You could make a solid case that Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love were the worst celebrity couple ever. He was a self-loathing, introspective genius with a serious drug problem, she was a manipulative, out-of-control lunatic with a serious drug problem, and they loved making each other miserable and doing drugs together. In retrospect, only one thing would have made them more combustible: If Kurt loved the Red Sox and Courtney loved the Yankees.
Now he’s dead and she’s a Category 7 train wreck. There were no winners.
For whatever reason, I was thinking about them Friday as I toggled the Knicks-Warriors game with the Baseball Furies-Warriors brawl on Spike TV. Still winless at the time, trailing by two with 12 seconds to play, the Knicks had blown a double-digit lead but still had a chance to force overtime. They set up a play for Jamal Crawford, who careened into the paint and was quickly stripped by Baron Davis. Game over. They didn’t even get off a shot.
The cameras quickly cut to Larry Brown, who was already moving toward the locker room, walking as briskly as possible on surgically repaired hips, never once glancing back to the floor. Poor Larry looked like a murder suspect bolting a crime scene. And that’s when I was reminded of Kurt and Courtney. In the history of sports, there may not have been a worse match than Larry Brown and Isiah Thomas. It’s going to end badly. Either Larry’s quitting, or Isiah’s getting fired, and it’s going to happen sooner than you think. Even in these first two weeks, you can see Larry distancing himself from the guys on the floor, and as Peter Vescey pointed out in Sunday’s New York Post, many of Brown’s postgame quotes carry the same underlying theme:
“Hey, whaddya want from me? I didn’t pick these guys.”
Although the Knicks salvaged their road swing with ugly victories over Sacramento and Utah, this still seems like a match made in hell. On the one hand, you have Brown, a certain Hall of Famer, one of the most memorable basketball coaches ever. Whether it was in Carolina (1972-74), Denver (1975-79), New Jersey (1982-83), Kansas (1984-88), San Antonio (1989-92), Los Angeles (1992-93), Indiana (1994-97), Philadelphia (1998-2003) or Detroit (2003-05), in every case — repeat: every case — Brown’s teams always improved dramatically, and he always departed just as dramatically for reasons far less justifiable than “I can’t believe I’m working for Isiah Thomas.” Will we ever see another basketball coach leave nine straight cities with winning records? Heck, will we ever see someone coach that many teams again? He’s been like a cross between Norman Dale and Larry King.
When Brown finagled his way to New York, many “experts” assumed that his mere presence would transform the Knicks into a playoff team. Even the wise guys in Vegas bought into the hype, setting their over/under at a preposterous 39½. Of course, when enough people wagered on the “over” that the number never budged, it didn’t seem so preposterous. The Brown backers seemed to forget four things:
1. He’s 65 years old.
2. He’s working with Isiah Thomas.
3. The team has six new players, a new coaching system and no cohesive presence (like Steve Nash in Phoenix).
4. If Brown has a weakness — well, other than his predilection to sabotage happy situations by angling for other jobs, almost like a playboy who mistreats a girlfriend so she’ll dump him (and he won’t have to dump her and feel bad) — it has been his inability to connect with younger players. Just ask Jalen Rose and Travis Best in Indiana, Larry Hughes and Tim Thomas in Philly, the Darko All-Stars in Detroit or even Carmelo, LeBron, Amare and Wade in Athens. Brown gets frustrated easily and tends to stick with older, more reliable (and less talented) players who know their roles and play hard. Which is fine. Unfortunately, none of those guys play for the 2005-06 Knicks … with the exception of Antonio Davis (who was finished two years ago) and Malik Rose (who no longer possesses any recognizable basketball skills).
If anything, it’s a Bizarro Larry Brown Roster. Consider the following elements…
• He has three shoot-first point guards: Stephon Marbury (who legitimately doesn’t enjoy making his teammates better); Jamal Crawford (an absolute gunner in every respect); and Nate Robinson (a 5-foot-7 ball hog). You can’t play any of these guys together. Well, you could. You’re just going to lose more than you win.
• He has two overpaid and undersized power forwards who can’t rebound: Malik Rose and Maurice Taylor. In fact, there isn’t a single guy on the team who can grab a big rebound in traffic other than rookie David Lee, whom Brown refuses to play because, well, he’s a rookie, and Larry Brown doesn’t play rookies. By the way, this team has three of them.
• He has two overpaid centers who can’t rebound or block shots: Eddy Curry and Jerome James. Amazingly, the James Era is already over — Brown is routinely DNP-ing him. There wasn’t even a honeymoon period with this one, just straight to the divorce. Unprecedented. Meanwhile, Curry has a mysterious heart problem that scared the Bulls enough that they practically gave him away. Good times all around.
• He has two overpaid swingmen with back/knee problems who stink defensively and can’t do anything other than shoot: Quentin Richardson and Penny Hardaway. In fact, other than Trevor Ariza, he doesn’t have a single player on his roster at the one, two and three positions who can guard anyone.
