Commentary

Wanting to be Isiah Thomas

Updated: August 12, 2010, 3:51 PM ET
By Patrick Hruby | Special to ESPN.com

Once upon a time -- specifically, the week "Space Camp" hit theaters -- I dreamed of becoming an astronaut. Or maybe just president. Then came adulthood, adult cynicism and a sportswriting career rooted in said cynicism. Today, I'm closer to a midlife crisis than adolescent angst -- yet much to my surprise, I finally know who I want to be when I grow up.

[+] EnlargeIsiah Thomas
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesNBA bench coach wasn't the best role for Isiah Thomas, but we'd take some of his career coach guidance.

Isiah Thomas.

After all, he almost pulled it off. Came thisclose to living the dream. Flouting logic and accountability, the New York Knicks were ready to welcome back Thomas as a team consultant -- that is, until Thomas backed out of the arrangement because working for the Knicks while coaching at Florida International University would violate the NBA's conflict-of-interest bylaws.

Stupid rules.

Here's the thing: I was hoping New York and Thomas would renew their dunderheaded pas de deux. Granted, Thomas' previous tenure as team president and coach was an imperfect storm of bad trades, worse basketball, bloated contracts and enough ancillary material to fill a half-dozen mocking Page 2 articles, not to mention a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by a former team employee that cost the franchise $11.6 million. And yes, downtrodden, fed-up Knicks fans likely would rather see Pat Riley's fax machine installed as general manager than see Thomas within 500 miles of Madison Square Garden.

All of that misses the bigger picture.

Thomas shouldn't be scorned. He should be celebrated. As a role model. As a latter-day Horatio Alger, the living, breathing embodiment of can-do American spirit. Indeed, when he's not coaching FIU and/or texting necktie recommendations to Knicks owner James Dolan, Thomas ought to be jetting between corporate boardrooms and business conventions, and giving seven-point seminars and motivational pep talks. Because in the vast, jobless wasteland of our currently tepid economy, Thomas managed to fail spectacularly … and still land a sweet gig … with the very same organization he previously ran into the ground.

Think that through.

Mull it over.

Frankly, the rest of us insecure working stiffs could learn a lot from the guy.

Start with screwing up. Nobody's perfect. Everyone has been there. Anyone can miss quarterly sales targets and get canned, consistently whiff on curveballs and be sent back to Double-A. However, it takes a special kind of workplace alchemist to fail up, spinning embarrassing face-plants into added responsibilities and an even bigger corner office.

The trick? Don't allow bungling to indicate that you can't handle the job or that you deserve a seat at the kids' table. Instead, frame your mistakes as proof that you weren't sufficiently challenged. That first-hand knowledge of a mess makes you uniquely qualified to clean it up. That although you've busted over and over again and gambled away your stake -- for instance, making incredibly stupid and risky bets on subprime mortgage-backed securities, or bringing aboard Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis -- it's time to double down.

[+] EnlargeCarmelo Anthony
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesYou think Carmelo Anthony will listen to the Knicks' pitch? Isiah Thomas says he can get the star's attention.

Provided, of course, you're given a bigger pile of chips.

Of the above, Thomas is a maestro. Vin Baker a bust? Swap him for a more onerous contract in Maurice Taylor. Dissatisfied with underachieving Jerome James? Bring in a bigger underachiever -- literally -- in Eddy Curry.

Lenny Wilkens can't win? Larry Brown earns more than $1 million per victory?

There's only one tenable course of corrective action. Coach the team yourself. And once that goes sour, use your "unique experience" -- seriously, that's what the Knicks called it -- to justify a rainmaking gig as the Man Who Will Land LeBron James, never mind that dispatching Thomas to sweet-talk the NBA's biggest free-agent prize is like appointing Ann Coulter as a special cultural ambassador to the Islamic world.

Next, don't just fail up. Manage in the same direction. Realize that the old saw holds true. It's not what you know. It's whom you know. So long as whom you know is the person responsible for signing the checks. Everyone else can go snorkeling in a mud bog is irrelevant, unworthy of your laser beam-focused keister-kissing time and effort.

According to the New York Post, Knicks president Donnie Walsh didn't want Thomas working for the club. Neither did other team executives, who reportedly attempted to talk Dolan out of hiring Thomas even as a part-timer. And? In the immortal words of Derrick Coleman -- who was simply born too early to play for Thomas' Knicks -- whoop-de-damn-do. Thomas and Dolan allegedly worked out a secret agreement, which only highlights the counterintuitive truth of office survival.

You don't need to -- ahem -- actually perform.

To the contrary, all you need is a powerful benefactor, a boss whose own ego is enmeshed in your ultimate success, or at least the appearance thereof, because anything less would prove that emperor has no clothes below his ridiculous, I'm-still-hip goatee. Everyone knows someone who fits this bill, the bumbling ne'er-do-well who continually benefits from a different set of rules, getting chance after chance to botch matters yet again. We all hate that person.

That is, when we're not quietly envying them.

Another Thomas-tested career-building tactic: if you can't get hired on the basis of what you've already failed to do, land a position on the promise of what you might do one day in the indeterminate future. Hamburgers now. Payment Tuesday. The Wimpy Theory.

[+] EnlargeSteve Carell
NBC Universal, Inc.Michael Scott, your mug makes a persuasive argument, but we think Isiah Thomas would still prefer James Dolan.

Quid pro … maybe.

According to the New York Daily News, Thomas convinced Dolan that he could help the Knicks woo coveted free-agents-to-be Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul. Why? Because a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, populated by cartoon dinosaurs, Thomas had the foresight to draft Damon Stoudamire?

Better question: Why ask why? Melo. CP3. Thomas' Cheshire grin. Showtime at MSG. Sounds delightful. It could even happen.

Could.

Also remember that while there's no such thing as a free lunch, consulting comes pretty darn close. Derived from the Latin word consultor -- loosely translated as "he who works from his home office in boxers yet is paid otherwise" -- consulting is the workplace answer to fat-free frozen yogurt. All of the pleasure, none of the guilt. Oodles of influence and zero accountability. As team president and coach, Thomas was directly responsible for New York's ineptitude; in his new, regrettably nixed role, he could have shaped the Knicks without leaving fingerprints, avoiding concrete fan blame and tabloid shame, forever ensconced in a protective cocoon of plausible deniability. Not my fault. I'm just a consultant! Your world of hierarchies and buck-stopping command chains confuses and scares me!

And you thought Steven Slater had office politics all figured out.

A few years ago, Michael Jordan did a so-so job running the Washington Wizards. He was canned. He later landed a similar gig with the Charlotte Bobcats, but only after buying a costly stake in the team. Meanwhile, his old rival Thomas captained the Knicks the way Ken Lay helmed Enron, departing in utter disgrace. Yet if not for league rules, he'd be back with New York right now, doing his dysfunctional worst and getting paid for the privilege.

Be like Mike? Maybe on the court. In the cubicle world, I'd rather be like Zeke.

Patrick Hruby is a freelance writer and ESPN.com contributor. Contact him at PatrickHruby.net.

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