Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011
31

This Is What You Get

Even before his disgrace, Isiah Thomas was a strange and complicated case. A product of Chicago's most blighted and Candyman-afflicted ruins, Thomas became a star at a Catholic high school in the suburbs. He survived two years of bellowing abasement at the hands of noxious windbreaker aficionado and total psychopath Bobby Knight at Indiana University, graduating to the NBA with a dazzling and idiosyncratic game, then went on to make a dozen All-Star teams and win a pair of NBA Championships with the Detroit Pistons. All of which is actually a pretty conventional, if obviously rarified, narrative. What made Thomas weird, then, was around the edges—the too-fulsome smile beaming from his boyish face from beneath those amused, long-lashed eyes; the weirdly wry and distant way that he played at saying very controversial things; the bizarre cheek-kisses he swapped with Magic Johnson before games. In his post-playing life in basketball, though, Thomas has not been successful or idiosyncratic or anything else so much as he has been stubborn, and wrong.

Thomas bought the Continental Basketball Association (the entire thing), which was once a thriving basketball minor league, and sunk it into bankruptcy in less than three years. He washed out of coaching and executive jobs in Toronto and Indiana, surfing blithely from both on tsunami surges of bad vibes, that same grin glowing warmthlessly from a face that somehow only grew more taut as he aged. When Zeke caught on with the New York Knicks in 2003, it was as the chief executive for a team that had the league's highest payroll and second-worst record, and a roster that was bloated with sour-faced, underperforming veterans. During his five years with the Knicks, Thomas did two notable things—he consolidated power within the organization such that he was the team's president, de facto GM and coach, and he made a lousy organization incalculably worse. The individual mistakes and globalized incompetence—the anchor-around-the-ankle contracts issued to marginal free agents and the tumid paranoia of Thomas's handsy, creepy, flubby front office—are their own story, but also so numerous, numinous and deadening as to be besides the point. Suffice to say that Thomas did not so much steer the Knicks off a cliff as steer them off a cliff and into the mouth of a waiting sea monster, which sea monster was then served with a lawsuit, and then got cancer and died.

So, why talk about Thomas, given that he hasn't worked for the Knicks since April of 2008 and is currently coaching the Florida International University's Golden Panthers (to a 9-17 record)? Mostly because of Yahoo sportswriter Adrian Wojnarowski, who has written some scabrous pieces recently about Thomas and his enduring and inexplicable and seemingly growing influence in the New York Knicks' front office. The pieces are oddly and dishearteningly believable, and are doubly so in the wake of the trade that the Knicks made for Carmelo Anthony on Monday, which was a notably and suspiciously Isiah-ish move that saw the Knicks deal three moderately priced young starters, a comic Russian and a raft of draft picks—the last bit being a particularly Zeke-y flourish—for the opportunity to pay a brand-name star extravagantly well, irrespective of how well that brand-name star does or doesn't fit into the team's style of play, personality, or whatever else. Given that Thomas was prone to this sort of thing during his tenure—he built rosters as if putting together fantasy basketball team that was three years out of date—and that this year's Knicks turnaround is generally seen as the result of new team president Donnie Walsh doing the exact opposite thing for two painstaking years, it's easy to see Thomas's clammy hands all over the Carmelo trade. (That the New Jersey Nets, who were also rumored to be in on the trade, turned around and made their own savvier blockbuster move on Wednesday after driving up the price on Anthony, lends a further Zeke-ian aspect)

But, finally, the trade is just the trade—the Knicks acquired a great scorer (and underrated rebounder) in Anthony, and will either find a way to make it work, or they won't. Isiah will either return to power in the offices above the Penn Station Houlihan's, or he won't. Anthony will be shamed into removing his tattoo of a tuff bulldog holding a tommy gun and a poker hand with five aces in it, or… well, I hope he doesn't do that. But if Knicks fans are less enthused than they otherwise might be about acquiring a perennial All-Star, it has little to do with the perennial All-Star in question.

