Absolutely, Positively the Worst Team in the History of Professional Sports

Even bench players Nate Robinson, Mardy Collins, and Renaldo Balkman can't bear to watch. Photo: Morry Gash/AP

A s the Knicks wind down their seventh-straight losing season, a biblical drought of ineptitude and ill grace, all hands seem ready to bail. The owner, the cable-TV scion with the bully’s temper and sad goatee, is rarely seen in his baseline seat. The $9 million–a–year milquetoast center cannot live with the $13 million nightclubbing power forward, who in turn can’t wait to be traded. The $20 million prodigal point guard, hobbled by foot surgery and a gangrenous attitude, sits embittered in a big house in Purchase—just a full-court heave from the home of his coach and erstwhile father figure, to whom he is now dead. And that $6 million coach counts the days like a guest at Guantánamo as he waits for an older, wiser head to end his misery.

As Tolstoy might have observed: All winning teams are alike, but each losing team is wretched in its own special way.

When the venerable Donnie Walsh arrived on Wednesday as the Knicks’ fourth president in seven years, he supplanted the least-loved incumbent since LBJ. During the four years and change of the Isiah Thomas era, the team lost more than 60 percent of its games, a ratio that got worse after Thomas added the title of head coach in 2006. Over that span, the Knicks have amassed the largest payroll (peaking at more than $160 million with luxury tax) and the third-worst record in the National Basketball Association. Never has so much been spent for so little in the world of sports. They’ve been called the worst team in the history of pro basketball, but they’re really much worse than that. These Knicks are worse than the fire-sale ’41 Phillies or the expansion ’62 Mets or the ’76 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who were perfect in their winlessness. They’re the worst of the worst because of how they’ve lost, in petulance and complacency—and with management that bulldozed any critic it could not ignore.

It’s now hard to remember, but this season began with some promise. After adding the potent Zach Randolph, the Knicks were pegged for 35 or so victories and a shot at the playoffs in a weak-sister Eastern Conference. At the Church of Lowered Expectations, where Knicks fans have worshipped ever since Cablevision CEO James Dolan donned the cardinal’s hat, mediocrity would have spelled progress, even vindication.

Instead, the Knicks bottomed. They cowered and caved. As ofthis week, they sat 35 games below .500, hurtling toward the draft lottery—the NBA’s booby prize—for the fourth year in a row. They ranked dead last among 30 teams in assists, and averaged the fewest blocked shots in the stat’s 35-year history—in short, they neither shared nor cared. A 104-59 rout in Boston led one New York fan to fling his blue-and-orange jersey onto the playing floor in self-loathing. Untold others sat in numb despair. More often than not this season, Knicks games were an exercise in agony.

Now that the Thomas era is dead, the obituary can be written. The temptation in these moments is to gloss over the faults of the deceased—to remember through a lens, brightly. But Isiah’s tenure was so contemptible—so bereft of redeeming value, on court or off—that such tenderness is hard to muster. In the Knicks’ me-first self-regard, they’ve blasphemed the most gorgeously collaborative of games. Worse, they’ve severed the connection between players and fans, that idealized first-person plural that makes us part of something large and wondrous. It’s not so easy to love a pro sports team in the 21st century, yet we’re willing to lend our heart, and get hurt, and lend it again. The Knicks have made that impossible. The storied brand of McGuire and Frazier and Ewing has been rendered unlovable.

Let’s lay sentiment aside, then. With this annus horribilis limping to its finale, and Walsh now in place as the Knicks’ latest longed-for savior, it’s time to assess what he stands to commandeer—and to take a hard look at how a proud franchise got laid so historically low.

Like most man-made disasters, the latter-day Knicks were a complex compound of error and hubris, tradition and pathology. It began with Dolan, the volatile owner who admitted to having “no basketball skills, physically or mentally.” In theory, his one good quality was his open checkbook, courtesy of Cablevision’s shareholders. In actuality, his heedless spending set off the chain reaction that would do the Knicks in. Freed from fiscal constraints, Thomas bet the farm just two weeks into his tenure on native son Stephon Marbury (a.k.a. Starbury), a player in his own image. As pointed out by David Berri, an economist at Cal State–Bakersfield and preeminent basketball-stat geek, both Isiah and Marbury were supremely skilled point guards—and also turnover-prone, low-percentage, high-volume shooters. But where “Zeke” Thomas once ruled the court with heart and guts (plus a cadre of superior role players), Marbury was all gall and spleen. Through a seven-year NBA career, he’d estranged teammates in three time zones and had yet to win a playoff series. Isiah sank $80 million (and counting) into a lead guard who could not lead. Marbury was his fatal attraction.

