Despite meltdown, hope reigns supreme at Madison Square Garden

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 January, 2008, 12:00am

The New York Knicks are a team full of surprises, but last week they took it to a whole new level.

What transpired was more surprising than the fact the Knicks have the second-highest payroll in the league, but the fifth-worst record (12-27). It was way more surprising than the fact that, despite failing to win a play-off series since his arrival in 2003, coach and team president Isiah Thomas believes the Knicks will win a championship on his watch.

And as for Thomas remaining in his job despite a 45-76 coaching record, a chorus of jeers every time he steps on court and a growing number of disputes with his top players? Who didn't see that coming.

Nope. What happened in the past week was far more shocking: The Knicks actually won three games in a row.

And they weren't any old games - they held likely Eastern Conference finalists Detroit to just 65 points, and followed it up with a 105-93 win against the Washington Wizards, who themselves were coming off a win against the mighty Celtics in Boston. And then they beat cross-town rivals the New Jersey Nets. A team who haven't won consecutive games since November and won only three in all in December have just won four out of six.

Unbelievably, what's happening on the court isn't the worst thing going on at Madison Square Garden. Most notorious was the salacious sexual harassment case won by a female executive in October, highlights of which included franchise player Stephon Marbury's back-of-a-car romp with an intern, and the testimony of, you guessed it, Thomas: 'A white man calling a black woman a bitch? That's a problem for me.' And a black man? 'Not so much, I'm sorry to say. I do make a distinction.'

Thomas was found innocent by the judge, but guilty in the court of public opinion. 'Every self-respecting black woman I know would go Jet Li on anyone who ever called her the b-word,' wrote ESPN columnist Jemele Hill, who is both black and female.

Two weeks ago, New York police arrested a 22-year-old student outside Madison Square Garden for hawking 'Fire Isiah' T-shirts before a game against the Sacramento Kings, only to release him once the Knicks had lost.

This wasn't the first time this little trick was tried: in December, a fan was ejected for waving a 'Fire Isiah' sign, only for the New York Daily News to retaliate by printing a full-page, 'No, You Get Out Isiah' cut-out-and-keep sign to be waved 'during the next Knicks blowout'.

Things have gotten so bad that even NBA commissioner David Stern, a man far more interested in making huge piles of cash from selling Yao Ming T-shirts than interfering in the running of franchises, has reportedly pressured Knicks owner James Dolan to bring in a new management team.

But while the majority of fans and media are ready to cast Thomas - and most of his overpaid players - off the Brooklyn Bridge, many inside the game believe it is still too soon to call Thomas a failure.

Willis Reed, Hall of Famer and pillar of the Knicks' two championship winning teams in the early 1970s, told the New York Post he 'hadn't given up on them yet'.

'I'd walk in the room and say, guys, don't give up on yourselves. Eventually it will come,' he said, before adding: 'I would tell them to stop reading the papers.'

This week Allan Houston, a two-time All-Star during his nine years with the Knicks was on a personal visit to Hong Kong and said the problem wasn't that the Knicks didn't want to win, it was that they didn't know how to.

'They are so young, they are all trying to learn together. There aren't a lot of veterans on the team with a lot of winning experience to take them through that process,' he says. 'When I was a rookie [at the Detroit Pistons] I had Joe Dumars and Isiah Thomas. They had won championships, they taught us how to practise, how to treat the game. You've got to learn what winning is about, and they are trying to learn that on their own. A lot of people can point to Isiah, but to me that's the core of what they are going through.

'I've been in the practices, it's not like he's giving them a bad strategy.'

Houston is in the best possible position to analyse the Knicks, as many of the problems the team are experiencing date back to his time as a player. When Patrick Ewing exited in 2000, the franchise entered its spiral of underachievement. Houston's US$100 million, six-year contract was the most extravagant of a series of moves that saddled the roster with average talent on long, expensive deals.

While Houston failed to live up to his contract as injuries took their toll, many of the players simply weren't up to the task and the team went backwards. In December 2003, owner James Dolan fired general manager Scott Layden and brought in Thomas, but instead of sweating out the bad contracts and attempting a long-term rebuilding plan, Thomas leapt into the trade market, bringing in, among others, Marbury, a talented guard who had shown little ability to improve the teams around him. Others have followed - all adding little beyond discontent and salary.

Houston insists the problem is a lack of winning experience, and true enough players like Marbury, power forward Zach Randolph and centre Eddy Curry have been around the league for some time, yet never on successful teams.

To many observers it's not so much about experience as leadership. This season the Knicks have been devoid of chemistry, Randolph and Curry failing to mesh in offence or offer much in defence, and Marbury either restless or listless, but rarely productive - he was averaging 13.9 points and just 4.9 assists before going down with an injury, despite earning US$19.2 million this season, joint fifth in the league.

However, there are rays of hope. While his trades and free agency moves have rarely been anything other than disastrous, Thomas has retained an eye for draft talent. In David Lee, Nate Robinson and Renaldo Balkman the Knicks have a talented young core - and with money seemingly no object, increasingly there is a belief the veterans should be traded away if possible or bought out, and the reins handed to the youngsters before they are permanently damaged by their negative surroundings.

'We have good talent, we have good players, we have young players. I believe that one day we will win a championship here,' Thomas told a disbelieving media this month. 'And I believe a couple of these guys will be a part of that. And I believe I'll be a part of that.'

And here is where the crux lies. Despite a financial structure based as much on an owner's guilt as improvement of the bottom line, despite an ongoing public relations nightmare, and despite an on-court product that has been nothing short of a disaster, there somehow remains hope.

Forget the three consecutive wins: perhaps this is the biggest surprise of them all.