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Smile is his umbrella, but rain never stops

Thomas is happy face of Knicks organization that allows no frowns, even in unhappy times

January 30, 2007|Mark Heisler | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Born in poverty, raised by a mother who chased the gangs off her doorstep with a shotgun, protected by big brothers, even as they succumbed to the drug culture....

And those were the good old days?

The plight of Isiah Thomas, coach and president of the Knicks, is so overwhelming, he sometimes compares it to his escape from Chicago's West Side.

It's so wild, it makes sense only to him and his few sympathizers. Press people aren't impolite enough to snicker, but they're used to being manipulated -- with the Knicks, manipulation has replaced communication -- and they're not going for it.

To Thomas, it's not hyperbole. It's the truest thing he has said since he hit town.

In retrospect, growing up wasn't that hard even if the streets were dangerous, the heat could get turned off in winter and he had to get up in the dark and ride the bus for an hour to get to his suburban high school.

He didn't think about it, he just did it.

Besides, even if the odds were stacked against him, the world had nothing against him personally.

Now the NBA's most star-crossed star has found this highest of high-wire acts, like a homing pigeon with a death wish or a beautiful actress who keeps marrying the wrong men.

"I think they're getting better but I feel for him in that situation," says Indiana Pacers President Donnie Walsh, one of the few people still close to both Thomas and former Knicks coach Larry Brown.

"In my mind, it's a little man's syndrome. Isiah was a great player in an era in which there were a lot of great players. You had Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and Michael Jordan....

"This little guy in his own mind was as good as any of them, but nobody was going to accept him on that level. So he did everything he could. He led them [the Detroit Pistons] to two championships and he did it in a tough, nasty way."

If daring is a sin, Thomas pays for it every news cycle. The point man for a dysfunctional Knicks organization that forbids him to even acknowledge anything unpleasant, he has been turned into a smiley-face emoticon with no credibility.

This can go to am-I-hearing-this lengths, such as a recent 126-110 loss to Charlotte, which scored 74 points in the second half, after which Thomas, per organization policy, wouldn't say a bad word about his defense.

"We got beat playing our game," he said. "I can live with that."

Nor does anyone have to go out of his way to bash him amid their pratfalls, including the maraschino cherry atop the sundae of Thomas' woes, the Dec. 16 rumble with the Denver Nuggets, coached by Brown's friend, George Karl.

Just before Knicks rookie Mardy Collins headlocked Carmelo Anthony, videotape showed Thomas uttering a warning to Anthony so clearly that "SportsCenter" anchors read his lips saying, "Don't go near the basket."

Commissioner David Stern didn't penalize Thomas, but the press skewered him. The New York Times' Selena Roberts wrote that Thomas' "narcissistic powers of manipulation" turned his players into "dupes."

Incidentally, the Knicks are day-and-night better.

Thomas inherited a small, creaky roster and a $120-million payroll. Now they have big young players such as Eddy Curry, David Lee and Channing Frye and veterans such as Stephon Marbury and Quentin Richardson.

Unfortunately for them, it's only starting to show (they're 10-10 after a 9-17 start) and Thomas needed the cavalry a while ago.

"I haven't taken my pulse," he says, doing the prescribed stoic act. "You know, it's like you're in it so I try to keep my head down and keep trying to plow through it."

Happily for him, it can't get much worse. The organization-approved story line has corporate boss James Dolan demanding "significant progress" but a team official says, "Dolan doesn't want to fire him."

Insiders think Thomas may even get an extension soon. Unhappily, nothing else is certain to get much better soon.

The Larry Brown

Era: 2005-2006

Contrary to public opinion, Brown wasn't fired for going 23-59, since his bosses were prepared to be patient.

He was fired -- with four years and $40 million on his contract -- because, being Larry Brown, he couldn't stop talking about their problems.

Candor, not failure, had become the ultimate Knicks sin since 2001 when Cablevision Chief Executive Charles Dolan handed Madison Square Garden to his son, James.

James was from the cable TV business, where infrastructure, not the consumer, ruled. Cablevision once blacked out the Yankees in Manhattan in a dispute over fees. The family-controlled company was so secretive, the Hollywood Reporter called it "the North Korea of the cable business."

Since 2001, the Knicks have made the playoffs once (and were swept by the Nets). Their payroll, now $122 million, triggers $50 million-plus in luxury tax, which makes the difference between profit and loss for half the league.

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