And in a sense, it doesn't even have to do with Isiah Thomas, although the prospect of his return to power is alternately ridiculous and terrifying. I'm not even a Knicks fan—I've been dining out on my apostate New Jersey Nets fan thing for some time—and I find it kind of offensive. But what drags that response from the abstract to the immediate is less Zeke's transparent haplessness and epic lack of qualification than it is how little those undeniabilities matter to the (transparently hapless, epically unqualified) plutocrat who signed his checks for years. That would be James Dolan, goateed dry-drunk heir to an unloved New York cable empire, vanity bluesman par excellence, and toxic exemplar of sports plutocracy's manifold objectionabilities.

After finally accepting Isiah's resignation in 2008, Dolan never quite seemed to buy into the idea of rebuilding an organization whose stat sheets were beshat nightly by the crew of grumpy misfits his guy put on the court, and who refused to back down even as the harassment cases and other non-legal embarrassments piled up at the end of Thomas's tenure. An entitled, born-on-third-base type every bit as selfish and grudge-driven as the Koch Brothers—but with half the vision and none of the focus—Dolan may not quite be the worst owner in sports. Daniel Snyder, the owner of the Washington Redskins, is a prickly boy king with a mile-wide evil streak; Hank Steinbrenner is louder, more political and perhaps even more entitled; Donald T. Sterling, Dolan's L.A. analogue (which means that he is orange and buttons his shirts only to the uppermost swell of his belly), may actually be a worse person. But no other owner, with the possible exception of the noxious Snyder, so brazenly advances the paradoxes of cheering-for-laundry fandom as Dolan.

Fans know that sports teams are, at a basic level, high-priced playthings for their billionaire owners. How those owners choose to play with those toys—by attempting to create a winning team as some sort of self-flattering civic good or by subjecting the millionaires they own to a host of ill-tempered indignities for yuks, or anything in between—says a good deal about those owners, and so does Dolan's handling of the Knicks. Under Isiah, the Knicks were not merely a bad team. They were that, but they were, also and more devastatingly, a bleak, joyless blight on the league—a team without hope, driven to ruin by a childish plutocrat who doubled and redoubled down every time anyone (and eventually everyone) called upon him to make a change. It was impossible to escape the sense, by the end of the Knicks' Zeke-era death march, that the only thing keeping Thomas in his job was Dolan's inability to admit the mistake of hiring him in the first place. Fans chanted "Fire Isiah" at seemingly every home game, and every time they did so Dolan seemingly resolved more firmly not to do that.

And so it has been strange but maybe not surprising to see how unenthused Dolan has been with Walsh's overhaul of the team—which has emerged, this year, as a just-above-average team with a decent attitude, decent record and a legitimately joyous style of play that can deliver a solid evening's entertainment even in a losing effort. The acquisition of Anthony, his brilliance notwithstanding, explodes all that—he and Chauncey Billups, the veteran point guard acquired along with him, do not fit well into Coach Mike D'Antoni's system, and the three overachieving players traded to Denver, besides being better values for their contracts than either Anthony or Billups, really did fit. There are objective basketball reasons to dislike the deal, but more compelling subjective ones to be sad about it. While Dolan chased down grudges and feuded with fellow billionaires over cable-related monies and cut staff at his newspaper, his basketball team got its mind right and became fun. Fans came back to the arena, and cheered. And then Dolan (and maybe or maybe not Isiah) took control of the negotiations for Carmelo Anthony and swung his deal, and either turned back the clock on the team's semi-renaissance or pushed the arm far forward. Carmelo won't play his first game with the team until tonight, so it's tough to say just yet.

This team is Dolan's plaything, of course, and he'll do with it what he pleases. But as Dolan threatens to bring back the bilious, bitter, loveless impunity of the Isiah years—and may yet bring back Isiah himself—it's hard to escape the sense that he is settling in for another go at winning an argument he has already lost, and which he has been carrying on with people who want only to pay him money to watch guys play basketball. Every other section of the newspaper, of late, is given over to the vicious vagaries of men curdled and demeaned by their own wealth, from the Kochs in Wisconsin to the wounded, bonus-drunk vanity monsters of Wall Street to the cruel and vapid culture machine that entertains them.

