Isiah Thomas vs. Al Davis: The Final Showdown

Credit: Jed Jacobsohn / Getty Images

It just isn't the same without Isiah. 

When Isiah Thomas was running the Knicks, every morning in New York City was like Christmas. I'd go to sleep dreaming of the possible back page headlines of the next day's 'Post.' Would it be "Nab Zeke in Goat Sex Hoax?" Or how about "Isiah: Zach, Eddy 'Sorry' for Eaten Stewardess"? My favorite was a real one: "Marbury's Truck-Sex Gal: 'I was in control.'"

True, the post-Knicks Thomas headlines have lately made a decisive move toward the dreaded Strawberry-Canseco realm of unfunny retired-jock tragedy. Reports of an incident in which Thomas apparently overdosed on 10 Lunesta pills (and then tried to claim that it was his daughter, not he, who was taken to the hospital) were so strange and unsettling that even the most embittered Knicks fans hesitated to make the obvious joke: that Thomas couldn't even pull off a suicide correctly. (What, no Drano in the house?)

It wasn't like that during Isiah's Knicks days, when you always knew when to laugh. From the beginning it was like rooting for a no-hitter in baseball. A year into his GM job you, were aware that there wasn't a single mistake Zeke hadn't made. He stayed hot by passing up Andrew Bynum to draft Channing Frye in 2005, then scared us all by hesitating a few days before rescuing the streak by blowing $30 million on fat-ass Jerome James.

Then came the brilliant stuff: following up the James deal by acquiring, at enormous cost, two more underachieving, elephantine big men, Eddy Curry and Zach Randolph, one of whom had a heart condition and the other a history of stealing pants, selling guns, and breaking the eye sockets of teammates. To complement this front line, Thomas then set out to fill his backcourt with every tweener-size no-conscience jacker in the NBA – literally every single one, from Steve Francis to Stephon Marbury to Jamal Crawford to Q-Rich to Nate Robinson – a mistake of enthusiasm he eventually tried to counter by giving another $30 million to Jared Jeffries, a player whose greatest attribute was that he was a nonshooter with Kate Moss arms and no natural position.

By the time he was finally forced out of office last season, Isiah had achieved the first perfect score of managerial suckitude in sports history. As in Dresden or Nagasaki, the franchise destruction was total. Every last roster spot on the team seemed to be occupied by someone in a neck brace making $19 million a year for the next 10 years, and the star player was the only person in America weirder than Mike Tyson and spent his off-seasons getting skull tattoos and talking about his "third eye." 

The one place Isiah fell short was in the area of not surviving forever. This is reason enough to make a case that it's not him but 76-year-old Al Davis who owns America's worst sports management legacy. But it's a tough call, and for a sports fan, a fascinating debate. In my mind there are five main criteria.

1. Did the owner/manager cripple the team through embarrassingly transparent efforts to re-create his glory years using below-par current-era personnel bearing superficial resemblances to old heroes?

The worst thing that ever happened to Al Davis was all the winning the Raiders did in the '70s and early '80s, because once his brain dried out he spent the rest of his addled life trying to reacquire Dave Casper, Cliff Branch, and Art Shell. When Todd Marinovich came up through USC there was never any question of what team he would wind up playing for. You knew Davis would grab him, thinking an erratic left-handed quarterback with a substance-abuse problem had to be the next Ken Stabler.

But Davis here is trumped by Isiah, who in the course of his Knicks tenure reacquired almost every one of his Detroit Bad Boys teammates at least once (he signed the memory of Mark Aguirre's ass three different times via the James/Curry/Randolph moves). Drafting virtually unknown Renaldo Balkman with the 20th selection, Thomas said that "he reminds me a lot of a Rodman," then defended the high pick by claiming Phoenix planned on taking him with the 21st pick – news that was a surprise to Phoenix. And he ludicrously compared his dribble-off-the-foot all-star tandem of Francis and Marbury to himself and Joe Dumars. Edge: Knicks

2. Did the owner/manager acquire at least one player involved in the possible rape of a sleeping person? 

Check and check, sort of. In the case of a sex assault (allegedly) committed by Raider Darrell Russell and two pals over five agonizing, videotaped hours in 2002, the victim was not sleeping exactly, but drugged, which made the whole situation infinitely creepier. Russell was the hulking bad-attitude defensive tackle Davis drafted with the second overall pick in 1997 to play alongside hulking bad-attitude defensive tackle Chester "the Molester" McGlockton. (You might remember McGlockton as the guy fined for stealing cable TV in a year in which he made more than $1 million.) Russell was charged with 25 felony counts, but those were dropped just in time for him to get himself killed driving into a bus.

