Published August 11, 2010
David Stern's long reign as commissioner of the NBA has been filled with decisions, some momentous and some mundane.
Rarely, though, has he had one as easy as the one in front of him Wednesday.
All he did was save the New York Knicks from themselves.
More precisely, he made it clear to the team that hiring Isiah Thomas was one brilliant idea that wouldn't fly. Thomas then decided to give up the good fight and stick to his job coaching college kids at Florida International.
Too bad for Thomas, who undoubtedly envisioned a triumphant return to the Big Apple. Even worse for Knicks owner James Dolan, whose affinity for Thomas seemingly knows no bounds.
This is, remember, a guy who stuck by Thomas all the way through a civil trial brought by a former Knicks executive who says he sexually harassed her. The same guy who reached into his deep pockets to cough up the $11.5 million judgment when the jury decided the woman was right.
Apparently, Dolan missed the crazy shenanigans around the office. He missed Isiah's smile. He missed having someone around who shared his penchant for overpaying overrated players.
So, two years after Thomas lost his job as president and coach of the Knicks, he invited him back. Only this time he would be a "consultant" since he already had a day job.
It was a dumb idea, even without Thomas' checkered past with the Knicks. It got dumber when coaches like Duke's Mike Krzyzewski questioned the wisdom of dual jobs, and even dumber when people around the league wondered if it violated NBA rules preventing contact with players ineligible for the draft.
They would mostly be college players, like the ones Thomas is coaching.
Had Dolan simply let Thomas call a few shots in the background without giving him a formal role he might have gotten away with it. But he was so proud of his coup that he announced it in a press release last week and extolled Thomas for having qualities that "will be extremely beneficial to the team's success."
Forgive Dolan, because he might have had temporary amnesia. Thomas not only failed to contribute to any success during his five-year reign in New York, he was an unmitigated disaster, last seen being booed out of Madison Square Garden.
As president of the team, Thomas presided over a string of puzzling signings that did little more than give the Knicks a bloated payroll. As coach, he alienated a loyal fanbase.
But after two years of trying to clean up his mess, the Knicks invited him back to make a new one. Only it wasn't the basketball guys — who said the right things but clearly wanted nothing to do with Thomas — doing the inviting.
No, it was Dolan himself, who remains so smitten with Thomas that he issued a statement Wednesday saying he would still seek his advice on an informal basis.
Just why, who knows. It's not as though Thomas had a good record recognizing and signing talent — Jerome James? Jared Jeffries?
Remember, too, that this is the same judge of talent who years ago said of Larry Bird: "If he were black, he'd be just another good guy."
What Dolan probably saw in Thomas was someone he could use to recruit the top free agents to New York and rebuild his tattered franchise. Thomas was unofficially involved in the pursuit of LeBron James and surely would have been in the mix if the Knicks tried to pursue Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul down the road.
For Thomas it would have been the best of both worlds. He could still be a big shot in the NBA while polishing up his coaching credentials at FIU, where he went 7-25 last year, including nine straight losses to end the season.
He might have even been able to put some of his baggage with Knicks fans in the past, something he made an attempt to do in a statement Wednesday.
"One of the biggest regrets of my life is that the Knicks didn't perform up to the standards the fans had every right to expect while I was in charge," Thomas said. "I take full responsibility for that."
Hearing those words don't make up for years of frustration in New York. They don't suddenly turn the Knicks into a contender again.
But it is the first time that Thomas held himself accountable for what he left behind.
And that may be the best thing that comes out of the hiring that wasn't.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org