By Adrian Wojnarowski
Special to ESPN.com
GREENBURGH, N.Y. --- In his heart and mind, Isiah Thomas walked into the New York Knicks a basketball coach in December. The firing was still too fresh, too raw. He hadn't forgotten the way Larry Bird had vanquished him with the Pacers, the way he never had a chance to finish the job. He still had blood in his eyes for the Pacers president, viewing his vengeance and vindication downstairs in Madison Square Garden on the sidelines.
Larry Bird didn't think Isiah Thomas measured up as the Pacers coach. Thomas thought he wasn't give the chance to push the team to the next level.
The presidency of the New York Knicks is an immense job, and ownership had courted and hired him so fast, he never had time to consider the magnitude of it all. This threatened to be his fatal flaw on his new job, taking on a team in salary cap hell, a team devoid of possibilities and pop, a team that had lost the market under the wretched watch of deposed executive Scott Layden.
The Knicks were a 24/7 job, a reclamation project that transcended player personnel and extended to the psyche of a populace bruised and battered over bad basketball. Truth be told, Thomas has too good upstairs to believe he would do anything but dilute his impact marching downstairs to the bench.
"Understanding this market and understanding New York, and the energy that it takes to be the president of the Knicks, you can't do it," Thomas says. "I literally think that it would kill me trying to do that here. I know the type of energy I'm doing to put in this one job. With kids, a wife, damn, I would die.
"I just couldn't do it."
Isiah Thomas talked between the exercise bicycles in the Knicks practice facility, waiting for his first full basketball season on the job to take over. He's dramatically transformed the Knicks, losing a lot of disjointed and uninteresting parts in favor of a younger, sleeker franchise.
These no longer look like the Cheyenne Knicks. They look like the New York Knicks again. There can be little doubt on post-election day: With this president in office, Knicks are a far better off now than they were nine months ago. There will forever be divided debate over the merit of his three seasons as Pacers coach, bridging the franchise from one contender to the next as Donnie Walsh reshaped the franchise on the fly. Maybe Thomas should've won more, or maybe he was on the cusp with those kids.
When Bird took over in the summer of 2003, he never was going to give Thomas the chance to find out for sure. Rick Carlisle won 61 games and advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals last season, leaving the Thomas-era in the dust.
Isiah Thomas has stayed away from the floor with the Knicks, but keeps a watchful eye from the stands during games.
"I'm hurtful that I can't be a part of that success, but it also gives me great confidence to know that I can do it again. ... It was probably the best thing that probably ever happened. Would you rather be the coach of the Indiana Pacers or the President of the Knicks?
"I would choose the Knicks."
Ultimately, Carlisle is one of the best coaches in basketball, the way Thomas' old running mate with the Pistons, Joe Dumars, has become one of its most resourceful executives. For everything Thomas has accomplished in basketball --- an NCAA title, two NBA championships and that Hall of Fame plaque in Springfield, Mass., --- it's still easy to think about all the opportunities lost for him. President Jimmy Carter kept him out of the 1980 Olympics, and NBA de facto president Michael Jordan was believed to have done it to him in 1992. Five inches kept Isiah from being the fourth face on his generation's basketball Rushmore of Michael, Magic and Larry.
What's more, Thomas never did get to be the first player to make the leap from the court to the boardroom in the NBA with the Pistons. Detroit was his franchise, his legacy, and in a lot of ways, his championship creation.
"I won't say it bothered me, but it definitely disappointed me," Thomas said. "Because at that time, I blew it, and I thought the Pistons blew it. We didn't understand how to move a player off the floor into management. That's the first time it was ever talked about being done. We dropped the ball in a lot of different areas.
"When I was playing and they were talking to me about going to management, it was like, 'Ah hell, it was talked about like it was this big thing.' Now, it's commonly talked about that a player will one day go up from the floor and be in management."
Along the way, Thomas had to make his choice. For the bright lights of the big city, for the way New York loves him as the face of the franchise, fate had a strange way of delivering Thomas to the perfect place for him. He loves the lights here, and the lights love him back. They're talking about the Knicks again in New York, because Isiah Thomas gave them a reason. From Stephon Marbury to Jamal Crawford to Tim Thomas, the Knicks are deeper, and more talented.
“ No one has ever answered this question for me: If we lose for five years and get under the cap and get a draft pick, then we're going to spend all of our money to go over the cap and sign a superstar player. So why don't you just trade for him? ”
- Knicks president Isiah Thomas
"In assessing the situation, we had to find unconventional ways to contend. It wasn't going to be through the draft, or having top picks in the draft. No one has ever answered this question for me: If we lose for five years and get under the cap and get a draft pick, then we're going to spend all of our money to go over the cap and sign a superstar player. So why don't you just trade for him?
"If you got under the cap, the guy you'd probably go and sign would be Marbury."
"I'll put our four young guys -- Stephon (Marbury), Jamal Crawford, Tim Thomas and Michael Sweetney -- up against anyone else's young guys in the league," Thomas said. What he's done is bring more chips to make more deals, something sure to happen before the season is done. Thomas loves the action, loves the buzz, and they just know he's working the phones, trying to make something happen.
Beyond the sign-and-trade for Crawford, the best sign of all. For all the fretting over trading two future first-round picks in the Marbury trade, Thomas found a 2005 No. 1 pick snuggled away in the second round of the 2004 Draft. Freshman Trevor Ariza broke Ben Howland's heart when he bolted UCLA before developing into a college star, but his play over the summer and in this preseason has been downright spectacular.
No one was talking about Ariza on draft day, but they are opening night for the Knicks and that always tells something about the way an NBA executive and scouting staff are working the bushes. Lenny Wilkens is the Knicks coach today, but this is his last stop and there's no telling how long he's going to stay on the job. The next Knicks coach could well be groomed on Wilkens staff, an old Thomas buddy back to their days growing up in Chicago, Mark Aguirre.
"You can list 25 people who have a better chance to being the coach of the Knicks than me," Thomas said. "Mark definitely has a better chance of being the coach here. But he knows and I know that everything is earned and nothing is given."
For now, Isiah Thomas has sworn to stay upstairs at Madison Square Garden, except on game night, where you can see the face of the Knicks standing in the runway, arms folded, lording over his franchise. There isn't a day that passes when he doesn't think about Bird, and the Pacers, and what he wanted as a coach.
Thomas was standing between two exercise bikes in the gymnasium the other day, his index finger and thumb rubbing his chin in careful consideration. What was the word? What was the right word here? For several seconds, he mined his brain. His firing as Pacers coach had been so fresh and raw when the Knicks hired him to be president, but it has turned into something else now.
"I've gotten past it and I let it go," Thomas said, but he stopped short of completing his thought.
"Maybe the word ... unfulfilled ... That's it."
Unfulfilled. Yes, that's it. The word is unfulfilled.
They understood that feeling in New York. They know it all too well. Isiah Thomas didn't find the right job, it found him.