Morning Joe's Willie Geist on Isiah Thomas, Patrick Ewing, and the Necessity of End Zone Dancing

Remember this guy?
Remember this guy?

Anyone who watches Willie Geist on MSNBC's Morning Joe, or somehow manages to rise in the dark at 5:30 a.m. to watch Willie's own show, Way Too Early, knows that he's a pretty significant sports fan. So we thought we'd check in with Willie to get his take on the current state of New York sports.

OK, so how would you fix the Knicks?

Assuming I have a time machine at my disposal to address the problem, I would go back to 2003 and throw my body between Isiah Thomas and Madison Square Garden, like a patchouli-smelling environmental activist chained to a tree keeping the chainsaws from striking down a mighty oak. Just think how different our lives would be if Isiah had quietly opened a Ford dealership outside Chicago or a chain of steakhouses in the Detroit area after his playing days were over. Instead, he spread his rare strain of viral "genius" across the basketball landscape. New York was hit hardest by The Isiah Plague. Hadn't we been through enough?

Without Isiah, there'd be no Stephon Marbury, no Steve Francis, no Eddy Curry, no Jerome James, no Jared Jeffries, and no Zach Randolph, just to name a few. These players had three things in common: They made tons of money with contracts that suffocated the franchise, they weren't very good at basketball, and Isiah loved them. The Knicks had the highest payroll in the NBA and finished near the very bottom of the league every year. Think about that. It's like the Yankees, with their payroll, finishing 28 games out of first place. That would be tolerated for about two months before everybody was fired. We don't have time for the full Isiah dissertation here, but suffice it to say he set the Knicks back a decade. A decade I could recover in my time machine.

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In the present, the Knicks obviously need to sign one of the big summer free agents. The entire point of the franchise's existence over the last couple of years has been to clear salary cap space to sign LeBron James. Dwyane Wade would be good, but the Knicks need LeBron to fully erase the years of memories of Curry jogging back on defense four steps behind his man and Jamal Crawford jacking up a fadeaway three-pointer with 15 seconds left on the shot clock. Don't let people tell you that Chris Bosh and Amare Stoudemire are acceptable alternatives next summer. They're both really good, but Bosh's mid-range jumper won't electrify the city and rescue us from nearly 15 years of irrelevance.

My argument to LeBron would be very simple: Do you want to be the most famous human being on the planet? Come play and win in New York City. Mr. Jeter will be your orientation guide.

Did you have a favorite Knick growing up?

Bernard King was my favorite player in the pre-Ewing era. To me, he's one of the most underrated players in the history of the NBA. I used to practice that quick turnaround jumper he got off before the defender even had a chance to leave his feet. My dad and I used to imitate the way Knicks' color analyst Butch Beard said King's name--"Buh-nah Keeng has the strenth to be suh-sess-ful." I also remember the way King smacked the floor in pain after he blew out his knee in Kansas City. It was upsetting for a kid. I knew something was very wrong. Incidentally, I saw him years later in a Williams-Sonoma buying a chafing dish--kind of brought him down to Earth.

I loved Patrick Ewing too. Like so many New Yorkers, I invested some of the best years of my life in Ewing--from the ecstasy of the 1985 announcement that the Knicks had won the lottery to get him, to the sadness of the final years when he was a lumbering jump shooter who clearly was not going to get his title. He never got us to the Promised Land, but we had a hell of a lot of fun watching him try. Patrick had the bad luck of coming along during the peak of the greatest athlete to ever stride the Earth. And, I hate to say it, he probably was never as great as we hoped he'd be.

By the way, I still have the stuffed Patrick Ewing doll I got as a kid. I brought it with me to college and told my freshman roommate if he had a problem with Patrick sleeping in the room, he should ask to be transferred out. The Patrick doll was non-negotiable. After the Knicks lost Game 7 of the 1994 NBA Finals, Patrick and I slept in separate beds for a few nights. It was a time in our relationship I'd just as soon forget.

How about a favorite obscure Jet or Giant?

I've been a Giants fan since the day my best friend's dad brought us to a game in the mid-1980s. We went up and visited one of those fancy luxury boxes and there sitting in the front row was the great Don Johnson. This was during the height of Miami Vice, mind you. I thought to myself, "If Don Johnson roots for the Giants when he's not busy arresting Cuban drug lords on Biscayne Bay in his undercover cigarette boat, by God, I root for the Giants too. " It wasn't until years later that I realized people who sit in luxury boxes, and especially Don Johnson, don't care about the game. By then it was too late. I was a Giants fan.

