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, youfeel the heat in the back of your neck. You know youbetter 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.
The answer to this question was, er, yeah. That and several other streetish disses, exactly the sort of “gutter filth” that suddenly prissy Post columnists refer to as “unprintable.”
It could have been predicted. Following last season’s uninspiring non-playoff finish, Dolan, citing “character issues,” banished Spree, who had semi-heart-rendingly risen above his coach-choking past to become New York’s No. 1 fan favorite. Not one to take such slights lying down and suspecting that Dolan timed Isiah’s hiring to upstage his Garden return, Spree said the tirade was payback.
“He talked about me. Tonight was my turn to talk. I think I got my point across,” Latrell recapped after the game. It was nothing against the Knicks players, the New York fans, or Isiah, Spree said. He wished Isiah luck fixing the team, not that it was going to be easy, “the hole they’re in.” Chris Rock, standing with Spike Lee and perhaps 50 newsmen, seemed put out that Spree would be fined for his outburst. “They’re going to take money for cursing?” the comedian remarked. “I curse, and they give me money.”
Indeed, certain disgruntled factions of Knicks Nation were of the opinion that Dolan, whose belovedness as a New York sports figure does not approach that of, say, George Steinbrenner or even Horace Stoneham, had some of Spree’s spew coming.
Rooting for teams with dumb, rapacious, and/or indifferent management, after all, is the fan’s curse. We’re talking long-term here. Sure, we’ll always have the integrationist heaven of the ’70–’73 teams, Jerry Lucas memorizing the phone book and all, but podunk franchises like the Warriors, Blazers, and SuperSonics have won championships while we haven’t. Thirty years and counting—that’s a fair piece down the road toward Red Sox hell. Things have been heading deeply south since Riley let Starks shoot two-for-eighteen in 1994. Such comprehensive futility can only be attributed to dim ownership, and Jim Dolan is seen as just the most recent in a long line of acumen-deficient Madison Square Garden corporate keepers.
He is, after all, the 46-year-old son of Charles Dolan, founder of Cablevision, which acquired full control of MSG and its teams from ITT, which got the company from Viacom, which took over Paramount, which was once called Gulf + Western (a.k.a. Engulf and Devour), which used to more or less own the Dominican Republic and employed as Garden chief one Alan “Bottom Line” Cohen, forever in fans’ hearts for saying he would rather turn a profit than see either the Knicks or Rangers make the playoffs. Before G+W, there was Madison Square Garden, Inc., led by Irving M. Felt, who pooh-poohed Louis Mumford’s complaint that demolishing the old Penn Station to build the current Garden represented “an act of irresponsible public vandalism.”
“Fifty years from now, when the new MSG is torn down,” Felt replied, “there will be a whole new group of architects to protest.”
This isn’t to blame a Johnny-come-lately like Jimmy Dolan (who could be seen fleeing his own building after the Timberwolves game even as infidel Spree stayed late to wish everyone, ushers included, a merry Christmas) for being a fortunate son, an existential positioning he shares with Jeff Wilpon, progeny of Fred, whose low-ball high-handedness is currently vexing Mets fans. It isn’t even Dolan’s fault that the game experience at MSG, the supposed round-ball temple, is a splitting headache of Office Depot truck races on Gardenvision and Knick City Dancers firing off T-shirt guns with two minutes left in a tie game, scuttling whatever suspense the actual players have managed to create.
It is possible, however, to blame Dolan—named in the January 13, 2003, issue of BusinessWeek as one of the country’s “worst managers”—for his extended endorsement of the aforementioned Scott Layden, one more chip off the old block (being the tight-lipped offspring of the effusive b-ball lifer Frank). What, really, is the Knicks fan, even one who grew up during the early sixties when G.O. tickets cost 50 cents and almost everyone on the team’s name began with a B (Bob Boozer, Donnie Butcher, Cleveland Buckner, Dave Budd, Al Butler, Jim Barnes, etc.), to make of Layden’s mind-boggling tenure? Was this a delayed makeup call for David Stern’s palming the Ping-Pong ball that gave us Patrick Ewing so many moons ago?
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.”