GREENBURGH, N.Y. – They were sitting at tables scattered throughout the practice facility, the Knicks players trapped in a "Twilight Zone" episode. Together, they watched reporters and cameras listening to the narcissistic and irrational ramblings of Stephon Marbury. Somehow, the worst nightmare of Donnie Walsh and Mike D'Antoni played out on the eve of training camp.
Once more, Marbury was draining the spirit of hope and change out of the room, reducing a roster to re-channeling that old self-destructive and self-fulfilling Knicks vibe.
Here we go again, they had to think.
Nothing has changed.
Most of all, the new Knicks president and coach had discovered the hard truth of life with the New York Knicks: Narcissistic and irrational starts at the top with owner Jim Dolan. For all the millions of dollars he's paid a long list of failed executives, coaches and players to go away, a league source says Dolan refuses to do it with the nearly $22 million owed to Marbury in the final year of his contract.
The last stand of Starbury promises to undermine everything that D'Antoni wants to instill in this training camp.
"They are not going to waive (Marbury)," a league source familiar with the situation said Monday. "That's off the table right now. Dolan is still the rock star contrarian. Everyone is telling him this is the one he has to get rid of, the contract he has to dump, and he won't do it. He's still the rebel without a cause.
"Donnie didn't want him at camp. Mike didn't want him there. But he's there."
So, Walsh and D'Antoni would have to hear that Marbury promises there will be no negotiation of a buyout. He won't take less money to leave. And truth be told: Why would he? On his way to Saratoga Springs for the start of training camp Tuesday, it had to make D'Antoni sick to hear Marbury talk with such a distorted, twisted view of the coach's offensive system. Marbury sees the game through the lenses of a serial loser, a cynical and selfish destroyer of good moods and good chemistry.
"From what I've seen, he allowed Steve Nash to dribble the ball for 22 seconds," Marbury said. "He allows guys to shoot coming down on the break, one-on-three. For me, I like that style of basketball."
Marbury has never been so defiant. He's bragging about losing 25 pounds – honoring Walsh's instruction to get into the best shape of his life – but it's clear he's as erratic as ever. In his annual YouTube summer moment with Bruce Beck recently, Marbury's goofball performance left little doubt with NBA executives that he's as unstable as ever. When he returned to talk again Monday, he declared that, "Stephon Marbury TV.net is coming soon, where you can view all highlights, clips and in-depth interviews."
Just what the world had been waiting on: Starbury on an endless loop. Eventually, he was in constant contradiction with reality and himself. One moment, he insisted that he no longer cared what anyone said about him, that his spiritual awakening – an annual epiphany – made him "pray" for those belittling his greatness. He cared so little, he called out one New York basketball writer, Newsday's Ken Berger, for aptly describing Marbury as "toxic" in the paper this summer.
At the end of his session, Marbury climbed to his feet and wrapped a creeped-out Berger in the most inappropriate Knicks hug since Isiah and Anucha. Marbury kept saying, "I'm going to pray for you," in this strange, suffocating clench. And then, he left his teammates behind in the gym and walked toward a curtain patrician leaping into the air and pumping his fists to no one but himself. Once more, Marbury disappeared into his own world.
Marbury doesn't see himself the way that his teammates, and fans and rivals do. His presence brings everyone down. The Knicks sent him home a year ago, and told him to stay away. Dolan gave Isiah Thomas every contract buyout he wanted – Larry Brown and Lenny Wilkens, Jalen Rose and Maurice Taylor – and now Walsh and D'Antoni can't get rid of Marbury.
Privately, the Knicks are waiting for an act of insubordination that would allow them to suspend and banish him away again. For the basketball staff, the best case scenario would be replicating what the Indiana Pacers have done with exiling Jamaal Tinsley. D'Antoni hated coaching for a brief time in his first season with the Suns, and knows it will only be worse once he installs Chris Duhon as his starting point guard.
Perhaps only then, the Knicks hope they could negotiate a buyout settlement with Marbury and let him re-sign elsewhere. Marbury has dared them to cut him. "Why would I take a buyout?" Marbury asked. "I have a contract."
He's right. Whatever he thinks, Marbury doesn't have a lot of appealing options around the league. Most league executives had surmised Miami would consider him, but sources on Monday said Pat Riley was close to signing free-agent point guard Shaun Livingston to a two-year contract. Even at the veteran's minimum, that will push the Heat into the luxury tax. Livingston isn't expected to be cleared to play with that reconstructed knee until at least the second half of the season.
As for San Antonio, without Manu Ginobili for a couple months, forget it. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich had the worst summer of his basketball life with Marbury in the 2004 Olympic Games. He won't touch him. Marbury is so desperate, he suggested that maybe the defending champion Boston Celtics might want him. Kevin Garnett would just as well jump off the Green Monster.
As the stock market crashed without a Washington bailout on Monday, there was less reason to believe that Dolan would change his mind and give his coach a chance to conduct a training camp cleansing in upstate New York. Donnie Walsh and Mike D'Antoni are desperate to start the long, hard process of repairing the years and years of damage done to the Knicks.
Only now, the rebel without a cause won't get rid of the rebel without a clue. The new president and coach can't change the roster overnight, but for starters they wanted to transform the climate of selfishness and negativity. Starbury goes to camp and promises to bring that relentless rain cloud with him.
As much as anything, the weary eyes of those Knicks watching as the circus returned to town told the truth: Here we go again.
- Donnie Walsh