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.