Photo: Jeff Zelevansky/Icon SMI/Corbis

And so the die was struck. If Thomas inherited an aging, overpaid roster, he parlayed it into a younger, faster disaster flick, a Kurtzian horror of bloated contracts and hyped ne’er-do-wells. He kept binging on overvalued gunners with cap-killing contracts, splashy names with no postseason bona fides: Jamal Crawford, Eddy Curry, Steve Francis, Zach Randolph. There’s a caustic phrase in the NBA for players of this ilk: Just good enough to lose with. Before injury and melodrama intervened, the Knicks were starting five stone scorers this season—five players who saw each shot as rightfully their own. The result, Berri noted, was that you had “four guys pissed off on every possession” and disinclined to do the little things—like setting a good screen or moving without the ball—that help an offense flow. In jock argot, this is known as lousy chemistry.

Not surprisingly, the current edition leads the league in forced shots, blown assignments, sideline spats, mini-mutinies, and wholesale mockery. Old nemesis Reggie Miller, now on TNT, called the Knicks “a leaguewide joke.” The Phoenix Suns’ Leandro Barbosa was distraught when a prankster said they had traded for him. “My heart was hurting,” the Brazilian said. “I went a little crazy.” The Knicks knew they were in hell when Mike Dunleavy—head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers, once the NBA’s poster child for utter fecklessness—pitched a plea for sanity in long-term contracts. “Anything else,” he said, “and you become the New York Knicks.”

There’s something about Isiah that makes for schadenfreude. People forgive ruthlessness and self-love in an NBA icon, but Thomas’s smug transparency puts them off. As a former Knicks associate says, “There’s a feeling of superiority about him. You wish once in a while that his tie was not up so tight.”

“He thinks he’s a genius,” says a Western Conference scout. “There are so many people who are happy that this is happening to him—not to the Knicks, to him.”

Thomas came to the Knicks two years after Dolan replaced Garden president David Checketts with a duo of more pliable executives, notably “Silent” Steve Mills as head of MSG Sports. Mills knew just how to please a boss who fronts a vanity blues band: big names. Preparing to oust Scott Layden as team president, he first approached Magic Johnson, who already had a full-time job (as Magic Johnson) but recommended a dear old friend. Despite a checkered executive history, Thomas was hired within days. Dolan wasn’t put off by Isiah’s famous truculence. As the owner later told Sports Illustrated, “That’s part of what I like about him.”

Soon enough, though, Isiah’s alpha-dog behavior would prove costly. In October, just a week ahead of the team’s preseason debut, a Manhattan federal jury found in favor of former marketing executive Anucha Browne Sanders in her sexual-harassment suit against Thomas and the Knicks. After exposing the Garden as an overaged frat house (where Ranger execs allegedly kept a Kama Sutra wish list for various cheerleaders), the trial torpedoed the defendants in a pair of video depositions. There was Dolan in his best black T-shirt, rolling his shaggy head like a caged grizzly, haughty and dismissive but creepy most of all. And there was Thomas with his lesson on race and gender: that it would be “highly offensive” for a white man to call a black woman a “bitch,” but “not as much” for a black man to do the same.

“They’re probably very much alike,” Browne Sanders says. “They’ve played by their own sets of rules their entire lives. If you don’t buy into their way, you’re gone.”

But it was Marbury, coming off a strange born-again summer (highlight: a cheery televised slur of his wife as “my better ho”), who stole the show. Yes, he said from the stand, he’d called Browne Sanders “a bitch,” though not “a black bitch.” Yes, he’d had sex with a 21-year-old Knicks intern, falling back on his go-to pickup line: “Are you going to get in the truck?” Damage done, Marbury sang his way out of the courtroom, then mugged for the photographers—huge grin, tongue unfurled like the Stones logo—from the back of his blue Rolls-Royce. The truth had set him free.

