Lord Jim (cont.)
Posted: Tuesday February 6, 2007 10:55AM; Updated: Friday February 9, 2007 3:14PM
Since his first taste of performing in public, on Sanibel Island, the 51-year-old billionaire has made even the band all about him. He built a rehearsal studio on the grounds of his Long Island estate and replaced the Garden's amateur musicians with professionals; today the band is a five-piece blues outfit called J.D. and the Straight Shot. Dolan wears a fedora onstage, plays rhythm guitar and sings lead. For his sporadic performances at New York clubs, attendance by staffers is expected and noted.
"Jim actually doesn't care whether you love him or hate him, as long as you know him," says one former Garden executive. "Why else does he sit in the very front row? Why else does he come in late? He wants everyone to know: I am in charge." Indeed, at home games Dolan sits courtside just steps from the Knicks' bench, dressed in funereal black, slumping conspicuously lower the further the Knicks fall behind. Yes, Dolan agrees, he's sending a message to his players.
"There's somebody here who's the owner of the joint," he says. "They're playing for somebody. It's me. I'm actually looking at them and saying, 'I sign your check. When you do great, I feel great, and when you do bad, I feel bad.'"
Dolan has no regrets about the squeeze he's put on Thomas. Sitting in his 26th-floor office across the street from the Garden one evening last month, sipping coffee, Dolan says, "From the day we hired Isiah, we embarked upon a strategy. It was Isiah's strategy, and it relied heavily on the choices he made. Where we ended up last year? It was sort of like, O.K., you've gone to the grocery store, you've gotten all your groceries, and you think we can be successful with what you've brought back? Go cook. Let's see if you can cook something good."
Isiah Thomas is ready with a joke. When the subject of the brawl comes up one January afternoon in the lunchroom at the Knicks' training center in Tarrytown, N.Y., he interrupts, "I did not order the Code Red." He laughs long and hard, though what he means isn't exactly clear.
Thomas is referring, of course, to Jack Nicholson's turn as Col. Nathan Jessup in A Few Good Men, in which Jessup at first denies ordering the fatal punishment of a man under his command. But Jessup did order the Code Red, so is Thomas coyly admitting that he did warn the Nuggets not to run up the score against New York just seconds before Knicks guard Mardy Collins horse-collared Denver's J.R. Smith on a breakaway and sparked the melee? The laugh isn't much of a clue.
Besides, anyone who has watched the 45-year-old Thomas this season can see he's trying to set a tone. Since becoming coach, he has seemingly taken on all of pro basketball. He took verbal shots at ESPN analyst Greg Anthony for his criticism of the Knicks' first-round draft choice, Renaldo Balkman; got into an altercation with New Jersey Nets coaches in the preseason; jawed at San Antonio Spurs forward Bruce Bowen in November and was heard telling his team to "break his f------ foot." Thomas, the leader of the Detroit Pistons' infamous Bad Boys in the late 1980s, wants his team to grow a spine. If a few rules get broken along the way, if he only inspires more Isiah-haters around the league, too bad.
"Every arena we go to, they boo him," says Knicks forward Malik Rose. "Why? Did he shoot the Pope or something?"
Thomas has long had a reputation for being manipulative at best and devious at worst: a sweet-smiling operator who, despite being the smallest man on the court, could always charm, bully and dominate the bigger men surrounding him. He led Detroit to two NBA championships, but along with his Hall of Fame grit came an oily Who, me?, the classic instigator's mock innocence. He's always been the guy who started the food fight but went unpunished. His karmic payback would be a second act spent working in an NBA that refused, despite his dazzling accomplishments, to rank him alongside the league-saving trinity of Magic, Michael and Larry -- and a Machiavellian image that prompts some serious rationalizing. Thomas says, "I always felt the reason why some of those guys said bad things about me was not because that's how they felt about me personally, but because they hated that they lost to me."
Whether he actually believes that is another thing entirely. Thomas has been blessed with a soft voice and a face that all but glows on camera; the contrast between his angelic facade and his street fighter's edge, between TV-ready Isiah and the hard-eyed operator his pals call Zeke, lends to his two-a-day meetings with the New York media an undercurrent of tension: Will he crack? Will he lash out? But he never does. "If I ever had to learn how to play poker, it'd be from Isiah," says Rose. "No one knows how he feels."
After a mediocre stint as vice president of the Toronto Raptors from 1994 through '97 and a disastrous two years as principal owner of the soon-bankrupt Continental Basketball Association, Thomas spent three decent years as the Indiana Pacers' coach until the arrival of his old nemesis Larry Bird as team president in 2003 ensured his firing. That summer Thomas finally seemed to have used up all the shine from his playing days. He bounced around the country visiting NBA training camps and college campuses, but no job offer came up. Then, in December '03, his cellphone rang: Steve Mills, president of the Garden, dangling a job interview. Thomas didn't care what the position was. He all but raced to the plane.
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