LOS ANGELES – The New York Knicks began to rise from their locker-room seats Wednesday evening, stretching their legs one last time before running onto the Staples Center court to face the Los Angeles Clippers, when a voice came from the back corner of the room.
“I want you guys to know I’m sorry,” Stephon Marbury said, “for everything you’ve had to go through the past couple days.”
The players turned to look at Marbury, waiting to hear if the Knicks’ prodigal point guard had anything to add. Over the previous 48 hours, Marbury had threatened to “bury” his coach; left the team in Phoenix to fly home to New York; reportedly incurred a team-issued fine worth just under $200,000; and, finally, jetted back across the country to Los Angeles to rejoin his teammates.
Marbury, however, stayed quiet. He hadn’t even bothered to stand up to issue his brief apology.
This is what the Knicks had come to expect from their $20 million star. The size of the gesture didn’t matter as much as its lack of sincerity.
And that’s why, less than 24 hours earlier, when Isiah Thomas dispatched Jamal Crawford to find out how the players would react if and when Marbury rejoined the team, all of them voted against allowing him to play. Thomas, according to one person who spoke with Crawford, had pledged to hold out Marbury if even a single Knick didn’t want him on the court.
So how did Thomas react to the team’s unanimous vote?
He sat Marbury until late in the first quarter then played him nearly 34 of the game’s remaining 39 minutes.
The Knicks lost, of course, falling 84-81 to an injury-riddled Clippers team that many in the league expected to be anchoring the bottom of the Western Conference. Marbury clanged a late 3-pointer, then was powerless to stop Cuttino Mobley from backing him down for the clinching turnaround bank shot.
Afterward, Thomas said his personal feelings toward Marbury wouldn’t keep him from putting the team in the best position to win.
“I’ve played with people I don’t like. I’ve won with people I don’t like,” Thomas said. “We’re a professional basketball team. My job is to try and win the basketball game.
“However I feel about a person, that doesn’t matter. We’re tying to win. Whatever happened in the past is in the past.”
That’s doubtful. Marbury said after the game that he’s “cool” and can “walk with my head up” and that “going forward, I’m fine.” The problem is that many of his teammates aren’t fine. They’re fed up with him.
The Knicks lived with his bizarre television appearance. They listened as he admitted to having sex with a team intern in the back of a truck. And when Thomas let Marbury know Monday that he was planning to bring him off the bench against the Phoenix Suns, they even weathered the resulting firestorm. One person on the plane, confirming a report in the New York Daily News, said Marbury threatened to “bury (Thomas) and the Knicks” with unseemly information about the coach.
But when Marbury left his teammates high and dry in the desert? That was too much.
The Knicks let out a collective sigh of relief when told Marbury had left. For one night, at least, they didn’t have to stomach his selfishness. But as soon as Marbury walked into the visitors’ locker room Wednesday, smiling as if he had just crisscrossed 9,000 miles in 48 hours for the sheer pleasure of pumping up his frequent-flier account, the team was once again on edge.
Thomas said Marbury needs to provide leadership and defense to win back his starting job, and that should be good for a few more laughs. Leadership? From the guy who deserted his team? Even if Marbury left with Thomas’ permission, as Marbury claims, he still left.
In spite of their frustration, the Knicks don’t have anyone willing to challenge Marbury, and they’re quickly losing faith in their coach doing so. Thomas, perhaps weighed down by his role in the team’s recent sexual harassment lawsuit, has seen his own leadership erode. Some nights he’s miserable after a loss; on others he almost doesn’t seem to care. The players don’t know what to make of the mixed message.
As a result, even Marbury’s harshest critics in the locker room don’t think he deserves full blame for the team’s 2-5 start. Too many players have played too poorly for it to be the fault of one.
Still, the Knicks are tired of being the league’s longest running joke, and Marbury has been their clown prince. From Larry Brown’s settlement to Anucha Browne Sanders’ lawsuit to Marbury’s current feud with Thomas, the circus has stayed too long in New York, even if the rest of the NBA continues to find it entertaining.
“I could have taken LSD, hallucinated AND been a great writer and I still couldn’t have made this stuff up,” said one rival team executive.
So, for now, the Knicks’ runaway train continues to careen off the tracks with Marbury and Thomas sharing the engineer’s chair. Everybody seems to be enjoying the ride except those actually on board.