Here’s the weird thing: Despite overwhelming evidence that this should be a run-and-gun team, Brown has emphasized defense over everything else, almost like a football coach trying to play smashmouth football with a subpar offensive line and small running backs. After the Utah game, Davis credited the team’s stellar defense and added, “We don’t have a choice. Larry won’t let you play if you don’t work on D.”
Yikes. In a way, it’s admirable. For instance, here in Los Angeles, Phil Jackson is calmly sitting on the bench watching Kobe take 45 shots a game for a gawd-awful Lakers team, perfectly willing to taint his coaching legacy for a giant paycheck and the chance to replace Doug Christie as the most whipped person in the NBA. Either Jackson doesn’t give a crap, or Jerry Buss and Mitch Kupchak quietly promised him that Kobe would be gone by February. It’s one or the other. At least Brown looks like he cares. He’s just stuck with the Bizarro Larry Brown team.
Now here’s where it gets fascinating. Sooner rather than later, Larry is going to want to dump some of these guys. (Reportedly, it’s already happened with Marbury, who suspiciously landed in a slew of trade rumors last weekend, well ahead of the Vegas over-under of Dec. 15.) But Isiah brought them in — not just some of them … all of them. Now he faces the remarkable situation of overhauling a team that he just spent the last two years overhauling. Even stranger, nobody seems that surprised. Or horrified. Or confused. It’s like Isiah has some sort of built-in immunity from NBA fans here, almost like how dyslexic kids get extra time to take the SATs.
And this was the case from day one. When the Knicks gave Isiah the car keys on Dec. 22, 2003, the common reaction seemed to be, “Um … what?” Knicks fans should have been rejoicing at the glorious demise of the Scott Layden Era; instead, some worried that Isiah was a downgrade, almost like Van Halen finally dumping Sammy Hagar as its lead singer, only to hire Gary Cherone. After all, Isiah failed with Toronto, drove the CBA into the ground and coached an underachieving Pacers team that thrived as soon as he left. When they hired him, I remember thinking (and writing) that he was the worst possible guy for the job, someone who would undoubtedly make a series of grandiose short-term moves that would destroy the long-term future of the franchise. And that’s precisely what happened.
Looking back, Isiah’s performance has been nothing short of incredible — not a single player remains from that 12/22/03 roster. Has an NBA GM ever suffered from roster ADD before? The panic moves started with the shortsighted Marbury/Penny trade, which happened only three weeks after Isiah assumed control. (Note: I laid out the reasons why the deal was a mistake in an April 2004 column, explaining, “if this was a Texas Hold ‘Em Tournament, Isiah had just gone ‘all-in’ after two hands.”) He added three killer contracts for guys who played the exact same position (Rose, Jerome Williams and Maurice Taylor). He gave away his only center last February (Nazr Mohammed), then spent $30 million last summer on someone who was infinitely worse (James). He spent $55 million on a shoot-first point guard (Crawford) when he already had one, then traded for another shoot-first guard (Richardson) one year later. He inexplicably signed Vin Baker and Eddie Robinson, two of the most troubled guys in the league. On and on it went … you couldn’t fit every shaky Isiah move into a single top-10 list.
Curiously, one of the league’s great winners had forgotten what made an NBA team win. Imagine what the 1989 Pistons would have done to this 2005 Knicks team. Who would have guarded Isiah? Who would have guarded Joe Dumars? Who would have kept Dennis Rodman, John Salley and Bill Laimbeer off the boards? Heck, who would have contained Fennis Dembo in garbage time? For whatever reason, Isiah never considered any of this — he just kept stockpiling perceived “assets” like he was building a fantasy team, with no real thought given to the salary cap, the luxury tax or the impossibility of moving these bloated contracts if they didn’t work out. He was throwing Charles Dolan’s money around like a drunk college kid playing Monopoly.
What did I land on, North Carolina Avenue? Well, I don’t have any greens, and the other two are gone, and I need to save money for houses … screw it, I’ll buy it!
What does this have to do with Larry Brown? Everything. He’s stuck trying to coach this mess. Eventually, it’s going to drive him crazy that Isiah assembled this group. He’s going to start pushing Isiah’s buttons like only Larry can, demanding that they trade Marbury or Crawford, benching Isiah’s favorite rookies, belittling Isiah’s abilities to NBA friends and hoping the poisonous words get back to him. Nobody burns a bridge like Larry Brown — just ask Dumars and the Detroit players, who are practically having a contest after every victory to see who can make the most “we’re having so much more fun this season, it’s fun to just play basketball with a coach that trusts us” comments. The thing is, Larry Brown doesn’t lose. Just look at his record. And since this can’t be his fault, he’ll make it clear where the blame lies. Just in case you forgot.
