NEW YORK – Isiah Thomas never did stop the relentless mythology of himself as the street fighter out of Chicago's Westside. Through every indignity, he insisted that he was fighting for his job, his legacy, for a ticker-tape parade he still promised until the bitter end. Somewhere between delusion and delirium, the architect of a crumbled regime had never sounded so detached of reality.
Before his final night at Madison Square Garden, Thomas was still speaking of championship days with the New York Knicks and jabbed his finger toward the visiting locker room and declared of the Boston Celtics, "One day, that's someone we want to be."
He spoke of his love for the New York fans, and how they have flocked back to the arena to watch his Knicks, and all this great young talent that'll someday see true his vision of Garden glory. The Knicks rewarded one more Garden sellout with complementary concessions Monday night, confining the "Fire Isiah" chants to modest decibels with mouths stuffed with so much free food.
"I want to be part of the parade," Thomas declared.
The only parade Isiah is getting will be over to LaGuardia Airport and out of town for good. The fans' anger and angst of January and February had subsided to resignation here. Before the loss to the Celtics, New York had Uncle Junior of The Sopranos singing the national anthem and Big Pussy in a celebrity courtside seat. For this hit job, there was no drama. Donnie Walsh, raised in the Bronx, has come home and everyone knows that Isiah's getting whacked.
"As Denzel (Washington) told me," Isiah said, " 'You're going to get the Bronx cheer.' If this is the bottom, with a sold-out house tonight, in the last game, then New York is a great town.
"And in a strange kind of way I'm honored to get the Bronx cheer. Because everybody gets it. If this is the worst, this ain't bad."
This is his way of saying that he made it out of New York alive, false bravado until he's out the door. The final con job of Thomas' disastrous run as Knicks president and coach has been that he wants to keep his job. Thomas is still getting the remainder of his $24 million contract extension. He's done nothing to earn his pay but everything to protect future payments. The Knicks are 23-58 on the season now. Larry Brown will be rooting hard Wednesday night that Isiah doesn't end up with one more victory than he did as Knicks coach two years ago.
Until Sunday, when Walsh happened to be in the gym, the Knicks hadn't had a legitimate practice in a month. Shootarounds seldom lasted more than 15 or 20 minutes on gameday mornings. So much opportunity to develop the Knicks young players went to waste.
To the bitter end, Thomas was still selling. For a time, Dolan was the last man in New York buying it. Finally, Thomas lost him, too. These days, Thomas sounds like an old politician on the house floor, talking to an empty chamber just so his words will be recorded for the history books.
"We went from an aging older team to a young team with a lot of future," he said. "A lot of possibilities here. When we first got here, there weren't any. … Now the Knicks definitely have a bright future."
This is the kind of garbage that people in New York stopped listening to months ago. They treat him like the crazy man they pass on the street corners here. He keeps talking gibberish and they just keep moving past him.
Had they seen Isiah fighting, backing his empty words with deeds, maybe it would've been a little different. Yet it wasn't 10 games into the season when his players privately told people that they could see his heart wasn't in it, that he was barely trying to coach them. Everyone could see it. Most nights, he never climbed to his feet. He never coached. Lately, opposing scouts came to the Garden and declared the Knicks the hardest team in the league with which to file reports back to their teams.
"They haven't run any plays in over a month," one NBA scout said.
Said another scout, "In all of my years, I've never seen anything like it. If (Thomas) is trying to get fired, he's doing a good job of it."
The loss of the sexual harassment suit to Anucha Browne Sanders destroyed Thomas with the Knicks. Through training camp, he moped. He felt sorry for himself. He played the victim. He climbed into a shell and these Knicks never had a chance. Beyond the disastrous four years with the Knicks, including a 56-107 record as coach these past two seasons, the sexual harassment suit and depositions that showed a Garden run amok promise to make him a toxic hire anywhere else in the NBA.
Within the league, Thomas was already unpopular and loosely trusted. His days in a high-profile executive or coaching job are over. He's made too much money and has too immense of an ego to ever see himself taking a low-level scouting position. He'll probably go back to Detroit, where he's still beloved as a Piston great, and be Isiah Thomas. He'll get a chance to return to television, but the analysts' chair won't be able to rehab his broken basketball image.
Yes, the "Fire Isiah" chants started in the final moments Monday night but died down in New York. This dysfunctional basketball franchise has tired everyone out. They just want it over, just want him gone for good. He coaches his final game Wednesday night, in Indiana, where Walsh and Thomas were united as GM and coach all those years ago.
Just a month ago, in one more Knicks loss, Pacers fans watched him sitting listlessly and started riding him. "Hey Isiah," one was heard to growl, "why don't you coach your team!"
One more night for the empty suit on the Knicks bench, one more indignity on the job, and Isiah Thomas was closer to that parade everyone else has dreamed for so long in New York. Just him, just a one-man cavalcade out of town.
- Isiah Thomas
- New York
- Madison Square Garden