’t say that, then Isiah will not be here.”

Now the question is, after three seasons of flailing, can Isiah suddenly turn the Knicks around, or are he, Marbury, and the rest of his handpicked squad doomed to another season of humiliation? Fans, meet your 2006–2007 New York Knicks!

We’re at the Knicks’ practice facility in Westchester. Thomas stands with hands on hips, whistle in mouth, and watches as Marbury leads the blue team through Thomas’s offense. It’s an up-tempo style predicated on crisp passing and cutting. There’s only one problem. Marbury isn’t passing. Guarded by a scrub, Starbury, as Marbury fondly refers to himself, dribbles and dribbles until the shot clock hits two. He then makes a desperate drive and launches a brick. Thomas’s shoulders sag. He blows the whistle and walks over to Marbury. Thomas puts a hand on Marbury’s shoulder and asks his team, “Where was the play?” Suddenly, it’s high-school algebra class, and every Knick’s eyes find the rafters intensely fascinating.

Thomas has promised to be a kinder, gentler coach than Brown, but that doesn’t mean he’s Oprah. He smiles at a sheepish Marbury and then looks around at his teammates. “Don’t make things up.”

Next time up the court, Steve Francis runs the same play (the Knicks are paying Marbury and Francis a combined $32 million this year, despite the fact that just about everyone around the league believes the two guards’ styles are too similar to allow them to play effectively together). Again, not a helluva lot of ball movement. Assistant coach Mark Aguirre, a childhood friend of Thomas’s and a former teammate in Detroit, screams at the players, “You got to cut hard.” The players continue cutting like a spoon cutting through an undercooked pork chop. Eventually, Francis launches a similar bailout jumper that misses as badly as Marbury’s. Thomas blows the whistle again. Francis runs a lap as penance.

When asked a few days later how training camp is going, Marbury’s face splits into a devilish grin. Thomas’s new team philosophy is disciplined up-tempo basketball laced with strategic doses of street ball. On occasion, Thomas has asked Marbury to shoot more, not less, yet Marbury seems to have selectively absorbed his coach’s teachings. “It’s completely different. This is the first training camp where I had to run laps for not shooting enough.”

Thomas further articulated his coaching approach before an October 14 preseason game with Philadelphia. “You will know how good we’re playing by how well we pass and cut.” That was the disciplined up-tempo side of him. But after three-plus quarters of sloppy, meaningless play (Sixers’ star Chris Webber isn’t even suited up), the teams are locked in a 100-100 tie with 26 seconds on the clock. Following a Sixers turnover, Thomas summons guard Jamal Crawford to the sideline.“Take the last shot,” Thomas tells his player. Sure enough, the ball is inbounded to Crawford, who proceeds to hold the ball for twenty seconds while his teammates stand like frozen salt pillars. Then, with four seconds left, Crawford dribbles a few times before launching a fallaway twenty-foot jumper that swishes with a second left. Knicks 102, Sixers 100. Afterward Thomas says, “Sometimes you have to let players make plays.”

Thomas’s executive career could be a Harvard B-school study in failing upward. As president of the expansion Toronto Raptors, he drafted future stars like Tracy McGrady and Damon Stoudamire, but eventually resigned after launching a failed attempt to buy the franchise. His two years as an NBA commentator for NBC were undistinguished. And in a yearlong stint as the owner of the Continental Basketball Association, Thomas overexpanded the league and turned down an offer from the NBA to buy it—the CBA declared bankruptcy in 2001. Thomas next returned to the state where he made his name to coach the Indiana Pacers. Despite compiling a solid record of 131-115, Thomas’s teams never made it past the first round of the playoffs. In 2003, the Pacers lost to a significantly less-talented Celtics team. Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh brought in Larry Bird as general manager, and the Hick From French Lick promptly fired Thomas. Having gone 0 for 4 as a GM, broadcaster, league owner, and coach, Thomas’s prospects for getting another high-powered position looked bleak.

Thomas talks to an official during the Knicks' opening-night triple-overtime game in Memphis.Photo: Nikki Boertman/AP

Or so it seemed until Dolan came calling. By 2003, Dolan had become perhaps the country’s most ridiculed owner (when fans weren’t booing the lowly Knicks, they were booing the equally hapless Dolan-owned Rangers). In need of someone who could turn things around fast, Dolan first called Magic Johnson to talk to him about the job. The Laker great begged off, saying he was overextended with multiple business ventures, but gave Dolan Isiah’s number. Three days before Christmas, Dolan fired then-GM Scott Layden and installed Thomas. “Isiah is one of the most celebrated figures in the history of the NBA, and we believe he is the right person to lead this team into the future,” Dolan said. “His set of skills and experience will reinvigorate this team to achieve our only goal—delivering a championship-caliber team to all Knicks fans.”

