NEW YORK – Isiah Thomas clenched his fist and pumped it for a fleeting moment, the most maligned man in Madison Square Garden looking like he had been delivered a dose of vindication. In his own way, he had thrown everything back in George Karl's face and you knew, just knew, the Knicks coach would've loved to tell Karl to go bleep himself.
These days, Thomas doesn't dare indulge himself in such moments of hubris. He is muted, humbled and downright lucky to still have this job. Deep down, Thomas is dying for a chance to be his old, cocksure self, but that'll take time and it'll take these Knicks turning into his professional salvation.
There could've been no parting words on Tuesday night, because Karl was long gone when the buzzer sounded, leaving with one-tenth of a second left and the Knicks shooting free throws to punctuate a 119-112 victory over Denver.
Just a year ago, these Nuggets and Knicks had been co-conspirators in a night of sucker punches, suspensions and damaged public personas. Since the brawl, Thomas' New York life has been one public humiliation after another. Karl called Thomas "an ass" and "full of (expletive)" after his Nuggets lost Carmelo Anthony for 15 games, and Thomas never did respond.
Ever since, Thomas has been backpedaling as Knicks emperor, a tumultuous tenure that has turned him inward, even bitter. For so long the subject of the tabloid's back-page lampoons, this summer's sexual harassment trial worked him to the front of the papers. Since losing the case, he has still tried to sell himself as the victim, not the perpetrator.
Ultimately, there will be just one way to win New York over, and it has nothing to do with this clear campaign to remake his public image. Around here, victory is often confused with virtue, and Tuesday turned into one of those nights that could go a long way toward rehabilitating Thomas' tattered image. Let's be honest here: To some, it wasn't so much that Thomas was sexually harassing Anucha Browne Sanders, but that he was doing it while lording over such a bad basketball team.
Yes, this was an immense victory for the Knicks, a night when Thomas' vision met with some validation. His frontline of Eddy Curry (24 points) and Zach Randolph (22 points and 17 rebounds) destroyed the Nuggets in a frantic comeback from 15 points down. The first-round pick everyone laughed over on draft night two years ago, Renaldo Balkman, shut down Anthony in the final minutes. Stephon Marbury played the part of the wise, shrewd playmaker, instead of that of Captain Bizarro.
"With Zach, guys are having a tough time keeping up and trying to stop us without fouling us," Curry said. "It's definitely not an easy matchup coming in here anymore."
It wasn't just himself that Curry spoke about on these Knicks, when he said, "I'm trying to transform myself into a winner. I've been in the league for a long time and I've lost a lot of games. I want to see what the other side looks like."
Thomas has turned to Curry and Randolph as his saviors, and no one knows better than Thomas that he's racing the clock to save his job here. As usual, owner Jim Dolan sat slumped courtside, silent still on his president and coach's status since Browne Sanders beat the Knicks in court for an $11 million judgment. His contract extension of a year ago seems flimsy, and even in this backward Knicks world, it's hard to believe another lottery season could spare Thomas his job.
Most people were rolling their eyes when Thomas spent his post-practice time on Saturday at a news conference with Al Sharpton, a Thomas critic turned starry-eyed apologist. Sometimes, it's hard to tell if Thomas is trying to save this job, or restore his reputation for the next one. Of course, where would he ever go from here? Rest assured he'll never again have the power and prestige that comes with running a franchise like the Knicks. Between the trial and his track record, he's radioactive.
Most league executives that you speak with are always waiting for Thomas to be fired, and want to discuss the possible replacements at the Garden. Several believe that the Knicks could be the challenge that intrigues ex-Suns owner Jerry Colangelo, and that perhaps, with David Stern's urging, he could be talked into taking over as Knicks president. They wonder, too: Would Colangelo try to free his son, Bryan, out of Toronto to be GM and lure Mike Krzyzewski, his Team USA coach, out of college basketball?
Before those things can happen, there is the matter of Thomas' last stand with his reshaped roster. Give Thomas this: He is a survivor. He doesn't go down easily. Michael Jordan has long been reputed to have shunned him from the Dream Team in 1992, and Pistons owner Bill Davidson chose Joe Dumars over Thomas to run his franchise. And yes, Larry Bird fired him as Pacers coach in 2001. Always, Thomas has gotten up again. He still sees himself as the little kid who survived Chicago's west side to turn himself into the game's greatest little man ever.
That trial against a deposed Knicks executive seemed to hit him the hardest, though, because nothing devours the human spirit like going through the ringer in New York. In this preseason, Thomas has done a lot of feeling sorry for himself. Around the league, he is isolated. Even within the Garden, his power has been marginalized. Everywhere, it's open season on Isiah Thomas. Before the game, someone asked Karl if he had apologized to Thomas for the nasty names he called him last December, and the Nuggets coach rolled his eyes and let out a long sigh.
Apologize? Are you kidding?
These days, going after Isiah means never having to say you're sorry.
And so, Tuesday night, the buzzer sounded and Isiah Thomas had something rare for him: His own, shiny Garden moment. He clenched that fist, and let out a private word to himself, and would soon see that Karl had disappeared to the losing locker room. Small step forward for the Knicks, and a two-by-four upside the head of a Nuggets coach that Thomas would've loved to take out onto 33rd Street and beat to a pulp.
Only, he wouldn't talk about vengeance on Tuesday, because no one here wants to hear that anymore. After all these years, New York just wants to see a basketball team again. "If we can keep these guys together for three or four years," Thomas would say, "they can do a lot of good things."
This was Isiah Thomas, the consummate campaigner. Mostly, the Knicks president and coach was saying this: Keep me around, and watch me shove it back in everyone's face.