Monday, March 12, 2007

Losing Isiah ... I wish

Fair's fair, Henry. If I get into Hot Lips and jump Hawkeye Pierce, do I get to go home, too?
- Duke (Tom Skerritt) in the film M*A*S*H, screenplay by Ring Lardner Jr.

I like to juxtapose events in my mind and find connections. I find this very interesting. The people around me? Not so much. But, I heard two pieces of news in the last 24 hours that even the most synchronicity-challenged among us will have to find an interesting contrast. Or, at least, a not entirely sleep-inducing one.

Yesterday, a friend of mine informed me that a common acquaintance of ours had been fired. The guy was a hard worker, very smart, good at his job, and stayed in his position for three years without a promotion, even as the company experienced a constant plague of turnover and shortages for people with his skills. I did a rough, very conservative calculation, and I found that because he worked hourly, and because on average he finished his assignments an hour faster than his peers, over the course of a year he saved the company $4000. Again, this is on top of the fact that his work was superior to nearly everyone around him.

Yes, our acquaintance clearly marched to the beat of a different drummer. He did not blindly follow instructions, and he was not afraid to speak his mind. And, while he was unfailingly accurate and responsible on the big issues, he could sometimes gloss over things on the smaller ones. But, in the end, while certainly quirky, I never saw him be disrespectful or threatening. And, again, he was one of the best at what he did. I should also note that historically, the company tolerated a lot from people in his position and rarely fired anyone.

Of course, I do not claim to know all the facts behind his dismissal. But, based on what I know about the worker and the company, to me, it felt very unfair.

Then, this morning, I opened up my New York Times to find that Isiah Thomas received a multi-year contract extension to continue on as president and head coach of the New York Knicks. Now, I have not been an NBA fan for years, and yet I hope my neighbors were not too startled when I screamed out, "Why, Lord? Why?" at the top of my lungs.

It felt so unfair. As my acquaintance is presumably scanning employment websites and figuring out how he is going to pay his rent, Isiah Thomas, the architect of one of the most underachieving franchises in professional sports, is on the phone with his business manager, making plans on how to invest his next truckload of millions.

A contract extension for Isiah Thomas? That is the worst decision to rehire someone since the American people decided that a National Guard-fleeing party boy was more trustworthy to be commander in chief of the military than a decorated war veteran.

For those of you not well-versed in Isiah Thomas's three years as the overseer of all things Knickerbocker, here are some major lowlights (listing the entire state of the Knicks' union would be too long, too depressing and as wasteful of time as going to one of their games):

- Thomas quickly became known as the guy who will take on bloated, untradable contracts, when he traded for players like Stephon Marbury ($17 million a year for a guy whose teams have always improved after he left), Steve Francis ($15 million a year for a guy who is a carbon-copy of Marbury, and don't tell me Larry Brown wanted him, since the decision, in the end, falls to Thomas, who is, in modern parlance, "the decider") and Jalen Rose ($17 million a year, only to be waived months later). Not to mention, Thomas inked the career backup Jerome James to a five-year, $30 million contract, and then promptly traded players and two first round draft picks for the project Eddy Curry to play the same position.

- As with Francis/Marbury and Curry/James, Thomas put together an unbalanced roster with multiple players at some positions while leaving glaring vacancies at others.

- Burdened with these and other bad contracts, the Knicks are horribly over the salary cap and unable to go out and get anyone who could actually help them. While Thomas inherited this problem, instead of working to make it better, he made things exponentially worse, taking on stifling contracts like a pyromaniac collecting matches.

- As a result, the Knicks have the highest payroll in the league by far, and yet they have had a losing record all three years of Thomas's residency on the Knicks throne. I'm sure when the Enron guys sit in their cells and read about the Knicks, they think to themselves, "Maybe we weren't that bad at handling money after all."

- And, as kind of dysfunctional cherries on the sundae, Thomas was the target of a still-unresolved sexual harassment suit filed by a former senior Knicks executive, and he gave the league some sorely unneeded bad publicity when he precipitated a brawl by sending in a seldom-used rookie to commit a hard foul late in a game against the Nuggets.

So, after assembling a bad roster, spending tons of money with no reward, acting as a publicist's nightmare, and turning the Knicks from a hot ticket into a punch line, Thomas is rewarded with continued job security and millions of dollars.

All while my acquaintance is fired.

Which led to two interesting (to me, anyway) coincidences popping into my head. First, my recently fired acquaintance is a huge Knicks fan. I remember how bummed he was when the Knicks signed Jerome James, calling him the kind of player you send out as your fifth guy only because the rules say you have to send five guys onto the court.

I then remembered that last week I was the benefit of a friend's free courtside Knicks ticket, where I got to watch John McEnroe and Spike Lee look on in dismay as the home team fell to the Seattle SuperSonics, who, to that point, had won only seven road games all season. That's right, under the extension-worthy leadership of Isiah Thomas, the Knicks came out flat, didn't play defense, and fell behind by 18 points to a team consisting of Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis and three guys who couldn't be identified by anyone who spends enough time away from to actually have a social life. (Don't believe me? Well, you are lying if you say that you knew that Nick Collison, Chris Wilcox and Earl Watson were in the NBA, let alone starting for Seattle.) The Knicks made a furious charge at the end to make it close, only to fall when Thomas's marquee acquisition, the me-first point guard Stephon Marbury missed a potential tying free throw with less than a second left in the game after blowing a chance to ice the game a possession earlier by taking an ill-advised long three-pointer.

I remember when Madison Square Garden rocked for Knicks games, when going to a game was an event and when getting a ticket was next to impossible. That night against Seattle, the arena was moribund most of the night, there was no buzz and I went to the game for free because the boss of a friend of a friend of a friend of mine could not unload his tickets to anyone he knew. I'm not exaggerating. The tickets came from an executive whose assistant is friends with a friend of my friend. And, if you were able to follow that, maybe you can make sense of Thomas's extension.

As is my way, I immediately juxtaposed my acquaintance's firing and Thomas's extension in my mind. It made me feel sad, but even more it made me angry at how unfair it all was, on both ends, and how it seems like more and more, American society has become less fair. I mean that broadly, including things like our Justice Department admitting to abusing the Constitution under the false aegis of the Patriot Act (wow, whoever could have seen that coming ...), but even more on a day-to-day level. How it seems harder and harder for the average person to function.

In M*A*S*H, Duke's statement to Henry was a joke, but it had a ring of truth: Why does the psychopath Frank Burns get to go home while others have to stay in a dangerous, gut-wrenching, exhausting place? Duke would think that my concerns were nothing compared to what he was experiencing in an Army hospital during the Korean War. But, I think even he would feel bad for my acquaintance and think Isiah Thomas should be fired. After all, by the end of the movie, he did "get into" Hot Lips. People find ways to comfort themselves from their stresses. The Knicks used to do that for New York, although after three years of Thomas's reign, it is hard to picture it.