For all the money in it, though, sports holds out the possibility of transcendence—illusory, maybe, and fleeting, but authentic and graceful and tenuously true. A good basketball team, or even a good basketball play, is a beautiful thing to behold, precisely because it is built not on superhuman individuals (or not just on them) but on human cooperation. In the Thomas years, Knicks fans were subjected to a team as graceless, anomic and selfish as the blinkered, venal moneymen who made it. It's too early to know if Melo will work out with the Knicks, but Dolan's defiant determination to swap the imperfect joy of this year's team for this gold-plated trophy of a deal is a reminder of both his sour, stubborn Dolan-ness and of how frustrating it is to be subject to the whims of a billionaire with a point to prove.


David Roth co-writes the Wall Street Journal's Daily Fix, contributes to the sports blog Can't Stop the Bleeding and has his own little website. And he tweets!

Photo by Keith Allison.

31 Comments / Post A Comment

freetzy (#7,018)

He was right about Larry Bird though.

Smitros (#5,315)

Bernie Lincicome may have had his number in 1991, when he was still a Piston: "Isiah Thomas, the sneaky little puppeteer of this mob, ought never again be given anything sharp to play with, unless he turns it on himself."

icecreammang (#9,487)

Great piece of writing. Rich, dense, filling, satisfying.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

Roth's writing isn't the only thing that fits that description.

David Roth (#4,429)

When someone with 'ice cream' in his name is dropping ice cream-related adjectives on you, all you can say is thanks. Also, you could say "I would love some ice cream."

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

It probably makes me a bad fan that I had to look up the name of the Celtics owner. But I'd rather be that kind of bad fan than be compelled to curse my owner's name on a daily basis.

Though I loathe the Knicks almost as much as I love the Jets, this piece made me want to sneak into MSG to watch a few games – no mean feat!

and one big thing which has contributed to my loathing of the Knicks (aside from their inexplicably execrable gameplay) is the fact that its difficult if not impossible to get a ticket to a Knicks game for less than $75. Any working woman with a sawbuck can get on the 7 train and cheer on the Mets to her heart's content, and they have a brand new stadium.

Doug Chu (#7,485)

That's because the Mets are, well, terrible.

growler (#476)

Used to love the Knicks, till the downfall started. This year a friend took me to a game, a few weeks back, and my first NBA game ever. If you ever can spare the cash, the Garden is a magical place to see a game. The crowd was unlike any other for a sporting event I've been to. Baseball fans are pure spectators, and act accordingly. Football fans are ravenous, and usually drunk. But this, maybe partly due to the wonderful echoes of the venue, felt as if the crowd really was a part of the game.

That was, of course, a lot due to the team Dolan just threw away.

David Roth (#4,429)

This is the weird, sad secret of the whole thing — a freaking NIT game (postseason, not the one that good teams are in) game at MSG is electric. And a decent regular season Knicks game is dazzling. Nothing tonight (against a lousy Bucks team, admittedly) suggests that the Knicks won't get the place amped in the future, but it all just sounded louder — and better — when it was still a surprise. I'd love to be wrong about all this, honestly, but I can't help but believe that the team would be better and more joyous and more lovable the less involved the terrible/joyless/loathsome Dolan is involved. We'll see, I guess.

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

You remind me of the people who bitched at steinbrsomething (whatever it sounded Jewish) and Jimmy Johnson…EVEN WHILE they were winning championships.

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

Goddamn reminds me that Whistler probably bitched at his mom's painter every stroke of the pen.

Benny Goldman (#8,638)

Why are all of the Knicks fans I know over the moon about this trade? And they think that New Jersey got robbed on the DWill trade because he doesn't have as many years on his deal (despite a HUGE tender offer that he'll most definitely take after the new CBA shakes out) and they had to give up a draft pick in next year's WEAK class? Are they crazy? NYK gave up an insane amount to break up their team chemistry (and got older) when most of the relevant teams today are doing the exact opposite.

Doug Chu (#7,485)

Because Deron Williams can opt out of his contract after next year, and New Jersey isn't allowed to sign him to an extension until the year after that. DWill is not happy about being traded and there's little chance the Nets will be serious contenders in two years, so he'll most likely walk in 2012.

The Nets may have gutted their team and sacrificed a lot of their tradeable assets for nothing. It looks more and more like a panic move or a high-profile publicity grab for Prokhorov.

