Isiah Still Believes He Can Win With Knicks
MIAMI -- Isiah Thomas thought he would be dead by age 20, so at 49 he offers no apologies for betting on himself. Exiled in Miami, haunted by his proximity to LeBron James, Thomas embraces his articles of blind faith like one would a baby in a storm.
Isiah believes James (and perhaps Dwyane Wade) would be starting for the New York Knicks if Isiah had remained president of the team.
Isiah believes he can recruit James out of Miami and into Madison Square Garden in 2014.
Isiah believes that, with or without James, he will someday help the Knicks win their first NBA title since 1973.
"I want to be on the float and I want to get my ring," Thomas said.
As he stepped out of a soft South Florida rain and into a Coconut Grove restaurant the other day, Thomas, now the head coach of Florida International University, projected that familiar boyish vibe he maintained as a grown-up player, coach and executive in the NBA.
Wearing sneakers, sweatpants and a white T-shirt bearing the FIU name and teeth-baring Golden Panthers logo, Thomas looked fit enough to take an outlet pass from Dennis Rodman and lead a three-on-one break.
But in a wide-ranging two-hour interview with ESPNNewYork.com, Thomas spent far less time on his Hall of Fame playing days in Detroit than he did on his tumultuous time as an executive and coach in New York, where he believes a sexual harassment trial cost him a job he is driven to reclaim.
Asked if he hopes to replace Donnie Walsh whenever the 69-year-old Knicks president retires, Thomas said, "Every single day of the week.
"When I look at my GM/executive record, if I'm evaluated on that, then whoever's after Donnie, if you're not talking about some of the top people in the game, I'll put my draft evaluation record up against anyone's."
Thomas lost his jobs as president and coach of the Knicks in 2008, but had already suffered a more damaging defeat in the courtroom when a team executive, Anucha Browne Sanders, won her sexual harassment case against the Garden and Thomas and a jury award of $11.6 million in punitive damages (the Garden settled the case for $11.5 million before a hearing on potential compensatory damages).
Both the Garden and Thomas raged against the verdict, and the fallout from the trial and the loss of his career inspired a devastating choice on Oct. 24, 2008, when he overdosed on sleeping pills in the hours after his teenage daughter was hospitalized for an undisclosed medical issue.
"I was a deeply bruised and scarred person," Thomas said. "I wasn't trying to take my life, but I wanted and needed that day to be over."
If Isiah Thomas went to hell and back, it wasn't his first round trip. Growing up on the West Side of Chicago, Thomas said that he lost one drug-addicted brother to AIDS and that another brother "basically drank himself to death." His father, Isiah Sr., left the family when Isiah Jr. was 6, and when his mother, Mary, wasn't scrubbing floors in a local monastery and cooking for the priests and nuns, she was guarding her home with a sawed-off shotgun when gang members tried to recruit her sons.
The youngest of the nine Thomas kids, Isiah literally hunted for discarded food on the street and figured he was living on borrowed time. "I was below the poverty line," he said. "I swear to you I never thought I would see 20 years old."
A month before his 20th birthday, Thomas won a national championship for Bob Knight at Indiana. He would claim two NBA titles for Chuck Daly in Detroit, and a place among the game's 50 greatest players of all time.
His playing legacy secured, Thomas is motivated to defend a coaching and front-office record that lies in a million little pieces, like the residue of a shattered backboard. He wants to build a winning program at FIU, but burns to find his way from the underbelly of Division I basketball back to the executive suites of the NBA.
So this is the frayed book of Isiah. These are his articles of blind faith.
ON CHASING LEBRON
LeBron James would have taken his talents to the white lights of Broadway, not the white sand of South Beach, if Isiah Thomas had anything to do with it.
"I have to believe that," Thomas said, "because that was my plan. So I stick to it."
Hired as president of the Knicks in December of 2003, Thomas said he targeted James as the centerpiece of a future title winner in New York "from the first day he got in the league, as soon as I got the job."
