AFTER the Knicks' dysfunctional organization nearly consumed itself en route to the 1999 N.B.A. finals, Scott Layden was hired to be an irrelevant general manager, to be as neutral as beige, to be pleasantly vacant.
What goes on behind that blank stare? Is there a mind busy with thoughts or a scene as still as a shelved snow globe? In fairness, Layden was not meant to shake or stir the Garden. Layden arrived as a decent, no-leak loyalist who didn't shed secrets - a nonthreatening pick for the insecure Richie Rich owner within, Jim Dolan.
The Cable Guy with DirecTV envy had Dave Checketts pay Layden handsomely to do nothing, essentially the same job description he filled as the general manager in Utah. With John Stockton and Karl Malone on the court, Layden was in charge of assembling backup singers, revealing a keen eye for third options.
Basically, what the Knicks have is an expert in mediocrity, a connoisseur of comfort food. It is no wonder that, one by one, the ensemble pieces in the Layden Collection have been sucked through a wormhole that begins on the shores of the Great Salt Lake.
After a few stops along the path, each B-side player eventually finds himself spit out on the floor at the Garden as a part of Layden's six-degrees-of-Utah strategy.
First, Layden grabbed the ex-Jazz satellites Shandon Anderson and Howard Eisley. Then, Layden began listening to his old buddy Rick Majerus whisper sweet ex-Utes in his ear.
Now, Keith Van Horn is the next alum from the Wasatch Range to join the Knicks - now that Layden has completed a complicated, multiteam deal that will send Latrell Sprewell to Minnesota, where the Tardy One will promptly show up after the spring thaw.
Granted, Sprewell was a menace in decline. But what the Knicks have done is replace an inspiring mediocre star with an uninspiring mediocre star. While Layden noted Van Horn's size and flexibility and dismissed his playoff failings and sensitive psyche, this trade was about creating an artificial buzz. This is a downgrade in p.r. stunts from the Garden manipulations of the past, when Ernie Grunfeld would make trades to create the illusion of a title contender.
"They're not big-time players now, and yet they are still unaccountably arrogant," one agent for several N.B.A. players said of the Knicks. "With the money nearly equal in free agency, New York doesn't sell itself anymore."
What's the draw for a good player? Taxes stiffer than Scotch, high rent, bitter winters or Allan Houston's cuddly softness? Is it a celebrity row that is on the verge of needing the cast and crew of "The Love Boat'' as seat fillers?
"There is not much respect for the Knicks," the agent said. "They need someone to sell it, and Layden is a deadly pitchman."
Where are the deceptive salesmen when an organization needs them? The slick twins - Checketts and Grunfeld - are both long gone, but surely there must be someone with a little flair for the dramatic who doesn't get his hair cut by Stockton's barber. There has to be a hip-hop hope that can turn the head of a George Steinbrenner wannabe like Jim Dolan.
Enter P. Diddy. If you stopped listening to rap in the 90's, he is also referred to as Sean Combs, or Puffy. On Tuesday, P. Diddy told Howard Stern that he had an interest in running the Knicks. "They need some new blood up in there," P. Diddy said. "I'm not saying get rid of the owners. I'm saying put me down. Put me in the game. We need an aggressive, fast team that knows how to run."
Ask Kenyon Martin if Van Horn runs. No doubt P. Diddy would not resort to scouring the Tabernacle for talent, ending Layden's odd obsession with all things Utah.
Layden's fascination could be borne out of his insecure knowledge of players in the league, or the fact he was scorched on deals involving Glen Rice and Antonio McDyess. More likely, there is a deeper reason for the Utah link lurking in his subconscious: an attachment to the city he should have never left.
Layden's brand of blandness was the perfect blend in Utah, where he could hide behind the wild color of the owner Larry Miller, the refreshing candor of Coach Jerry Sloan and sweet sameness of Stockton and Malone - at least until the twosome split after last season.
"I've always thought it was a strange fit," one general manager said of Layden in New York.
Layden is a good man, just not the right one for a New York audience that demands more from its team than role players built around role players. They deserve hope, at the least. Truly, bottoming out would be better than the malaise of mediocrity, given the instant tizzy of lottery dreams.
At least there is a strategy to losing. At least there is dramatic movement in some direction. There is nothing shakin' either way with Layden. This is not Layden's fault. He was hired by Dolan to be solidly irrelevant, a fine choice if the Knicks hadn't plunged into purgatory under his watch.
These days, the Knicks need a general manager who is manipulative, demanding and even a little deceitful - a throwback to the indecent good ol' days at the Garden.
[Only registered and activated users can see links. ]