Doubting Thomas

Even Isiah can't fix the Knicks

"It felt great, honestly, it did. . . . It was unbelievable, honestly. It was just fun to be a part of, getting the fans involved," he chirped, with an excited smile, before suddenly remembering that his team had lost. "But we kind of let the fans down . . . but if they stick with us it's going to get better and better, and louder and louder in the Garden."

"Stick with us" is the Knicks' unofficial slogan this year. Steve Francis used it on opening night, without much success, and several other Knicks have volunteered the phrase when asked about their mutinous fans. The other buzzword of the season is "chemistry," a thoroughly overused term in sports these days, but clearly on everyone's mind after last season's public debacle. "I think we have more chemistry at this point than we did all last season," said Jamal Crawford. "It hasn't really translated to wins just yet.

The sentiment was echoed more forcefully by David Lee, who appears dead set on avoiding another season like last year's by any means necessary. "We have more of a fight to us," he said. "After last season, we kind of decided as a group that we don't want to be embarrassed this year, we want to go get victories, and I think that sometimes just wanting that bad enough causes things to get better."

photo: Anthony Causi

Certainly no one wants it more than Lee, the Knicks' best rebounder, who's pumped up and excited before every game and visibly deflated after every loss. But with a team this flawed, wanting it is, unfortunately, not likely to be enough for a winning record; you can only hope that they continue to win at leas t enough games to prevent their group of promising young players from getting too beaten down. Frye, Robinson, and Lee all mentioned the possibility of making the playoffs, but how long can they cling to their optimism if the Knicks embark on a major losing streak? Especially if the fans stop showing up?

One Knick who appears in little danger in that regard is Renaldo Balkman, the unheralded forward from South Carolina, whose surprise selection by Thomas at No. 20 in this year's draft was greeted with incredulous dismay by fans. He won them over in record time, however, and by the fourth or fifth preseason game was drawing more cheers than Marbury. Balkman, who was born in New York but grew up in Florida, is tenacious, aggressive, and speedy on the court but preternaturally calm and slow-spoken off of it. He says he only settled down from the high of being drafted— " 'I made it' and all that"—about a month ago and that he's adjusted just fine to New York, except for the cold. He was never too worried about the initial reaction: "I'm just gonna come and do my thing. I'm not here to let the fans down."

I don't know if the Knicks can ever be underdogs—the top of the salary cap is so far below them it's no longer visible to the naked eye—but they're doing a convincing impersonation.

Isiah Thomas is hard to figure. After listening to the traumatized fury of fans for over a year, I was completely disarmed on seeing him in person for the first time: soft-spoken, compact, immaculately dressed, choosing his words with great care, and periodically breaking out his trademark cat-that-ate-the-canary grin, which used to be endearing but now provokes uncontrollable twitching in millions of New Yorkers. I don't know if it was always there or if it's been brought on by the events of the last few years, but there's something a little off around his eyes; you can imagine friends and neighbors being interviewed on the local news, saying things like "I never would have thought it. He seemed like the sweetest guy!"

In Thomas's defense—wait, stop throwing things!—he didn't exactly inherit a thriving franchise. It's easy, and indeed advisable, to forget the Scott Layden era, but though Thomas is generally portrayed as having driven the team into the ground, all he really did is dig the hole a few feet deeper. And even his most seething detractors admit that Isiah does very well by the draft: Frye, Lee, Robinson, and Balkman are all his picks. His players speak highly of him, and Marbury and Francis, last season's most vocally unhappy duo, are trying to make a go of it—at least for now.

Thomas grew up in a very rough west-Chicago neighborhood and isn't shy about pointing it out. Despite his calm demeanor, he keeps coming back to the word fight with regards to his team-—at one point 20 times, by my count, in a single conference. He also tends to emphasize masculinity, telling reporters during the preseason that Curry needed to work on his "manliness." I'd argue, however, that at this point Knick fans would be perfectly content to see Curry in a tutu, if only he would play defense in it.

"I'm optimistic," said legendary Knick announcer and Hall of Fame player Walt "Clyde" Frazier, gamely, when asked about the team's chances. "I think Isiah has them on the right track. But I think the defense still has to improve a little more. See, defense you can play good every night. Offense is capricious."

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