Thomas guessed James would ultimately sign an extension with Cleveland that would keep him with the Cavaliers through 2010, but went about acquiring players he thought would appeal to LeBron, anyway. Eddy Curry and Jamal Crawford, for instance.
"They were just all friendly, and they were all on the AAU circuit," Thomas said.
So the man criticized for never having a plan actually had one. It might've been crazy to focus on 2010 in 2004 and 2005, but Thomas had many friends in the business who thought he was crazy to assume control of the Knicks in the first place. His overmatched predecessor, Scott Layden, had left behind a dreadful roster that was some $45 million over the salary cap.
"Chuck Daly begged me not to take the Knick job," Thomas said. "He said, 'You can't fix it. You'll probably fix it for somebody else.'"
Thomas was trying to survive until he could recruit James, the longest of long-term strategies doomed from the start. "That's a problem with being a visionary," Thomas said. "You're way too far out, and by the time it catches up, people will hack you to death."
The sexual harassment trial amounted to the final, fatal hack. "I think if you take away that trial," Thomas said, "I'm still there, we make the playoffs a couple of times ... and I don't know if Miami has LeBron or Wade. We may have had LeBron and Wade."
As a Dolan emissary on a desperate mission, Thomas met with a James associate on the eve of LeBron's televised announcement in July, arriving with too little power, too late in the game. Not that Thomas is giving up on the hope of being a high-ranking Knicks executive in the summer of 2014, when James can opt out of his deal with the Heat.
"I'd like to still hold onto that dream," Thomas said. "I do think that he'll win championships here in Miami, and they will be a great dynasty. ... But I think when he comes to New York and he wins it in New York, I think he's the greatest player ever."
ON HIRING LARRY BROWN
Isiah Thomas didn't want to do it. Once Phil Jackson rejected him in 2005, Thomas wanted to appoint his fellow Bad Boy, Bill Laimbeer, a wildly successful coach in the WNBA.
"I thought [Brown] was used to championship talent," Thomas said, "and where we were, we weren't ready for the big-time coach.
"But Jim [Dolan] always wants the best and ... he's like, 'OK, you're telling me I've got a choice between Larry Brown, P.J. Carlesimo or Bill Laimbeer?' I'm going with Larry Brown.'"
Signed to a $50 million deal, Larry Brown went 23-59 in his first and only season.
"He admitted himself he didn't do a good job," Thomas said, "and I agree with that."
Asked if he still believes he would be the Knicks' president if he'd hired Laimbeer instead of Brown, Thomas said, "I think I'm still the GM and president of the Knicks if it wasn't for that trial."
ON LOSING AT TRIAL
Isiah Thomas wants to say this about Anucha Browne Sanders:
"If the things that she alleges did happen in her daily working environment, I have great sympathy for her. If those things happened in her daily working environment, then yes, she is a victim, and I do have great compassion for her.
"But I wasn't there. I wasn't her boss. She didn't report to me. I worked in Westchester, she worked in Manhattan. I would say hello to her at the games ... "
Of course, Browne Sanders told an entirely different story. She said Thomas engaged in sexual harassment, including the use of crude and profane language, allegations the jury believed.
"I was falsely accused," Thomas maintains. "My wife and kids and I, we were persecuted like I've never seen anywhere in sports. [The criticism] just got so mean and ... as a family we were just hanging by a thread every single day. We were just hanging by a thread and just trying to hunker down and weather the storm. My mother was dying at the time, and it was the most awful time in my life. We were going through hell."
ON DEFENDING HIS RECORD
Vin Baker, Jerome James, Jared Jeffries.
There's no defending that, and Thomas knows it.
"But there were 24 All-Stars last year," he said, "and I left New York with two of them, David Lee and Zach Randolph. Jamal Crawford became a sixth man of the year."
