Ruthlessness is a prized virtue in pro sports.
New York Knicks president Isiah Thomas came in with that attitude and is still imparting it, hinting of more trades to come, and telling his star guard, Stephon Marbury, to start “stepping on people’s necks when you’ve got them down.”
Call Thomas graceless or even cruel for the way he treated former coach Don Chaney before firing him — letting him dangle for days and poking fun about his fate in a game of ”20 Questions” on “Late Night With David Letterman.”
But never overlook the ambition that has always driven Thomas. Knicks fans couldn’t care less about what’s behind his smile as long as their team keeps winning.
The Knicks have won five straight games, their longest winning streak in nearly three years, and have gone from irrelevant to exciting since Thomas arrived on Dec. 22. The team is in second place in its division, only two games under .500 , and is solidly in the playoff hunt.
There’s finally a buzz about the Knicks again in New York.
“I stopped wearing my Knicks cap because I was embarrassed about the way they were playing,” Carl Levine, a lifelong Knicks fan in New York, said. “Now they’re winning and I’ll take my Knicks cap out of the closet.”
Like many Knicks fans, Levine “took a hiatus” during the regime of former team president Scott Layden.
“They may have been nice guys, but the team stunk and they did a horrible job with the talent they put on the court,” the 54-year-old Levine said. “Thomas had to be ruthless. Now they have a winning team and they’re exciting to watch. I really don’t care about whether he’s a nice guy or not. New Yorkers like him because we like winning.”
Madison Square Garden shook with chants of “Fire Chaney” before Thomas ever arrived. And it shook with chants of “Fire Layden,” going back to the NBA draft.
Since replacing Layden, Thomas charged up the city by bringing in the immensely popular, Brooklyn-born Marbury, who’s playing as if he should be on the All-Star team. Penny Hardaway arrived with Marbury from Phoenix and is fitting right in. Lenny Wilkens took over for Chaney and has given the Knicks the confidence they’d been lacking.
Across the Hudson River, in the netherworld occupied by the New Jersey Nets, general manager Rod Thorn had to make a tough decision of his own when he saw his team slip-sliding away. Should he stay with Byron Scott, a champion as a player with the Los Angeles Lakers and an NBA finalist the last two years as the Nets’ coach? Or should Thorn fire him in midseason?
Thorn put personal feelings aside and replaced Scott with assistant Lawrence Frank as interim coach.
“When you’re firing coaches, there is no easy or right way to do that,” Thorn said Monday as the Nets rode an eight-game winning streak, including all six under Frank.
“Isiah had his reasons for doing what he did, and obviously it’s been very successful, and I had my reasons for doing what I did. So far it’s worked out well.”
Thorn hired Scott four years ago, liked him as a person and respected him as a coach. But Thorn also saw signs of the Nets unraveling and Scott losing the respect of the players.
In Frank, Thorn found a coach who was respected by the players, especially team leader Jason Kidd.
“Lawrence has the trust of the players,” Thorn said. “He’s making adjustments during games which are right on. If he sees something out on the court, he’ll try to make an adjustment right away to it. He’s very detail-oriented, as far as game preparation and planning. He doesn’t leave anything to chance. He talks about everything a team might do.”
That could be taken either as simple praise for Frank or a comment on what Scott was not doing. Yet there’s no guarantee that the Nets’ winning streak, the longest in the NBA at the moment, will build in momentum toward the playoffs.
Changes in coaches and players often give a quick jolt to a team, sometimes positive, sometimes not. We’ll see in June if the Knicks and Nets made the right move.
For the time being, there’s excitement about basketball again in the New York area, especially with the possibility of the Nets moving to Brooklyn under their new ownership.
“No doubt about it, it helps the NBA to have a buzz about basketball again in New York,” said Thorn, a former executive in the league office.
“I’m very complimentary of what Isiah has done with the Knicks. He’s come in and made some changes that have made his team better. People might criticize him about how he went about it, but you’ve got to be willing to take some chances. You try to make an enlightened decision and you go. It’s not always easy, but in the end all the fans really care about is whether you’re winning.”
PBT: The Pacers defeated the Heat 97-93 in Game 2 to even the series at 1-1, which now shifts to Indiana.
Video: NBA from NBC Sports
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