Archive for Friday, July 29, 2005

Commentary: Knicks not just another stop

July 29, 2005


The gypsy king of basketball returned home to find his name already in lights outside the world's most famous arena.

"Welcome Back Larry!" the marquee at Madison Square Garden flashed Thursday.

Being Larry Brown, he wasted no time returning the warmth. The Knicks job was the "single greatest honor" of a long and storied career, he gushed Thursday, his "dream job."

(By unofficial count, Brown has now uttered that phrase in connection with every known pro franchise on five of the seven continents, and all but 17 of the 327 colleges in Division One. But no matter. This time he really meant it.)

"Basketball started for me in this city," Brown said, "and I want to be here when it's finally time for me to stop."

Exactly how much longer is anyone's guess. New York is a tough town - and the Knicks are a cap-strapped organization at the moment, being run by a boss, Isiah Thomas, who is every bit as imperious and manipulative as Brown.

You never say never in this guy's case, but it's hard to shake the feeling that after all this time, he's met his match. So even if the people in Larry's old neighborhood in Brooklyn were celebrating, the rest of the town apparently is reserving judgment. They have had to watch the Knicks play a lot longer than he has.

One internet gambling site was already laying odds of 2-to-5 they'd miss the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season, even with Brown. And the most encouraging sign is that the same site was offering 8-to-1 that Stephon Marbury - New York's best player, but Brown's idea of a nightmare - will last an entire season without being traded.

Brown takes over a team that won 33 games last season, with little trade value outside of Marbury and three over-the-hill players - Penny Hardaway, Allan Houston and Tim Thomas - on the books already making top dollar.

Making matters worse, Thomas has already let it be known he's retaining last word on personnel moves. Brown can threaten to run guys out of town as much as his heart desires - "I don't think by any means, from talking to Isiah, that this is a finished product," he said - but so far, the only trump card in the deck he was just handed is doling out playing time.

You'd think a coach who just signed a four-year deal with will pay him somewhere around $8 million per would have some clout, especially someone with a solid record in turning teams around. But that would be underestimating Thomas. Brown is his fourth hire as coach in the last 20 months, and Thomas has stood behind every one of them - just not for very long.

That kind of math might not bother Brown, since he's changed jobs 10 times himself, not to mention the dozen others he's tried on for size. And making it into the postseason during his 30 years on the sidelines hasn't been an issue either; only four times over that stretch has he failed to take a pro team to the playoffs or into the NCAA tournament. Plus, Brown just walked away from a Pistons team that won an NBA Finals two seasons ago and just came up short in Game 7 of this one - in large part because of his mastery.

If he's going to squeeze out the dozen or so more wins the Knicks likely will need to reach the postseason, Brown will have to make a lot of people better in a hurry. He's got two versatile talents in Jamal Crawford and Quentin Richardson, and a chance to teach Jerome James to make a difference in the post. But adjusting the attitudes of all three combined won't demand as much of his time and patience as getting through to Marbury will require.

It might be fitting, though. After all these years and all those places, Brown finally gets a chance to come home, to commit to one team and ride it to the end of a spectacular career - and he winds up counting on two guys, Thomas and Marbury, whose notion of loyalty is every bit as temporal and shifty as his was.

Welcome back Larry, indeed.


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