Thomas believes injuries cost the Knicks a playoff appearance in 2007, the year he replaced Brown on the bench. "Before the trial," he said, "people weren't saying bad things about the Knicks. They were saying, 'Watch out for the Knicks.'"
Thomas said he needed to make the trade for Stephon Marbury to resuscitate a dead franchise. He blamed Brown for moving Trevor Ariza in the deal to acquire Steve Francis. Surrendering the draft picks that became LaMarcus Aldridge and Joakim Noah for Curry?
Curry played at a high level for Thomas for a bit, but soon enough devolved into a symbol of everything that went wrong between Seventh and Eighth avenues.
"There was a method behind the madness," Thomas said. He was confident Curry would opt out in 2010 to clear the necessary space for a fellow client of Leon Rose, name of LeBron James.
"My instincts always told me LeBron would be great in New York," Thomas said. "I remember talking to Jerry West about when he was going after Shaq and how he mortgaged the team and what he went through. I kept saying to Jerry, 'I think if I position this right, I'll have a shot at LeBron.'"
Thomas committed too many unforced errors to ever get that shot. A longtime supporter and friend, Dolan gave him the bad news in an emotional meeting in the Garden chairman's office.
"We both understood that the environment was toxic," Thomas said.
ON ADVISING CARMELO
Isiah Thomas held up his cell phone to show a text from a starting Eastern Conference point guard. In the message, the player wrote that he was hoping Thomas would offer him some career advice.
"I get asked to advise a lot of players," Thomas said. "Not just Carmelo."
Carmelo Anthony, that is, the object of the Knicks' post-LeBron affections.
Thomas wouldn't say how deeply involved he is in the Knicks' effort to pry Anthony out of Denver. Thomas isn't on the Garden payroll, not after David Stern reversed his earlier ruling and decided a college head coach shouldn't be a paid employee of an NBA team.
Much to Walsh's dismay, Dolan had offered Thomas a job as a consultant. The job would've paid Thomas more than he's making at FIU, but he decided he couldn't leave his recruits high and dry. Not yet, anyway.
"Six or seven [NBA] teams I advise," said Thomas, who included the Knicks in that group. "I don't get paid for it."
ON REPLACING DONNIE WALSH
Sure, Thomas would love to do it. Nothing personal, just business.
Walsh is in the final year of his contract, and he's been burdened by health issues. Nobody's sure how much longer the Knicks' president wants to stay in the job.
Asked if he would characterize a return to the Knicks' presidency as a dream, a desire or an expectation, Thomas said, "Desire or dream. I don't expect it. But knowing what I know about the game and the relationships that I have, I'm confident that if no crazy [stuff] happens, I think I can win in New York, and I think I was really close to winning in New York."
No, Thomas has never lacked for confidence. The day Larry Bird fired him in Indiana, Thomas told his former on-court adversary that he was making a terrible decision, that he was running off the very coach who would lead the Pacers to a title.
Thomas tried selling Bird on the free-agent dream team they would form as summertime recruiters. "If you and I stay together," Thomas told him, "we'll get all the players."
Bird fired his mother's favorite Indiana player, anyway, because he said he was more comfortable with Rick Carlisle.
"In Toronto, Indiana and New York," Thomas said, "I've never actually gotten fired for a basketball reason."
SO WHAT'S NEXT?
Isiah Thomas conceded that he is haunted by what could have been in New York, and by LeBron's staggering presence down the road from FIU.
James is on the doorstep of a potential NBA dynasty, and Thomas is merely hoping to finish .500 in the Sun Belt Conference.
"I do find it ironic that we all ended up here in Miami instead of us all ending up in New York," Thomas said. "But it's a four-year deal."
Four years before James can opt out on the Heat. By the summer of 2014, it's likely Thomas will have long opted out on the Golden Panthers.
Right here, right now, he thinks about returning as Knicks president eight days a week.
"And I think about what Chuck Daly would tell me," Thomas said, "I know he's in heaven right now saying, 'Nooooo.'"
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