Most observers immediately deemed the move a triumph of celebrity over substance. An anonymous league executive told ESPN, “He would have been the last human being on earth that I thought would’ve gotten that job. That’s the premier GM job in the NBA, the team is a mess, and the Knicks need someone with experience to get them through this. Isiah Thomas isn’t that guy.”

Still, many New Yorkers were willing to give Thomas a chance. It’s how these things work. Sports-executive hirings are generally met with a honeymoon from the local media and hosannas from the fans: The faithful hope that next year will somehow be different, especially when there’s a new boss. And there were reasons to believe in Thomas. As a player, if not a coach or GM, Thomas had earned a reputation as a winner. Besides winning the NCAA title with Indiana, he had led the Pistons to NBA championships in 1989 and 1990. He also had a well-deserved image as a fierce competitor. Look closer at the smiling face, and you’ll see a slew of scars. Some date back to Thomas’s Chicago youth, but many come from his playing days.

Barely two weeks into his general-manager tenure, Thomas pulled off a blockbuster trade that brought Coney Island legend Stephon Marbury and four-time All-Star guard Penny Hardaway to the Knicks from the Phoenix Suns, respectively, in exchange for cash, draft picks, and a passel of nonentities. It was widely hailed as a great move, especially the Marbury part. Marbury, whose high-school basketball superstardom is the stuff of legend, had long been seen as one of the game’s purest talents, but he’d had an ugly NBA career to date, burning through three teams in eight years. Bringing Marbury home to New York, it was thought, would inspire him to live up to his potential. Less than two weeks later, Thomas canned coach Don Chaney and hired Hall of Fame coach Lenny Wilkens. At 66, Wilkens was the winningest coach of all time and a venerated figure known for his ability to bring along young, undisciplined players. He was hired in other words, to shepherd Marbury.

At first, Thomas’s moves put a charge into the Knicks. After starting the 2003–2004 season with a record of 15-24, the team went 24-19 under Wilkens and squeaked into the playoffs. For a short time, columnists raved about how Thomas had made the Garden the place to be again—Baldwin brothers again graced center court! Despite the Knicks’ improvement, however, the team was knocked out of the playoffs by the New Jersey Nets in a first-round sweep. The early sugar rush of the Thomas-Marbury era had given way to a crash.

The eleven-month marriage of Isiah Thomas and Larry Brown was a romantic comedy turned Greek tragedy. For all his many faults, Thomas is a world-class seducer—witness his continual employment despite sucky results—and Larry “I’ve coached seven NBA teams” Brown loved to be courted. The 2004–2005 season had turned out to be a grim affair. Thomas made a number of ill-fated deals and forced out Wilkens in favor of company man Herb Williams, and the team went 33-49, missing the playoffs. After that debacle, Thomas was looking to make another fresh start. Even before the Pistons had been eliminated in the 2005 NBA Finals, there was talk that Brown was ready to move on. Fed up with Brown’s wanderlust, Pistons owner William Davidson bought out Brown’s contract and set him free. That Thomas then hired Brown may not have been a coincidence. It’s been rumored that Davidson had promised Thomas a front-office job after retirement, but the two had a falling-out and the job never materialized. Thomas is a notorious grudge-holder. During his Knicks tenure he is said to have sent Dikembe Mutombo and Keith Van Horn packing largely because they were represented by David Falk, longtime confidant of Thomas enemy Michael Jordan. What better way to get back at Davidson than by hiring his coach?

After multiple trips by plane, train, and helicopter to Brown’s Hamptons home, all breathlessly reported in the tabloids, Thomas and Dolan made a love connection with the hometown boy Brown—the dowry took the form of a $50 million, five-year contract, the richest coaching deal in NBA history.

Dolan and Thomas introduced Brown to the media at the Garden in July 2005 with a video tribute featuring Simon & Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound.” It was a touching moment, but reality set in quickly. At 64 and not in great health, Brown was past the point of gut-and-rehab projects. When he took over the Pistons, the nucleus of their championship team was already in place. The only established star the Knicks had was Marbury, and Brown wasn’t a fan—a year before taking the Knicks helm, Brown coached the 2004 Olympic team and reportedly tried to bounce Marbury from the team for his shoot-first-pass-last style.

