Doubting Thomas

Even Isiah can't fix the Knicks

It's a staple of movies and literature, the platonic ideal of a disgruntled fan's heckling, but though I've been attending sporting events in New York most of my life, I don't think I'd ever actually heard anyone scream "Yer a bum!" until the Knicks' November 13 game at Madison Square Garden. It came during the fourth quarter of their third straight home loss, and it was directed at Stephon Marbury, who at the time had more fouls (three) than points (two). Fans began booing the Knicks this season in the very first quarter of their home opener, though I thought they showed considerable restraint in holding off on the first "Fire Thomas!" chants until the fourth. Personally, I've always felt that if your team's going to be bad, it might as well be stunningly, epically, historically bad. Last year, "Team Titanic" famously staggered to a 23-59 record, earned with the highest payroll in NBA history, as then coach Larry Brown openly feuded with Marbury in the press and Isiah Thomas's utterly incomprehensible moves as president drove Knick fans into fits of apoplectic rage, existential despair, and atheism. At least it wasn't boring.

With his job on the line this season—why it wasn't before is between owner James Dolan and his God—Isiah Thomas has spent many of his press conferences tackling heightened expectations and wrestling them to the floor. "They're just a little bit of a better team than we are right now," he said about the Pacers, the Spurs, the Rockets, the Cavaliers—and he's right, but as inspirational pre-game statements go, it's not exactly "win one for the Gipper." Awkwardly, however, he seems to have neglected to mention this to some of his players, who appear to be under the impression that they're supposed to win.

photo: Anthony Causi

The Knicks have established a pattern in the first few weeks of the season: Their starters promptly fall into a double-digit hole. Eddy Curry looks perplexed by the notion that he should perhaps try to prevent the opposing team from reaching the basket, while Marbury and Steve Francis show only frustrating glimpses of their sizable talent. Channing Frye, the promising sophomore forward, began the season in a dreadful shooting slump from which he's just starting to emerge, and Quentin Richardson is on top of his game but can't carry the team by himself.

Finally Thomas calls on the Knicks' bench, who hurl the team back into the game with rebounds, steals, speed, and sheer energy, much to the relief of the crowd, which stops booing the starters to cheer Nate Robinson, David Lee, Jamal Crawford, and Renaldo "Who?" Balkman. They're young, they play defense, their salaries do not exceed the GNP of small developing countries, and for a little while the Garden sounds like it used to. Then, of course, the opposing team recovers from the shock, and the Knicks lose by anywhere from one to 14 points.

In other words: the Knicks are going to lose a whole lot of games this season. But this time they're going to go down swinging.

New York doesn't go in much for lovable losers these days; maybe the Golden State Warriors can rack up 10 straight losing seasons and still set new attendance records, but Madison Square Garden isn't having it. The Knicks are a proud franchise with a rich history, and their fans are not accustomed to being regarded with the mixture of mockery and pity usually reserved for supporters of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The supposedly sold-out home opener featured plenty of empty seats, and fewer fans came to each of the next three games; the attendance for the November 15 win against the Washington Wizards was the team's lowest since 1992. Remaining fans have taken to turning to each other and exclaiming things like "Look! Did you see that? I think Francis just passed to Marbury!" or "Wow, did Eddy Curry just block a shot?!" with equal parts bitter sarcasm and genuine surprise.

Before the game, a group of Wizards sat around the cramped visitors' clubhouse talking among themselves about their op ponents. They weren't discussing Marbury, the hometown superstar, or Curry, the 6-11, 285-pound underachieving center (for whom Isiah Thomas traded yet another draft pick, despite concerns about a possible genetic heart defect and . . . oh, never mind). They were discussing Nate Robinson, the 5-9 sophomore guard, whose highlights were playing on the clubhouse TV. DeShawn Stevenson took a look at his season averages and raised an eyebrow: "Robinson be gettin' it done."

(None of the Wizards were eager to go on the record with predictions for the Knicks' current season, but they seemed to think there was reason for optimism. "I play them in my video game sometimes," offered Stevenson. "They're not so bad.")

I admit to a soft spot for Robinson; it's hard to avoid rooting for a guy who's a foot shorter than most of his teammates and seems never to have noticed. Plus, he's the only Knick I have a solid chance of making eye contact with. (His locker is right next to Eddy Curry's; someone needs to give those two a reality show.) After the Knicks lost to the Spurs despite a thrilling fourth-quarter run, sparked by the bench, that brought the team back from 90-71 to 92-91, Robinson was still buzzing from the energy of the crowd, which for 10 minutes or so had been beside itself, waking up for the first time this season.

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