With Marbury, you got the whole mishpocheh—including a cousin named Hassan Gonsalves, whom Browne Sanders hired on Dolan’s orders via Mills. When she learned that Gonsalves was sexually harassing several women in her office, Browne Sanders drew the line. “It was so sordid,” she says. “I said [to Mills], ‘You have to deal with this.’ And I was fired within the month.”

The jury awarded Browne Sanders $11.6 million; she settled for a few dollars less when the Knicks dropped their appeal under heat from NBA commissioner David Stern. “I’m very innocent,” Thomas claimed, but his adverb seemed as damning as the verdict. In a huddle with the team’s beat writers, he worried that the case would taint what remained of his career. Dolan, meanwhile, had to be steaming after Stern chastised the Knicks as “not a model of intelligent management.” But he wasn’t ready to can Isiah, the living legend with the killer smile and a fresh eight-figure extension. The stage was set for a fall guy—and who better than a compulsive ball hog with satanic eyebrows and a perpetually pissed-off vibe? Who better than Marbury?

Stephon Marbury on December 2, the night his father died. Photo: Anthony J. Causi/Icon SMI/Corbis

After splitting their first four games, the Knicks failed by three against a dreary Miami team on November 11. Though Marbury suffered a typical late-game meltdown, he was hardly the lone offender. After the horn sounded, says Frank Isola of the Daily News, “I watched Dolan. He marched into the locker room after that game—he made a beeline.” The next day, on the team’s charter flight to Phoenix, Marbury got wind that Thomas planned to bench him—and responded with a threat. “Isiah has to start me,” Marbury was heard to say, according to the News. “I’ve got so much shit on Isiah and he knows it. He thinks he can fuck me, but I’ll fuck him first. You have no idea what I know.” Which reminded you why the self-proclaimed “best point guard in the NBA” was on his fourth dysfunctional team in twelve years. He was a serial coach-killer: Stephon Rex.

Nobody puts Starbury in the corner. He skipped the Suns game in a snit to fly home, and New York lost by eleven. (“I couldn’t have a guy like that on my team,” LeBron James said at the time.) By the time the Knicks captain rejoined his mates in Los Angeles, the other core players had voted against letting him play that night. Thomas benched Marbury at the start, and then—in a move that shouted turning point—subbed him in for starter’s minutes. “He was probably worried about losing Stephon,” an insider says, “but instead he lost the rest of the locker room—and probably lost Stephon, anyway.” Doubtless jet-lagged, Marbury missed eight of twelve shots. The Knicks fell by three.

The bond between Thomas and his protégé was ruptured. Just months before, Isiah and Stephon had gabbed late into the night, musing over life and the high screen-roll in one of their neighboring manses. But that was then. Now Thomas would say, in a Rudyesque public kiss-off, “I’ve won with people I don’t like.”

The Knicks lost all four times on the road trip and ran the streak to eight at home. You could see Marbury pulling into himself as game after game got away. On the bench he’d drape a towel over his head in capitulation, the Bizarro version of Red Auerbach’s victory cigar. His more impressionable teammates followed his lead: Zach Randolph in casual mimicry; Eddy Curry veiling his mouth like a bandit; Nate Robinson with a niftily tied kaffiyeh. As they perp-walked back to their locker room under a hail of fan disdain, the surrender towels were as close as they’d come to solidarity.

I caught up to Marbury after the Knicks’ first loss of the New Year. It was a month since the death of his father, two weeks since he’d last tried to play. Under the Knicks’ less-news-is-good-news protocol, which essentially cloistered the players from off-site interviews, the locker-room scrum was do-or-die time for the press. And unlike David Lee, who held forth in a towel, or Curry, who schmoozed in his boxer briefs, Marbury had a rule: No questions until he was fully, gloriously dressed. A dozen journalists ringed the star in hemispherical rows as he stood with his back to us, facing his wooden locker. To begin, enough moisturizer for the Mojave, slathered from gleaming dome to toe. Then the fine white shirt, slowly buttoned and suspendered, and the painstakingly knotted silk tie; the designer suit, the ear bling. We stood there rapt, breath baited. It was like a striptease in reverse.

