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
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
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
Impressed by the
success Thomas had had with the Pacers' young players and needing a quick
replacement for the miscast Knicks general manager Scott Layden, Dolan gave
Isiah what may well be his last shot. It was, as Thomas likes to say, "a
bloody job": Checketts's decision, in October 2000, to trade Ewing in the
final year of his contract--instead of letting him play it out and then
rebuilding the Knicks with room to maneuver under the salary cap--had saddled
the team with a slew of long-term contracts. Dolan and Layden only compounded
the problem by signing weak-kneed shooting guard Allan Houston to a
preposterous six-year, $99 million contract in '01. But in the three years
since Thomas took over as Knicks president, his rebuilding strategy has been as
fluid as it has been puzzling. He's gone through three coaches. He stockpiled a
listless combination of talented veterans and players with expiring contracts
before switching last year to a stress on youth. The higher the payroll got,
the worse the team played. Attendance dipped. Thomas made more enemies.