And now, Isiah's New York Knicks

Updated: January 16, 2004, 11:16 AM ET
By Adrian Wojnarowski | Special to ESPN.com

Once the wildest of days and nights at Madison Square Garden had twisted and turned until 6:05 p.m. on Wednesday, until Isiah Thomas made his way to the elevated stage of a packed news conference, the Knicks president was so sure he could win over the room, win over New York. His smile so bright, his eyes so wide, the face of the franchise leaned on his remarkable gift for selling his vision.

What Thomas does is sell himself. Because whatever he did yesterday -- firing Don Chaney, dissing Mike Fratello and hiring Lenny Wilkens -- confirms that everything for these Knicks is about Isiah now.

As Knicks emperor, Thomas doesn't sit high in the owner's suite and lord over his team, but he spends his game nights at midcourt in the hallway tunnel, where the television cameras and players' glances can catch his every grunt and grimace. Thomas hasn't just brought the buzz back to the Garden's celebrity row. He's managed to turn himself into its biggest star.

With Wilkens, Thomas has found the perfect complement in a coach: Ego-less, unassuming and never a threat to steal the spotlight away from where Thomas wants to keep it -- on himself, on his relentless re-making of the New York Knicks. Wilkens is one more tutor for Stephon Marbury, a second Hall of Fame point guard in New York's employment to teach a tempestuous franchise player the lessons of living with those immense responsibilities.

Chaney didn't take too kindly to Thomas' clinic on the pick and roll at practice the other day, especially considering that Thomas waited until the assembled gathering of notebooks and cameras had been allowed into practice to give his lesson. Get used to it. As an executive, Thomas did it with Damon Stoudamire in Toronto, and he'll do it with the Knicks. He is hands-on everything.

Thomas made a mess of the Chaney firing, a misstep born out of his refusal to appoint an interim coach during his brief but clumsy search. He should've spared Chaney some embarrassment on Wednesday and fired him first thing in the morning. After that didn't happen, the rest of the day was a complete circus.

The candidacy of Fratello leaked out in a Wednesday tabloid report, but NBA sources say that contrary to Thomas' claims there were no negotiations with Fratello, they never made it too deep into discussions. Fratello wanted too much time on his contract and too much control of his staff and personnel. Thomas tried to get his old Pistons coach, Chuck Daly, to take the job, but he passed. Mostly, Thomas considered the man in the mirror before turning to Wilkens.

After conducting a morning shootaround before the Knicks game with the Magic on Wednesday, Chaney declared the circumstances "as a sign of disrespect," as opposed to the two contract extensions afforded him on the job in the past two years, leaving a career 337-494 with a $4 million settlement.

Isiah Thomas
With his own coach, Isiah Thomas now views the Knicks from a much higher place.
"I have never been disrespectful to a human being in my life," Thomas said.

ESPN.com couldn't reach the 1991 Chicago Bulls for comment, because several of them are still standing on the floor of The Palace at Auburn Hills waiting for Thomas to bring the Bad Boys back out to shake their hands.

If you want to feel sorry for someone here, feel free to turn to Brendan Malone, the assistant coach forever climbing out of the water and back into the dunking booth seat just to see a smirking Isiah plunk down another $5 for five more balls to fire at the target. His first hire as coach of the expansion Toronto Raptors, Thomas fired Malone after one season for essentially trying to win too many games with veterans instead of losing with young players.

After they repaired their relationship, Malone took the job as Thomas' top assistant with the Pacers for three seasons. When it was clear that Thomas was a lost cause on the Pacers' bench, Malone bailed back to the Knicks for the No. 1 assistant job with Chaney. Thomas gets New York's president's job, and when everyone was so sure that Malone would be his choice as interim coach -- maybe even finish out the season -- Thomas blew him out again.

"... A very good personal friend of mine," Thomas called Malone on Wednesday, which translated means: Don't become an enemy of Isiah Thomas. Just think what he'll do to you.

Nevertheless, the Knicks need Thomas. New York needs him, too. This franchise wasn't just down and out under Scott Layden, but a fate far worse in New York -- reduced to irrelevance. In his first 24 days on the job, Thomas has changed everything.

Around the Garden on Wednesday night, there was far too much clumping together of Wilkens and Chaney together. Both soft-spoken and low-key, people made an illogical leap to compare them as coaches. Wilkens is a Hall of Fame coach; Chaney a mediocre coach on his best day. This is an upgrade on Chaney and Fratello, whatever the Fratello supporters want to believe on the Knicks' need for his defensive-minded basketball.

Never mind the end for Wilkens with the Raptors a year ago. Once Vince Carter couldn't stay on the floor, there isn't a coach in the sport who could've survived there. Toronto didn't just beat the Knicks in a decisive Game 5 at the Garden in 2001, but Wilkens was a Carter roll on the rim away from reaching the Eastern Conference finals.

However long Wilkens stays on the job, he's just there until the Knicks president makes more moves, gets more talent and more athleticism. After that, it will be Thomas on the bench. For now, he stays out of harm's way, watching over these Knicks from midcourt on the 33rd Street side of the Garden.

Thomas wore his turtleneck for the firing of Don Chaney, a fitting fashion statement honoring another New York power broker, George Steinbrenner. Whoever owns this franchise, whoever coaches them, the message is unmistakable now: They belong to Isiah Thomas.

Adrian Wojnarowski is a columnist for The Bergen Record and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWOJ8@aol.com.

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