When Jeff Van Gundy, the Knicks’ scrappy underdog coach, resigned mid-season in 2001, he cited the loss of his college roommate in the World Trade Center attack as a primary factor. My morning commute at the time took me beneath the Garden en route to Stuyvesant High School, where the burnt chemical smell of Ground Zero–only blocks away–had barely faded. Watching my daily misery spill into my primary escape from it was uniquely upsetting.
That was when the Knicks’ began to go off the rails, missing the playoffs that year for the first time in ages. But they were still a garden-variety lousy team until owner James Dolan put Isiah Thomas in charge of their recovery. At this point the national debate was singularly dominated by the Iraq War, which was less than six months old. I enthusiastically supported the start of both operations, despite misgivings about the men behind the decisions.
Politics and basketball were the twin passions of my life at the time and I found it impossible not to draw parallels. More than parallels: elaborate overwrought metaphors of the type that would make Thomas Friedman blanche. The biographical similarities between Dolan and President Bush were too glaring to ignore. Both were born to accomplished fathers whose vast wealth and well-known name they inherited to great discomfort. Both sterilized these psychic wounds with alcohol abuse–only to grow dangerously self-assured in their lasting sobriety –a pattern that was all too familiar to me growing up among similar children in Manhattan. Taking on a difficult hand as reformed adults, each squandered the opportunity for greatness in similar fashion, inexplicably delegating their limitless ambition to the worst possible hands.
In Thomas, Dolan found the Rumsfeld to his Bush, a serial-incompetent who somehow retained his employer’s full confidence even as he alienated all others. Facing the toughest road ahead of any team in the league, he began his tenure not by bracing fans for difficult times but by raising expectations even further. “I don’t want to have a team that (stinks) for five years to get better,” he told The Daily News, pledging a quick turnaround. Who could disagree with the idea any more than they could removing a dangerous dictator in six months time?
Most are familiar with the biggest missteps: Stephon Marbury, the unstable self-proclaimed “best point guard in the league,” whose Knicks lost 18 of the next 21 games after that particular boast. Jerome “Big Snacks” James, who signed to a maximum $30 million, then (how could anyone have known?) proved too morbidly obese to play meaningful minutes for his entire five year contract. Eddy Curry, the surly young center with a heart condition who Thomas traded two lottery picks to obtain, who fell out of basketball shape as well while battling a Job-like string of personal tragedies. Then there were the the lesser known signings. Thomas acquired the league’s only publicly recovering alcoholic, Vin Baker, who failed to revive his career and tragically relapsed. He signed the league’s only convicted animal abuser, Qyntel Woods, who had run underground dog fights out of his home. It was hard to be mad at him for it, because he was the only hardworking, reasonably paid player on the team.
They hit their low point in the 2005-2006 season, arguably the worst campaign of any professional sports team in American history. Armed with championship-winning coach Larry Brown, expectations were high for a return to form. But as the team sunk to their usual junior varsity form, Thomas took “stay the course” to a new level, literally doubling down on the underperforming Marbury with the near-identical Steve “Franchise” Francis. The experiment failed so badly that Francis broke down crying after one game, telling ESPN that “besides my mom passing away when I was 18,” the Knicks were the worst experience of his life.
“It’s like a funeral, man,” he said. “That’s what it’s like.”
All this after less than two months on the team.
They ended with the league’s highest payroll, the league’s highest paid coach in Larry Brown, and a 23-59 record.
As the Knicks sank, Thomas followed the White House’s public relations arc, first denying there was a problem then announcing a new strategy as if it was the plan all along. After arriving in town denying that a slow “rebuilding” plan was necessary, he hid behind the word at every turn.“It can be an ugly process, it can be dirty, it can be bloody and, yes, sometimes it’s even embarrassing,” he was quoted saying on the team’s website. “But this is what it looks like. This is where we are. It’s necessary, what we are doing. Rebuilding is what we are committed to. It’s what we have to do to improve our team for the long term.”
The Knicks owner had cocooned himself from the press entirely at this point and appeared to be devoting his attention to belting out raspy songs about hard times with his blues band while the team burned. He moved Thomas to the coaches’ chair to make sense of his misfit cast, a kind of poetic justice as the team again tanked, but it was Thomas’ off the court behavior that finally did him in. Having already brought six of the seven deadly sins to the team, he completed the full set with lust by allegedly sexually harassing Knicks staffer Anucha Browne Sanders, forcing Dolan to settle in court.
Dolan let Thomas, now among the most hated men in New York, finish the 2007-2008 season after the lawsuit–another 23-59 wonder–before caving in and replacing him with the steady Donnie Walsh, a native New Yorker with an unimpeachable basketball pedigree. For Knicks fans, it was a breath of fresh air, even as the new president warned that it would take years of work to undo the damage. Change had come to New York and it was good. True to his word, the Knicks suffered through hard times as they sweated out Isiah’s poisoned roster before–right on schedule–emerging with the foundation of an elite team in Amare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony. Most importantly, the team was filled with hard-earned optimism throughout all three years, buoyed by a quiet dignity no Dolan operation deserved. That matters. It shows it can be done.
Like the deposed dictator who haunts his former citizens from exile, Thomas still lingers. Dolan has never forsaken their friendship and whispers of his return are a staple of the Knicks’ tabloid coverage. But Knicks fans remember. Even three years and two superstars later, with every trace of Thomas’ poisoned reign purged from the team, they know the bad old days are just a phone call from Dolan’s compound away. It’s self-absorbed superstition, I know, but every time I read a weak jobs number or the stock market hiccups again or some Middle Eastern catastrophe occurs, I can’t help but wonder if the writing is already on the wall.
We’ll miss you, Donnie.