Yet Thomas proceeded to acquire players who were the antithesis of the Brown model. Thomas’s most head-scratching move was picking up 22-year-old Bulls center Eddy Curry. It seemed like such a bad deal that some wondered if Isiah was some kind of Manchurian candidate, sent by outsiders to dismantle the Knicks from within. It’s not that Curry wasn’t talented; coming out of Chicago’s Thornwood High School, he was nicknamed Baby Shaq. But Curry had yet to prove himself in the NBA—in fact, he’d earned a reputation for being soft (even Thomas questioned his “manliness” this preseason).

There was a more important reason Curry was available. Late in the 2005 season, Curry was sidelined with an irregular heartbeat. It so alarmed Bulls general manager John Paxson that he asked the about-to-be free agent to submit to a DNA test to see if he was genetically predisposed to heart failure. If the test was positive, the Bulls would ask Curry to retire and pay him $400,000 a year for the next 50 years. Curry balked, and the Bulls put him on the trading block. Thomas bit, swapping unheralded forwards Michael Sweetney and Tim Thomas, and guard Jermaine Jackson, plus what turned out to be a 2006 lottery pick and the possibility of another in 2007, for Curry and veteran forward Antonio Davis. Not only did the Knicks now have an unproven center with a reputation for being meek, but his heart might explode. (Thomas has insisted Curry will yet prove his worth.)

Quicker than Micheal Ray Richardson could say “The ship be sinking,” the Knicks were finished. After the team opened with an 0-5 record, Thomas suggested Brown run a freewheeling Phoenix Suns–style offense. Brown is said to have responded, “Why don’t you fucking coach the team?” Brown began complaining about Thomas’s roster and would periodically bench Marbury and Curry, the twin cubic zirconias in Thomas’s crown.

By November, Brown and Marbury were clashing daily in the greatest New York sports feud since Billy and Reggie, minus the victories. In March, Marbury declared that he was sick of doing things Brown’s way. “I went into this year trying to do something, to put myself in a situation where we can win, okay? To help the team win games. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. So, what do I do now, as far as the way I play? I go back to playing like Stephon Marbury, a.k.a. Starbury. I haven’t been Starbury this year. I’ve been some other dude this year.” When told that Marbury had claimed Brown’s regimented offense was stifling his creativity, Brown answered, “I never left a team in worse shape than I got it. Not once. Now, think about that. Think about me and think about the guy who’s talking.” Marbury fired back, “That sounds like a lot of insecurity going on.” As the season went down the drain, Marbury’s carping wore on Brown, who eventually missed three of the last four games with stomach ailments.

On some teams, Marbury’s insubordination would have resulted in a trade or suspension. With the Knicks, it got him a vote of confidence from Thomas. Earlier, Isiah had begun babysitting Brown and monitoring his Hall of Fame coach, making sure he accompanied the team on Dolan’s annual road trip lest the owner and head coach bond. Not that Brown was being Mr. Maturity. In February, he persuaded Dolan to acquire Steve Francis, a point guard who mirrors Marbury in selfishness, surliness, and inability to play well with others. Brown clearly hoped that by adding a Marbury clone, Thomas would be forced to trade Marbury.

It didn’t happen. Instead, the players quit on Brown and the team finished 23-59. Only the Portland Trail Blazers had a worse record.

Beyond the “He made this bed” remark, Dolan has never said why he sided with Thomas and fired Brown. In a final kick to the crotch, Thomas and Dolan refused to pay the $40 million owed on Brown’s contract, implausibly citing the fact that Brown spoke to reporters outside of a Knicks-sanctioned media opportunity as one reason for making the contract null and void. The dispute was turned over to NBA commissioner David Stern, who brokered a settlement last week; as part of the agreement, all parties agreed not to discuss the details.

It’s a desultory Saturday evening at the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut. Knicks versus Celtics, preseason game four. For the second time in a week, Marbury is squared off against his younger cousin Sebastian Telfair. Marbury scores a modest twelve points, but more than once, Telfair beats him off the dribble and shames his relation into trying to do too much on offense.