Three questions remain:
1. Why did Brown take this job in the first place?
The answer lies in pages 201-209 of a classic book called “Wait Till Next Year,” which recounts a year in New York sports through the perspectives of a reporter (Mike Lupica) and a fan (William Goldman). In this particular chapter, Lupica describes how Brown (a New York native) desperately wanted to coach the ’87-88 Knicks … only they passed him over for Rick Pitino. Seventeen years later, you can still feel his pain. Looking at a “Rick’s The Pick” headline in the New York Post, Brown even wonders aloud, “Lemme ask you something, if that kid from Austin Peay makes the one-and-one (in the second round of the 1987 NCAA Tournament against Pitino’s Providence team), does Pitino even get offered the job?” Clearly, he had some unfinished business with the Knicks. Even if it meant dealing with Isiah Thomas for a season or two. Eventually, he’ll force a power struggle, and if you think the Dolans are picking the GM with Roster ADD over the Hall of Fame coach with the $60 million contract, you’re kidding yourself.
2. Is there any possible way that Brown can pull together this particular Knicks team?
Not this season. And here’s where his stubbornness comes in. From what I’ve seen, their best chance to compete looks like this: Marbury and Richardson at the guards, Ariza and Frye at the forwards, Curry at center, Crawford in the Vinnie Johnson role, with Davis, Robinson and Rose spotting the starters, and Lee as the energy guy. Playing as hard as possible, with a set rotation and everyone knowing their roles, that’s a 40-win team. Maybe.
But Brown doesn’t work that way — he’ll yank guys around, bench people for three games because of one defensive lapse, bury the rookies, give too many minutes to stiffs like Davis and Rose, and so on. Once December rolls around, when teams start panicking and players like Mike Bibby, Peja Stojakovic, Jalen Rose, Zach Randolph, Vlad Radmanovic, Jamaal Tinsley, Antoine Walker, Mike Miller, Wally Szczerbiak, Earl Watson and maybe even Steve Francis become available, Brown will push Isiah to acquire one or more of them (and let’s just say that you won’t have to twist Isiah’s arm).
And that’s why the Isiah-Larry marriage seems doomed, because you have two notoriously impatient guys itching to fix a flawed roster that wasn’t headed anywhere to begin with. In Philly, at least Brown had Allen Iverson. In Indiana, he started out with Reggie Miller, Rik Smits and the Davises. In Detroit, Ben Wallace, Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince were in place when he arrived. In New York? Nothing. There isn’t a single blue-chipper on this roster other than Marbury, who has never made the second round of the playoffs and has a contract that makes him impossible to trade. Would you want to coach these guys? Me neither.
3. What did the Knicks’ fans do to deserve this mess?
You never think of the Knicks’ fans as tortured or maligned, but few franchises have had a more star-crossed run over the past 30 years. After their title in 1973, they watched the spirit of the Bradley-Reed-Frazier dynasty desecrated by big-money imports like Spencer Haywood and Bob McAdoo. They were tantalized by the Micheal Ray Richardson era (cut short by drugs) and the Bernard King era (cut short by a blown ACL), two of the most memorable players of that era. They hit rock-bottom for a few months before the ’85 lottery yielded Patrick Ewing, but even the Ewing era took a few frustrating years to get going. Everything peaked with those Riley teams in the mid-’90s (ugly as hell but strangely effective), as they endured some of the toughest defeats of that decade without getting over the hump. During the partial-lockout season in ’99, Latrell Sprewell, Marcus Camby and Allan Houston improbably carried them to the Finals. But that was that. They haven’t been relevant since.
Here’s a secret: I actually like Knicks fans — not the bandwagon ones, but the die-hards, the ones who fell in love with the team for the right reasons, the ones who practically get choked up talking about Sugar Ray and Bernard and defend those Ewing teams to the death, the ones whose faces light up when you make a John Gianelli joke or ask them what those things were on Ken “The Animal” Bannister’s face. Knicks fans know their hoops. They give a crap. Many of them were weaned on those Bradley-Frazier teams, or the Richardson/King teams, or even the Ewing teams, so they were lucky enough to see Madison Square Garden come alive at a young age. And that’s one of those sports fan experiences that stays with you and makes you want to keep coming back. In fact, with Boston Garden and every other classic arena gone, MSG is the only relevant place left to watch an NBA game. The Knicks’ fans know it, too. You never think of New York as a basketball city, but that’s what it is. No sports team in the past 35 years meant more to New York than those Bradley-Frazier teams.
Larry Brown understands this. That’s why he came back. That’s why he had to come back. And if you think he’s letting Isiah Thomas screw up his dream job for more than a few months, you’re crazy.
In the words of Kurt Cobain, “No thought was put into this … I always knew it would come to this.”
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine and his Sports Guy’s World site is updated every day Monday through Friday. His new book “Now I Can Die In Peace” is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.