At last Marbury turned toward us on the Knicks-blue carpet. His face defaulted in a scowl; his voice was low, with little affect. “I’m still going through things,” he said. “But I’m back for good.” Twenty days later, he’d get season-ending ankle surgery for bone spurs, a procedure the Knicks implied could have waited. (“I can’t be hurt?” Marbury asked a reporter in indignation.) Soon Thomas would refer to him in the past tense. Freed from their captain’s glower and ever-pointed finger, his teammates exhaled, even played a little better. For the pride of Coney Island, the biggest name in the city game since Lew Alcindor, it was as Marbury himself had once prophesied in New Jersey when he scrawled his elegy on his ankle tape: all alone.

An hour before tip-off, Yao Ming sat in the visitors’ locker room, all seven foot six of him, massive chin in massive hand: the Thinker. As he fielded queries in two languages, his eyes never wavered from the 36-inch Panasonic that replayed the last Knicks-Rockets game. Yao watched Yao attack New York’s big men, get slammed, make two perfect foul shots. The art of war.

On my way out, I found a copy of the Rockets’ internal scouting report. It told all you needed to know about why these Knicks were doomed to disappoint:

Stephon Marbury: “Tends to go into or under every pick and will leave his feet on shot fakes.”

Zach Randolph: “Doesn’t work on the defensive end of the floor … slow in transition defense.”

Eddy Curry: “Gets lost on defensive rotations … labors to get back. He seems to only play hard on the offensive end of the floor.”

Jamal Crawford: “He allows dribble penetration + doesn’t expend a lot of energy on defense.”

Isiah’s four big-ticket imports aren’t merely ill-disciplined and brittle in adversity. (“For the money they make, they shouldn’t be so sensitive,” says Penny Marshall, a loyal regular.) What kills the team is that its highest-paid players are literally defenseless. They leak at the perimeter and get deluged inside. Opponents shoot 47 percent from the field, third highest in the league. “There’s not one thing they do good defensively that’s going to take you out of your game plan,” says an Eastern Conference scout. While Thomas may rank low as a bench tactician (“bottom third, and that’s being polite,” the scout says), he’s done his greatest mischief as a fantasy-league refugee. His roster affronts the NBA’s bedrock principle: Offense wins games, but defense wins championships.

It seemed so elementary, so obvious, yet Isiah kept trading in denial. Between 2000 and 2004, a series of NBA rule changes legalized zone defenses (which gang up on back-to-the-basket big men) while limiting contact on the perimeter (enabling slashers like Kobe and Iverson to thrust to the hoop unfettered). The new model in seven-footers was Dwight Howard or Andrew Bynum, rangy, explosive athletes who could block the slashers’ shots. But instead of drafting Bynum in 2005 over the nondescript Channing Frye, Thomas opted for Curry at a much steeper price. “It’s almost like the Knicks have a team that would have been good eight years ago,” said Donnie Walsh, before rumors hardened that he’d be leaving the Indiana Pacers. “Now we’re in the age of high-fliers, all these kids shooting up and down the court. The world changed.”

When pressed about the beefy Randolph and bovine Curry and their inability to defend in transition, Thomas resorted to magical thinking: “Our big guys got to get better, they’ve got to get quicker, they’ve got to get faster.” They failed to transmogrify in time to stop Yao Ming. He scored a season-high 36 points, spinning through the moored Knicks like a ball in bumper pool.

“He thinks he’s a genius,” says a Western Conference scout. “There are so many people who are happy that this is happening to him— not to the Knicks, to him.”

At six eleven, Curry is a true giant: leonine noggin, foghorn bass, derrière the size of Rhode Island. But his rounded shoulders betray him. Here was the big kid who hated to be stared at, who liked gymnastics more than basketball—who wished to be smaller than life. “I’ve never really been that physical-enforcer kind of guy on the court,” Curry said. “I think that now I’ve gotta kind of do that a little bit.” For fans who cut their teeth on Charles Oakley and Anthony “Mace in the Face” Mason, this was less than reassuring.

