The Knicks As Theater of the Absurd

By Michael Wilbon
Wednesday, May 17, 2006

PHOENIX At best, it's impolite to revel in other people's misfortune, and at worst it's positively tacky. But the New York Knicks vs. Larry Brown is irresistibly juicy. It's not often you get this kind of dysfunction wrapped in New York melodrama. Oh sure, there are hundreds of episodes of professional sports franchises imploding or unraveling because of hubris or incompetence, but rarely do you find this much of both, and involving so damn much money.

All indications are that Larry Brown, hailed just 10 months ago as the perfect coach to lead the Knicks out of the wilderness, is going to be bought out by the guy who hired him and the executive who did the hailing.

And Brown, who declared after leaving a championship-caliber Pistons team for his dream job and self-professed final pro basketball stop in New York, just might take his $25 million from Madison Square Garden and head off to Golden State or Sacramento, where he will be hailed there, too, for however long.

The Knicks vs. Larry Brown has brushed the NBA playoffs aside, trampled right over LeBron James; Dallas trying to knock off the champion Spurs; Rasheed Wallace looking like a fool with his stupid guarantee; and the sublimely entertaining basketball being played by the Suns and Clippers. The Knicks vs. Larry Brown has taken over the front and back pages of the New York tabloids, sharing billing with the storm over Britney Spears's inability to properly strap her baby into a car seat.

Neither Isiah Thomas, the Knicks' president of basketball operations, nor Madison Square Garden Chairman James Dolan has confirmed that there's any move to fire Brown or negotiate a settlement on the $40 million or so remaining on the $50 million contract that was supposed to keep him on the Knicks' sideline for five years. But there's no place for candor in this story, not when the leaks and counter leaks are so much more provocative. Admission or not, the attempt to get rid of Brown and put Thomas on the sideline is already being orchestrated.

Joe Glass, Brown's longtime agent, said he first read of dissatisfaction with his nomadic Hall of Fame client in Sunday's New York tabloids, and said Brown was willing, able and prepared to coach the Knicks when the season resumes in November. Then, after a conversation with Thomas, Glass told the Associated Press, "I spoke to Isiah Thomas earlier this afternoon and he categorically denied there's any substances to what was in the paper."

Yet Madison Square Garden insiders have already leaked to various reporters the figure of $25 million as the amount Dolan, who has for whatever reason sided with Thomas, is prepared to give Brown to take a walk.

What's clear is that Dolan and Thomas are upset with Brown, mostly for publicly criticizing almost all of the team's players and asking to trade eight of them this summer . . . as if Brown hasn't done exactly this same thing in every one of his stops along the way, from New Jersey to San Antonio to Los Angeles to Indianapolis to Philly to Detroit to New York.

Dolan, the cable TV giant, might be clueless about Brown, but Thomas can't be; he's been around basketball for 25 years, either as a player, broadcaster, executive or coach. Brown will tell any reporter he's known for a while exactly which players he detests and why. So it's unthinkable Thomas wouldn't have known Brown would rip everybody on the roster by Christmas.

Yet, this seems to now be Brown's unpardonable sin.

Don't get me wrong, Brown can wear out a welcome faster than any coach in sports. People put up with him because he's better at making a bad team good than any coach ever. He makes you better, then he can't say no to the next suitor with a bad team who wants to get better. He's the guy who's looking for a new lot even before he's finished building this house. Last year, he started talking to the Cleveland Cavaliers while coaching the Pistons in the playoffs, and the Pistons bid him adieu.

Having said that, getting rid of Brown after one year is the stupidest thing the Knicks could do. The Knicks weren't going to make the playoffs this season, no matter who coached. And that's Thomas's doing, overwhelmingly, because he made one disastrous personnel decision after another. It's mind-boggling that somebody as smart as Thomas could bring Steve Francis in to join Stephon Marbury. Red Auerbach would have run screaming from a locker room with those two.

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