That’s only part of the Knicks’ troubles. By the second half, the Celtics have pulled ahead by 30 (they would go on to win, 113-89), and the only drama is whether the dude who played Shaggy in the Scooby-Doo movies will get bashed in the face with an errant pass (almost!) and if Joan Allen is attending the game with her son or a boy toy (A fourth-quarter hand on thigh! Boy toy!). As Marbury & Co. continue to play matador defense, Celtics star Paul Pierce begins jacking up jumpers. As he works the sideline near the Knicks bench, Aguirre and backup point guard Nate Robinson ride the refs. “He’s walking!” whines Robinson. “That’s a travel!” adds Aguirre. Pierce continues dribbling to the baseline and launches a jumper that rips through the net.

As he waltzes back up court, Pierce offers a succinct “fuck you” toward the Knicks’ bench.

On the bench, Thomas and Marbury are oblivious, lost in conversation. Both men are smiling.

Unlike years past, Thomas didn’t remake the Knicks this off-season. With a one-year leash, he opted for stability, which makes sense until you remember the Knicks were the second-worst team in the NBA last year. The moves that Thomas did make hardly drew comparisons with Jerry West. With the Knicks’ first-round draft pick, Thomas took the anonymous University of South Carolina forward Renaldo Balkman. The reaction by the Knicks fans gathered at the Theater at Madison Square Garden on draft night can’t be repeated in a family magazine. Thomas also released Jalen Rose and Maurice Taylor, both costly acquisitions who bombed (Dolan shan’t forget them—they’re owed some $25 million this year—but Thomas has noted that sending veteran players away is necessary to help make the team younger). Thomas’s one promising free-agent signing was Jared Jeffries, a much-needed defense-first forward. Jeffries’s impact won’t be known for a while: He broke his wrist in October and is out for the first month of the season.

“They say it’s lonely at the top,” says Isiah. “They didn’t make that up.”

Jim Dolan said Isiah made this bed, and it’s true. For better or worse, the 2006–2007 team is all his. He acquired them, and he will coach them. The starting five, certainly younger and faster than in recent years, looks like this: Curry at center, with Channing Frye (a promising six-foot-eleven-inch power forward drafted by Thomas in 2005) and Quentin Richardson (a 2004 Thomas pickup) at forward (at least until Jeffries returns) and Marbury and Francis at guard. Jamal Crawford and second-year forward David Lee should also see substantial playing time. Thomas’s Knicks will run the offense Brown refused to implement: the fast-paced game popularized by the Suns.

Thomas has been focusing on the team’s attitude as much as its roster and strategy. He spent much of the off-season traveling to visit his players on their home turf. “I’ve never seen guys get out of New York City so quickly after the last game last year,” Thomas says. “It was like a great escape.” One of Thomas’s most important trips was down to Washington to meet with Francis. “After the way last season ended, Steve didn’t want to have any part with this franchise,” says Thomas. “But once I got pen and paper out and could show him how we were going to play, he got excited about playing again.”

Thomas’s training camp was a pleasure cruise compared with Brown’s. Isiah’s version was replete with days off and team-building exercises like watching Spike Lee’s Katrina documentary with Spike himself. Curry insists the touchy-feely stuff matters. “Basketball is fun again,” he says. “We’re going to play hard for him.” (For the record, the team went 4-2 in the preseason.)

It sounds good on paper, but if life played out the way it’s drawn on paper, Iraq would be a functioning democracy. In reality, the Knicks should be a bit better this season, if only because they’ll play harder for Thomas than they did for Brown. Still, player for player, they’re a long way from the league’s elite teams, even if some of the younger players blossom. Most NBA prognosticators figure them for somewhere around 35 wins, not enough to make the playoffs.

Whether that would constitute “significant progress” to Jim Dolan is anyone’s guess. He’s never articulated what, exactly, the metrics are. But it’s hard to imagine anything short of a playoff berth guaranteeing Isiah’s return.

Thomas, meanwhile, seems unfazed by the pressure. Throughout his career, he has insisted (almost ad nauseam) that the demands of basketball are nothing compared with those of growing up around poverty and violence. Basketball, he says, should be played hard, and to win, but it should be fun. Maybe that’s an ingenious way to liberate a team of young, overcoached soon-to-be superstars or maybe it will only enable a bunch of rich, spoiled brats. Maybe it’s an artful stroke of self-protection for a man facing the professional gallows, or maybe he actually believes it.

It’s opening night in Memphis for the Knicks, and the excitement level has never been lower. Perhaps it’s the 5,000 empty seats, or it could be the commercial-break entertainment by Dave the Horn Guy, but you get the distinct feeling that the Knicks’ beginning the season near Graceland might be a subtle dis from the NBA schedulers.