David Roth (#4,429)

I doubt Williams walks, and I think that trade is smarter in a couple ways. The most crass being that the cap is going to be much lower under the new CBA, and the Nets will get to re-sign Williams to the new (lower) max (and get great value for his salary until then), whereas the Knicks will be stuck paying Amar'e and Melo the old max, plus or minus whatever grandfathering the new CBA has planned for that sort of situation.

I also don't really think that gutting a terrible team — or, trading an unpolished young big and an unhappy PG who gave up passing, which is what the Nets did — is that bad a look, when you get a top-10 player in return. Any wing in his right mind would want to play with Williams (and, to a lesser degree, Lopez). I think both deals could work out, but I like the Williams one more right now. (Prokhorov is a creep, though)

rj77 (#210)

"That would be James Dolan, goateed dry-drunk heir to an unloved New York cable empire, vanity bluesman par excellence, and toxic exemplar of sports plutocracy's manifold objectionabilities."

Yes.

Lockheed Ventura (#5,536)

I actually did not recognize him yesterday without the goatee. I used to work with Jim Dolan. Back then he was partial to wearing ill fitting black leather "rocker" pants around the office. Let that mental image roll around in your brain for a bit.

Don't get me started on his band.

Doug Chu (#7,485)

I subjected myself to watching some JD and The Straight Shot on youtube. My goodness, Dolan can barely carry a tune. I wonder how much he pays the guys in his band to play karaoke for him, because it just sounds soul-crushing from a musician's standpoint.

Lockheed Ventura (#5,536)

The band is mostly made of his employees. At least that was the case a few years ago. So he does technically pay them, just not to play in his blues band.

"he built rosters as if putting together fantasy basketball team that was three years out of date"

Look out for when you've switch tenses so as not to confusing readers made to lost sensing time.

David Roth (#4,429)

I am have agreed with this comment. And will have been appreciating it.

barnhouse (#1,326)

Really it's just missing an "a", I think. But I do not care because it is a first-rate Rothian reverie; beautiful, melancholy and contemplative.

worst_1_yet (#681)

Oh, I just got the joke! Your right, the righter lost me have way to.

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

Can you get an actual sports writer to rewrite this so I can understand it? It reads like some novelist is pissed that Bieber cut his hair.
My suggestion is Mike Dedora over at the Newsweek. He was trained by the best of the best.

*Not saying this because Isaiah once let me win in a 1-1 many hundreds of years ago either.

Doug Chu (#7,485)

haters gon' hate

Dave Bry (#422)

Great piece.

And I want so badly for 'Melo to work out, and for the Knicks to be truly good again. But breaking up an exciting young core is always so dangerous. Dolan is really the worst. So absolutely wrong for New York ("vanity bluesman par excellence.") I will never forgive him for botching the end of Ewing's career, or the real signal of lameness and the misery to come, choosing Allan Houston over Sprewell. Sprewell, who I will always love—despite the coach-choking and the historically stupid quote about struggling to feed his feed on an NBA all-star's salary.

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

You're pretty damn good at telling other people what to do with their own money, huh?

Guess you completely boycotted ever Knicks game since you got pissed off and never followed it in the news and such since you are so dedicated at being dedicated to something that isn't an addiction.

The trade was a no-brainer. Did they give up a lot, sure. That's what happens when you trade for a top 10 player in his prime. If the goal is to win a championship, then Felton, Chandler and Gallinari as starters, with Mozgov off the bench is not gonna get you there in the next few years. Although the Knicks do not have a chance this year, the next few years they do. That is why this trade had to happen.
And I agree 100% about Dolan. Except that he is worse than Snyder, at least Snyder did not get his job and money from daddy.

Andrew Piccone (#7,185)

Madison Square Garden in the Isiah Thomas years acted as a place to see whichever superstar was in town that night, it was a place for a night out in New York, not necessarily one for die hard sports fans to convene and cheer on their boys. The 'business model' worked, as the Knickies have had some of the most pricey tickets in the league. For them now to still be that, but competitors in addition is win-win-win. However if you make <40k you're stuck taking the NJ Transit to Newark until the Nets move to Brooklyn and NY sports writers have a lot more to complain about on their hands.

a.t. (#1,744)

Great piece. Your point about Melo and Billups not fitting D'Antoni's "7 seconds and shoot style" has been largely ignored in the national media.

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