My favorite Giant was Mark Bavaro. He's obscure in the pantheon of great NFL players, but a hero to Giants fans. He was quiet, he was tough as hell, and he looked exactly like Sylvester Stallone (that was a good thing at the time). Bavaro would catch a routine 10-yard pass and then carry a team's entire secondary on his back for 15 more yards into the end zone. Afterward, there was no chest pounding, no dancing, and no trash talk. Bavaro would just jog back to the bench and sit next to Lawrence Taylor who was doing a couple of key bumps to get ready for the next defensive series. What a team that was.

I find myself rooting against the Giants simply because of head coach Tom Coughlin. What's your take on him?

I hear you, but I don't dislike Coughlin as much as a lot of people seem to. Sure, I could live without the head-tilted, mouth-agape, hands-on-hips looks of bewilderment during the games, but they're not as bad as Eli Manning's patented shoulder-shrug/hang-dog-look combo we've all come to accept as part of our autumn Sundays.

It took Coughlin a couple of decades in the league to realize that professional football players don't respond to rah-rah nonsense. We used to roll our eyes at the old "Five minutes early is on time to a meeting, four minutes early is late" line when we were 14 years old and listening to our freshman football coach. Imagine what Michael Strahan thought when he heard it.

Bottom line, Coughlin was the coach of the team that won the Super Bowl and ruined the historic season of a Boston franchise and the happiness of its fans. For that, he will always have my gratitude. Just remember, "On time means five minutes early." It might be objectively wrong, but it wins championships.

If you could add one rule to the NFL, what would it be?

I'd make end zone dances mandatory, with a panel of celebrity judges determining whether or not it warranted an extra point added to the team's score. I'm thinking Drew Lachey, that third member of Destiny's Child, and a wisecracking Brit to be named later sitting on a riser and scoring the dance on creativity.

Even though the meathead analysts who talk about the NFL want you to think football is life-and-death and the equivalent of war, it's a game. A stupid, great game where grown men run into each other to advance an oblong ball down a field with middle-aged men in prison stripes telling them when they've done something wrong. It's entertainment, so let's make it entertaining with some celebrity-judged end zone dancing.

Also, I'd make a law that gets rid of that TV commercial that comes after the kickoff that follows a touchdown. So my team just scored a touchdown and you go to commercial. Fine. But then my team kicks off into the end zone for a touchback and you go to another commercial. Why? It's the most frustrating part of my week and it must be stopped, with offenders sent to CIA black sites in Eastern Europe outside the reach of international anti-torture statutes.

If Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski suddenly divorced and married a New York pro athlete, who do you guess it would be (and why)?

First, I want it on the record that I object to this hypothetical. Mika is a great wife and mother. The chances of her getting a divorce, like those of all married Americans, are no greater than 50 percent. Any other assumption would be cynical.

If it did happen, God forbid, Mika wouldn't go for the obvious choices (Jeter, David Wright, Mark Sanchez, Henrik Lundqvist, etc.) because she's totally unimpressed by athletes and sports in general. As a kid, she used to play Parcheesi at Camp David with Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat, so Jeter's .406 on-base percentage doesn't really impress her.

I think she'd just go for the guy with the best name. That guy is, of course, D'Brickashaw Ferguson. Mika would have fun learning the intricacies of pass blocking over dinner with Da Brick. I'd also have her ask him about that apostrophe before a consonant in his first name. You typically see that only before a vowel. I guess we can cross that bridge when we get to it.

Where is Morning Joe co-host Mike Barnicle's favorite barstool at the ESPN Zone?

Barnicle's pretty easy to please at the ESPN Zone these days. Since dementia began to creep in several years ago, we've just propped him up in front of a TV with ESPN Classic on. Doesn't matter what time of day - there's always an old game on Classic. We tell him, for example, that the 1986 MLB All-Star Game is Game 7 of the current World Series (even though it's 10 a.m. and late December). You should see the look on his sweet face. It's adorable. I sit next to him at the bar, wiping the blue cheese dressing from his chin and explaining why Fernando Valenzuela still looks so good pitching to 52-year-old Lou Whitaker.


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