Weight has long been an issue for Curry, even before Thomas lavished a $60 million annuity, payable over six years, on a guy who can dunk and not much else. (The 2005 deal also cost the Knicks a pair of draft-lottery picks that became LaMarcus Aldridge and Joakim Noah, and will haunt the franchise for a decade.) Curry reported to camp last fall at a svelte 280, but somehow—despite a private chef and the attentions of Tim Grover, personal trainer to the stars—packed it on through the season, till rolls of flab peeked through the armholes of his jersey. When asked where he tipped the scale, he begged off with an ingenue’s giggle.

“I like Eddy a lot, but he’s just too big,” says Oakley, the soul of Pat Riley’s obdurate squads of the nineties. “You can’t move when you’re like that.” As the leviathan fatigues, he reaches and fouls, drops easy passes, clanks dunks off the rim. After the Clippers trimmed the Knicks by nine, I asked center Chris Kaman how he knew when Curry was tiring. Kaman smiled and said, “When you run down court and he’s 30, 40 feet behind you.”

Back in the day, no arena could rival the Garden for sheer voltage, for that rising aural current when a fast break ran just right or a help defender leaped into the breach. The Knicks were the NBA’s charter flagship. They played in the mecca, a place for pilgrimage. “I had millions of people to represent,” says Oakley. “I didn’t want to be a failure.”

In 2004, just before his first Knicks training camp, Thomas spoke of wanting the Garden “to be hot again, with steam coming off the building.” Mission accomplished. As the Knicks lost more and more operatically this season, their customers gave vent to a murderous singsong that filled the great bowl: “Fire I-si-ah!” An anthem for the dispossessed, it spread to Houston and Seattle, wherever the Knicks diaspora gathered to gnash and burn. “New York City fans aren’t stupid,” Spike Lee told the New York Times just before Thomas was hired. “They’re not going for okeydoke. They’re not going to be hornswoggled or bamboozled.” Even the MSG announcers, who served at Dolan’s pleasure (see Albert, Marv), were getting fed up.

Mike Breen (despairing): “There is no spirit, no fight.”

Walt “Clyde” Frazier (wryly): “No fire or desire.”

Gus Johnson (in budding epiphany): “Is it just a bad team?”

By February, with the owner bucking a regime change, the Garden faithful were lulled into resignation, and in absentia. Official sellouts aside, there were swaths of empty seats as corporate-owned tickets went begging. Courtside saw a brutal celebrity cleansing, with Woody and Spike mostly MIA unless a Kobe or LeBron came to call. At home, the fans voted with their remotes, as Knicks ratings plunged below the Rangers’, below a sport played on ice.

As the season wore on, Thomas’s pregame spiels melted into one long and winding narrative, rich with doublespeak. One week, he spoke of getting his troops “back to trusting and loving each other”; the next, he skewered them for lacking “heart” and “pride.” There were nights of suspense (“To me, it’s win or die”) and of bombast (“I want to leave a legacy … an imprint, a blueprint”). Most of all, there were alibis: illness, injuries, broken shot clocks, bad bounces. Coming from “the baby-faced assassin” of the Pistons’ Bad Boys, who’d asked no quarter en route to a pair of titles and the Hall of Fame, it was piteous to watch.

Isiah’s gaze was direct but gave nothing away; if eyes are the windows to the soul, he had his blinds drawn. Within his handsome suits, he seemed guarded and constrained. Maybe the dailies’ avid deathwatch had unnerved him. Or maybe it was the coach’s minder, hovering just outside our circle as he speed-tapped at his BlackBerry: Jonathan Supranowitz, the Knicks’ vice-president for public relations. Official eavesdropping was de rigueur at the Garden, ever since Dolan got surprised by a 2001 Times Magazine story in which Charlie Ward waxed on about the Jews’ killing Jesus. Players could not speak to the media unless monitored, while assistant coaches and executives like Mills were off-limits entirely. Before introducing Walsh last week, Dolan hadn’t talked for more than a year, leaving writers to tea leaves and conjecture.