Still, before the game, everyone is in high spirits. Marbury trades jokes in the locker room with backup center Jerome James while Francis reads GQ and gets his ankles taped. Then Marbury heads out to the court for warm-ups, and strokes jumper after jumper. There’s even a smile on his face as he stops to sign the shirts of two preschool kids clad in tiny No. 3 Knicks jerseys.

Submitting to his pregame media inquisition, Thomas looks serene. He’s a vision in dark blue, his seven-button vest matching his four-button jacket. Thomas spent most of the day fielding messages from well-wishers. “I didn’t even know Western Union was still around, but I got telegrams, flowers, phone calls. Everyone from grade school to college to the NBA. I didn’t know I was so liked and missed so much.” One call came from Thomas’s college coach, Bobby Knight. “He just told me to be who I am and coach like I know how to coach,” says Thomas. “Along with some other words, but that’s as cleanly as I can say it.” When someone asks if Dolan has called, Thomas is about to say no when a PR flack chimes in, “He’s about to.” About a half-hour before game time, Dolan, flanked by two flunkies to keep press away, makes an in-person appearance, chatting with Thomas in his office and offering the players some encouraging words.

At first, the game goes better than Thomas or Dolan could have dreamed. The Grizzlies, one of the league’s weakest teams, are playing without their sole All-Star, Pau Gasol, who’s rehabbing a broken foot. Without anyone to challenge his manliness, Eddy Curry piles up points and boards. Marbury actually runs Thomas’s up-tempo offense and attacks the basket. When defenders collapse, he dishes to Quentin Richardson, who hits three three-pointers by halftime.

During the intermission, Dolan seems so comfortable with the Knicks’ lead, his thoughts turn to seventies rock bands. He can be heard excitedly telling one of his attendants that he’s going on the road next month with Joe Walsh.

The Knicks lead jumps to nineteen with nine minutes to go. After another Richardson basket, he and Marbury do a celebratory hip-check dance, a good sign since the duo nearly came to blows after a practice (police had to be called) during last year’s debacle of a season. Thomas pumps his fist, struts a bit, and smiles that smile.

But then the Knicks collapse like the hoops Ponzi scheme many suspect they are. The Grizzlies guards, who might be playing in the CBA if Thomas hadn’t all but killed it, start driving around the spaghetti legs of Marbury and Francis with disturbing ease. Curry, who also appears fatigued, vanishes in plain sight. On offense, there’s no ball movement, just Marbury and Francis squandering the shot clock before launching bricks. Faster than you can say severance package, the game is tied. Ten rows behind the Knicks’ bench, Dolan runs his hands through his shaggy salt-and-pepper hair. Not even Brown’s Knicks gagged a late-game lead so spectacularly.

On the sideline, Thomas paces, wandering onto the court between free throws, barking instructions. With just a few ticks left on the clock, Crawford holds the ball like he did back in Philly. But this time the defense is tighter, and he badly misses a twenty-footer.

The game trudges on through two overtimes, with Crawford botching another jumper at the end of each one. Why Thomas doesn’t call a different play—Crawford missed nine shots in a row at one point—is a baffler. Francis fouled out in the first OT, and he was quickly followed to the sideline by Marbury (the troika of Knicks guards finished a ghastly 10 for 41).

After more missed Knicks shots in the third overtime, the Grizzlies take a three-point lead, and it looks as if the Thomas regime is going to open with a loss for the ages. Then the refs bail the Knicks out. There are two questionable calls and an inadvertent halting of a Grizzlies’ fast break when an official gets in the way of the ball. Improbably, the Knicks find themselves ahead by a point. A Memphis shot at the buzzer doesn’t fall, and the Knicks escape with the victory. Yes, they won (in three overtimes), but imagine what will happen when they play Indiana and San Antonio (two of their next three opponents), not to mention Miami and Dallas.

Storming off the court as if it’s V-E Day, Marbury pumps his fist. “We played with a lot of poise,” he would say a few minutes later. Thomas bear-hugs Francis and tells him he liked the way he managed the game (this despite the fact that Francis tallied two points, six fouls, and five turnovers). In a jubilant locker room, Thomas’s players present their coach with the game ball.

Facing the media, Thomas only accentuates the positive. ‘’There was some crazy stuff happening, and at any point in time, the guys could have just said, ‘Oh well, we played well,’ and just kind of caved,” Thomas says. ‘’But our guys kept fighting and grinding, and we won the basketball game.’’ Then, of course, he smiles.

Three… Two… One...