- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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NEW YORK -- There's no need to send a SWAT team and dust for fingerprints. As palace intrigues go, the Isiah Thomas-James Dolan-Donnie Walsh triangle at Madison Square Garden was a vivid one that fueled countless conspiracy theories and rumors of unwanted meddling, backroom backstabbing and character assassinations. But Thomas says he was on a New York-area golf course Friday when the surprise news broke that Walsh was stepping down as the New York Knicks' president of basketball operations and later when Walsh held a mid-day conference call to explain his reasons.
At least Walsh and Thomas independently agreed on this: Walsh insisted nothing Thomas did publicly or behind the scenes contributed to his decision to step back -- even if Walsh admitted he was sometimes "annoyed" although not all the way "pissed off" by the constant Isiah stories. And Thomas, speaking via cellphone Friday afternoon, tried to second that, saying: "I don't want to be president of the Knicks, so" -- here Thomas laughed -- "you don't need to write an article killing me."
"No need to do another hatchet job."
You would think such categorical denials, coupled with a determination on all sides to at least pretend to take the high road, would be enough to kill the stories illustrating how Thomas has been running a shadow government behind Walsh's back ever since Thomas left the Knicks.
But dream on. This triangle arrangement atop the executive tree is just going to keep on triangulating.
The idea that Thomas will always be a stalking horse haunting whoever holds his old job -- Walsh, the next guy or the guy after him -- has just about cemented into legend in New York and around the NBA. At this point, it's hard to see how any amount of denials will be enough to change that perception.
Especially since Thomas repeatedly refused to say there might be some other Knicks job that interests him besides team president.
When asked flat-out whether he's been asked to rejoin the Knicks, Thomas didn't say no. He said only, "Now that there's an opening, I'm saying I don't want to be a president of the Knicks. The toll that took on my family and I, I don't want to put myself and my family through that again. That's not where I'm at."
Does he have any interest in any role in the organization? Thomas said: "That's not really a fair question to ask me because I'm 50 years old, and I'm going to be [working] in the NBA and college and everything else for a lot of years, so ... so I can't really answer or speculate anything in the future because that wouldn't be fair to me. I'm happy where I'm at now. You never say never about anything in the NBA and in life. And I'm saying that only because you don't want somebody to come back and say in two weeks and say, 'Well, you said you'd NEVER' whatever."
Thomas is right in that it's not a smart career move for anyone to ever say never. But let's be real: Thomas is not just another guy repeating that old cliche. Dolan's fascination with Thomas even though the Knicks needed to be blown up and rebuilt from scratch when Walsh took over, combined with Dolan's contrarian streak and Thomas' Rasputin-like talent for survival, are enough to make a Thomas comeback possible, no matter how much fan howling that would bring.
Even if Thomas tried to make people believe he'd be content to remain as coach at Florida International University forever, no one would believe him. Not after the things he's accomplished in basketball and the naked ambition and Machiavellian bent he's shown in his time in the league, as both a player and an executive.
Dolan's behavior allows the Thomas bogeyman rumors to live on, too.
Dolan was so irritated that, because Thomas was still working at FIU, the NBA wouldn't allow him to hire him as a consultant -- the same job title Walsh now will slide into for just the 2011-12 season. Dolan then put out some defiant statements promising that he'll continue to consult with his good friend Thomas informally as often as he pleases, whether Thomas is officially on the payroll or not. So there.
All this will be problematic for the next guy. The future for any incoming Knicks GM is going to look a lot like Walsh's tenure at the end of the day.
Dolan never convinced anyone he really valued how terrific a job Walsh did. That was never more evident that when he left Walsh to twist -- saying nothing -- after Thomas was quoted last winter saying he dreams of returning to the Knicks "eight days a week."
Thomas now insists the rest of that quote was he thinks of a return only because he gets asked about the Knicks all the time. "That was conveniently left off," Thomas said Friday.
But even if that's true, it changes nothing.
The new guy will have to be prepared for the idea that he could do a terrific job, as Walsh did, and yet not enjoy the usual autonomy he expected or, perhaps, was promised.
The Knicks' next GM will find that even if Thomas isn't in the room when conversations are held and decisions are made, Dolan has never denied Thomas might be off in the wings somewhere giving his verdict. In fact, Dolan might solicit it.
Walsh's successor also should be prepared for the possibility that decisions affecting his future and the path of the team for years on his watch -- even the biggest calls, like whether to bring Carmelo Anthony here and how much the roster should be gutted to get him -- might not be his. The new guy will just be the fall guy if it goes wrong.
The nutshell version of Walsh's time with the Knicks is this simple: He was everything as an executive that Thomas was not. There was a coherent plan, a structure and credibility to everything Walsh did. He not only got the Knicks back to the playoffs for the first time in seven years, but he got the Knicks out of salary cap jail and presided over Amare Stoudemire's arrival before Anthony's. The worst thing you can say about him is he had some mixed success in the draft. The unfairest thing? That Dolan never forgave him for failing to get LeBron James here. James has since confirmed he was never coming, hard as that is for parochial-minded New Yorkers to believe.
When you examine the setup Thomas already has now, he would be crazy to want to come back as president. It's a far better job, after all, to be the guy with no fingerprints, whispering in Dolan's ear.
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