Isiah takes the heat, but Bird should be in same boat   

Updated: March 12, 2008, 4:21 PM ET

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If you checked the calendar (and if you were paying extremely close attention, as maybe millions of New York Knicks fans are), you'd realize the first anniversary of Isiah Thomas' four-year contract extension is upon us.

Now, some of you will ask how in the @#$% he gets to go into the second year of that extension. Some of you will scream for his head to be Ginsued (many will want owner James Dolan's dome to meet the same fate and share the same plate). Some will go the Jerry Krause route and wonder what kind of blackmail Thomas has to have as leverage against the Knicks in order to maintain his position as coach and president of the organization.

Isiah Thomas

AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

Isiah Thomas gets plenty of criticism for his tenure in New York …

Thomas and the Knicks have become the laughing stock of professional sports. Everything said and written about them has been both fair and fair game. "The biggest problem at Madison Square Garden is Isiah Thomas," March 5's Daily News headline read. ("The Mets of the '60s lost year after year this way and became as much a punch line of sports as a punching bag. At least they had Casey Stengel and were lovable losers. The Knicks are just losers. It happens on the watch of Isiah Thomas," Mike Lupica wrote under that headline.) Johnnie Cochran, on his best day, in his best suit, with his best rhymes, couldn't defend them from ridicule. In the world of sports, Thomas and the Knicks have found their own island and decided to drown on it. Alone. And the world of sports has been more than happy over the past three years to isolate this incident of professional suicide. It's become the perfect sports tragedy.

The problem with this -- and this tends to happen a lot in sports -- is that Thomas and the Knicks actually are not alone on this island of hopeless sports dysfunction. But you'd never know it. For the past three years, we've acted as if he and the Knicks are the only team that has embarrassed the league and as if he is the only basketball Hall of Famer that has run a franchise that once was relevant and respected within walking distance of hell.

And if I said Larry Bird has done more collateral damage to the Indiana Pacers than Thomas has done to the Knicks, you'd probably stop reading.

Well, before you do …

It was only four years ago that the Pacers were 61-21 and the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Only eight years removed from playing in the NBA Finals, the Pacers have become the best-kept tragedy in sports. From 44 wins in 2004-05 to 41 in 2005-06 to 35 in 2006-07 to the 25 they have so far this season. From incomparable to irrelevant. The whole time, Bird has been there, watching the tragedy unfold.

Now, it would be unfair to Bird to blame him for everything that has gone wrong with the Pacers. He had no control over The Brawl, no control over injuries that have taken games away from Jermaine O'Neal and Jamaal Tinsley. But if bad things -- such as shootings at nightclubs (Stephen Jackson), charges stemming from a bar fight (Tinsley and Marquis Daniels), incidents involving handguns (Tinsley and Shawne Williams), failed drug tests (David Harrison), arrests at players' homes of a suspected rapist (an associate of Daniels) and a suspected murderer (an associate of Williams) -- continuously happen under your watch, when is it time to give misery (Thomas and the Knicks) some company?

Larry Bird

AP Photo/Michael Conroy

… but why doesn't Larry Bird face the same scrutiny in Indiana?

Yes, there's an $11.6 million sexual harassment lawsuit that found Thomas responsible and Madison Square Garden liable and unbelievable infighting that has reached "All My Children" levels, but that's not off par with the off-the-court incidents and activities that have plagued the Pacers. Which makes it only fair to at some point ask whether we place some responsibility on Bird the same way we do on Thomas for harboring and manifesting a climate that has been counter-conducive to the well-being of a franchise that is in the business of winning.

Thomas made questionable moves in taking risks on Eddy Curry, Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis and is blamed for the lack of production by Zach Randolph, among other things. What is the difference between that and the decisions that have been made with respect to Ron Artest, Jackson and Tinsley and the lack of production by Daniels (who, like Randolph, was supposed to be the prize catch that would begin a franchise turnaround)?

What's the difference between Jamal Crawford and Mike Dunleavy? Is there a Thomas signee who is draining the Knicks' payroll the way Troy Murphy is draining the Pacers' payroll?

The only difference, the only real difference, between these two teams that truly stands out is that during this period, the Pacers lost one of the greatest players in NBA history when Reggie Miller retired. That would affect any team. It was something neither Bird nor CEO Donnie Walsh had control over. But it was something for which they could have been better prepared.

(Now, keep in mind, the other difference in this twisted analogy is Larry Brown's effect on the Knicks, but it could be equated to The Brawl's effect on the Pacers. Thomas inherited his role as the coach of the Knicks after Brown departed New York with $18.5 million of the team's money. At the time, this could not have been avoided  not that Thomas should have been the one to replace Brown, but can you imagine the heat he would have taken had he not hired Brown to help save the Knicks when Brown was available and originally willing?)

The Pacers' attendance is the worst in the NBA, according to The Indianapolis Star -- down from being one of the league's most consistent hometown draws. Their salary-cap situation, according to Bill Simmons, is the worst in the NBA and won't change until 2010. Yet, we make Zeke out to be the "Why Does This Man Still Have A Job?" (John Hollinger, New York Sun) president and Bird "a man trying to understand what has happened in his game" (Mike Lopresti, USA Today). Same situation, parallel results, identical effects … opposite coverage.

The Pacers have become the Cincinnati Bengals of the NBA. But again, you'd never know if you depended on the sports media tell you. Is racism or regionalism the reason one is vilified and the other isn't? Is it the franchises they run, or the personalities and executive track records of the two that make it easy to attack one and not the other? Is the richness of one franchise's history that much greater than the other's that it eclipses the significance of the other's downfall?

Choose all of the above, and you still will come up without an answer. Know, though, on this anniversary of Isiah Thomas' continued destruction of the Knicks, he will remain singled out as what not to look for in a president of basketball operations, while Larry Bird's plight will gather sympathy, and no one will notice the mirror images of the two.

Those who decided to continue reading will ask whether I would have written this column had the roles been reversed -- if Bird was in New York ruining the Knicks and Thomas was in Indiana, silently and unnoticeably watching the Pacers disintegrate during his reign.

My answer to that is simple: I wouldn't have to. My friends in the media -- unlike this time -- would already have done it for me.

Scoop Jackson is a columnist for Page 2.


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