Then you have the Knicks' Randolph. Back when he was playing for Portland [Oregon], he invited two drunk women back to his place for a sex show and got pissed when they only simulated sex instead of really having it. After the show was over, one girl went to the bathroom to get sick while the other fell asleep. She claims she woke up with Randolph trying to ram his alleged cock in her alleged ass. The Portland DA, in a hilariously semi-redacted statement, declined to prosecute Randolph for doing "a train" on the woman, citing lack of evidence, and Isiah, naturally, snapped Randolph up as soon as the Blazers made him available in a trade.

This is a hard choice. Davis has a history of signing miscreants (at USC, Marinovich beat a rape charge, screamed at his coach on national TV, and capped his college career with an arrest for cocaine possession), but the nod has to go to Thomas, who unlike Davis, was personally involved in a sex-harassment case. If Davis ever costs the Raiders $11 million by getting caught trying to kiss a recoiling female employee, calling her a "ho" and begging her to visit him "off site," the decision might change, but until then it's Edge: Knicks

3. Under the owner/manager's direction, did the team treat everybody – fans, employees, media, everybody – like dog shit? 

It was weirdly appropriate when 'New York Post' sportswriter Mike Vaccaro compared the Knicks beat to a "gulag." Isiah Thomas was to owner James Dolan what Vyacheslav Molotov was to Stalin, a servile enabler of the boss's institutional sadism whose only goals in life were to have a nice office and to die of natural causes. The Knicks under Dolan fostered a culture of abuse in which everyone below ownership is treated like a Kashmiri manservant: Let them eat scraps and chain them to a radiator when you leave home.

There was a thematic consistency to everything the Knicks did in those years, from the team handing out cheap processed turkey sandwiches to the beat press in a league that otherwise does everything first class, to its star point guard hustling an intern into an SUV for sex, to its siccing security on fans who wore "Fire Isiah" T-shirts. They stopped short of issuing a team slogan, like "The New York Knicks: You Can Kiss Our Ass," but only just barely. 

In some ways, the Knicks under Dolan have resembled the White House under George W. Bush: an institution of public trust that was hijacked for years by the Oedipal inferiority complex of a whining prince-in-training. A goateed 5-foot-6 cable-industry Napoleon with a Time Bandits dwarf face, little Jimmy Dolan became famous for trying to yell his way into billionaire dad Chuck's legacy. "He can treat people like shit," said former Cablevision security chief Robert Astarita. "All of us, every single one of us, and he gets away with it."

The fact that Thomas represented Dolan's vindictive management style so vigorously is what made him a perfect yes-man and allowed him to i-stay-uh (as the 'Post' might put it) for so long: If he had just signed one or two fewer max-contract busts, he might have stayed on forever in a Molotov-like capacity, quietly signing death warrants and negotiating with the Nazis while the Larry Browns of the world took the blame and went to the firing squad. Compared with Al Davis, who was a football visionary once upon a time and whose institutional cruelty has at least always been caused by frustration over losing, the Dolan/Thomas pathology is far more revolting. Edge: Knicks

4. Did the owner/manager tie up the judicial system with one pointless legal fuck-snit after another? 

This is a rout for Davis. In the Dolan/Thomas era, the Knicks went to court really only when they were being sued. Davis has sued everybody. Check your mailbox; he's suing you. In the '80s, he filed an antitrust suit against the NFL to allow him to move from Oakland to Los Angeles; when the move didn't work, he sued the NFL again for sabotaging his efforts to get a new stadium, then later sued an accounting firm and the Oakland Coliseum for luring him back by falsely promising 15 years of sellouts. Amazingly, when the doomed USFL filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL in 1986, Davis couldn't help himself and sided with the USFL! If he keeps it up, he has a shot at the ultimate American deathbed existence as perfected by Howard Hughes, who in his last years spent nearly all of his waking hours either consulting with tort lawyers or watching 'Ice Station Zebra' over and over. Edge: Raiders

5. After panic-firing a popular championship-caliber coach following an extended and gruesomely public penis-measuring contest, did the owner/manager immediately hire the one person on Earth who had been conclusively proven incapable of doing the job?

This, again, is a tough call, because while Al Davis twice replaced good coaches with long-dead beached-manatee-impersonator Art Shell, Thomas replaced the legendary Larry Brown with an even more outrageous choice: himself. This is a situation where you really have to take points away from Davis for his failure to hire Shell again after the Lane Kiffin firing. That was the obvious move, and he didn't do it. In fact, he should have just slapped a headset on a cardboard cutout of Shell and stuck it on the sidelines for the rest of the season, rigging it with a tape loop that called the same halfback run off-tackle whenever you pulled a string. Edge: Knicks

In the end, there's no way to deny that the Dolan/Thomas Knicks were the worst-managed sports franchise of all time. Al Davis is old and demented and very soon will remind you of John Dugan's Grandpa character in 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre,' but he won three Super Bowls. Six chimpanzees would have typed 'Gravity's Rainbow' in Finnish before we ever saw Thomas and Dolan hold up an NBA trophy. Those were special times; cherish the memories.