The Knicks have a fraught relationship with the reporters who follow them day to day. Before a Boston game, as I loitered by the court, Supranowitz warned me about hanging around the beat writers: “Most of them try to be fair, but not all of them, and I hope you keep that in mind.” He contended that the News’ Frank Isola—whom the New York Observer had described as excommunicated—“was covering the Knicks out of spite—and okay, that’s good, we’re going to take that into account.” For his part, Isola sees the Knicks as obsessed with image over substance, “with everything except their record.” (He also acknowledges “personal” issues with Supranowitz, whom he calls “the Quote Nazi.”)

Before coach Jeff Van Gundy jumped this ship-be-sinking in 2001, he posted a sign in his office: if you think they’re all out to get you, you’re not being paranoid. you’re being perceptive. In the February issue of Philadelphia magazine, Larry Brown said he believed the Knicks had “spies throughout the arena” when he coached there two years ago. According to Isola and Newsday’s Alan Hahn, two sources (one of them an assistant coach) confirmed that the Garden kept a “hot” microphone at the scorer’s table before the game, when writers chat with players and coaches along the sideline. “You better watch what you say out there,” Hahn’s source told him. “They’re listening in.”

I got my own taste of Big Brother just before the Knicks’ West Coast swing in late January. One night in the home locker room, seeing the BlackBerrys distracted, I stealthily approached Malik Rose, the team’s Yoda and resident straight-shooter. Sotto voce, I asked when I might call him on the road. He replied, just as softly, that he’d be reachable at the team hotel any off-day afternoon.

Marbury got wind that Thomas planned to bench him. “Isiah has to start me,” he said. “I’ve got so much on Isiah … You have no idea what I know.” Nobody puts Starbury in the corner.

Two days later, in San Francisco, an e-mail popped up from Supranowitz: I just spoke to Malik … he asked that you don’t call him in his hotel room on this trip … you can grab him anytime pre- or post-game in the locker room … Sorry. In Los Angeles, I asked the player how I’d been found out: Had he gone to Supranowitz (unlikely, I thought), or had the flack come to him? Rose glanced around the locker room and said, “Let’s just say that they figured out you were here.” I wondered aloud if the walls in New York had ears. “You were very discreet,” he agreed, and we shifted to less provocative ground.

In a conversation with Barry Watkins, the Garden’s senior vice-president for communications, I asked whether the arena’s sideline was bugged. A hail-fellow sort with a clipped red beard, Watkins seemed momentarily rattled. “Of all the ridiculous things I’ve heard,” he said, “that’s the most ridiculous.” After the game, he asked if I’d consider spiking the rumor: “It sounds terrible, even though it’s ridiculous.” The following week, after I’d declined to make any promises, Supranowitz e-mailed that I’d get no more game tapes for my research “until a decision is made about the ‘bugging’ issue.”

Though the Garden policy isn’t leakproof (as Marbury showed while he was awol by text-messaging his favorite, the Post’s Marc Berman), it does keep the vitriol flowing toward the home team. As a beat writer told me, “We all feel like we have nothing to lose by destroying them every day.”

Scary things happen on a midwinter NBA swing to the West Coast: a large woman clutching a Chihuahua as she sings the national anthem, the dog’s ears quivering at the high notes; a dance team of preadolescent girls, jiggling their hips in heavy makeup and hot-pink stretch tops; monochromatic white crowds armed with thundersticks, dancing to “Y.M.C.A.” And that’s not even counting the ethnic drum ensembles or mascots on motorcycles—or the Knicks, who had yet to win on the road against the West when they left for Oakland in late January.

Still basking in post-Marbury euphoria, some dared playoff dreams. “We have a chance in the upcoming months to do something special,” said fan favorite David Lee. “And it starts with this road trip.” Through all the defeats and disappointments, Lee had kept his can-do spirit; you had to feel for him.

Three losses later, the team staggered into Portland. It was Randolph’s homecoming, a date he’d surely circled, yet he was a half-hour late to the arena from his house in a near suburb. “I almost got lost,” the no-necked power forward joked. But hey, “The game doesn’t start till 7:30. I’m only going to take seven [practice] shots from each spot.”

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.

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.

Absolutely, Positively the Worst Team in the Hist […]