Knicks Hire Isiah Thomas As President

Tuesday, December 23rd 2003, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ Spike Lee has had a front-row seat to watch the decline of his favorite team. In 4 1/2 years, the New York Knicks have deteriorated from NBA finalists into an overmatched, overpaid, underachieving failure _ boring to watch and hopeless to cheer for.

But the famous filmmaker and the Knicks' most visible fan had a smile on his face Monday after Scott Layden, the architect of the current roster, was fired.

In a leadership change that almost no one at Madison Square Garden saw coming, Isiah Thomas was hired as the Knicks' president of basketball operations.

``Look, I'm 46, I was at Game 7 (in 1973 when the Knicks won their last title), I was 13 years old, so I live and breathe the Knicks,'' Lee told The Associated Press. ``It got to be painful coming to games, seeing that we have probably the least athletic team, the oldest team, the highest payroll, the most expensive seats in sports.

``I'm sorry, but the Knicks and Madison Square Garden mean something to me and to New York basketball fans, and kills us to see the team in a shambles the way it's been,'' Lee said. ``It's a good day today.''

More changes undoubtedly lie ahead for the Knicks, who bring a record of 10-18 into Tuesday night's game against the Minnesota Timberwolves. It will be the first game at the Garden for Sprewell since Layden traded him over the summer for Keith Van Horn to New York.

Sprewell maintains a grudge against James Dolan, the chairman of the team's corporate owner, Cablevision, and the man who announced Monday's moves.

``I don't think there's any question that everybody is underperforming. Just look at our record,'' Dolan said. ``This is the thing we could do right now to most help the team. That's the bottom line of it.''

Dolan now turns the team over to Thomas, who was fired over the summer as coach of Indiana after one of his old rivals, Larry Bird, became the Pacers' team president.

Thomas received a phone call from Dolan and Garden president Steve Mills on Friday, then spent Saturday meeting with them in secret. The move came as a surprise to the players, who had been hearing that coach Don Chaney's job was on the line, but not Layden's.

``It's kind of shocking to me to hear that one of the persons who has so much of an influence on the organization is gone,'' Knicks guard Allan Houston said. ``But in our business it could be a player, it could be a coach, it could be somebody like Scott.

``He was a very respectable person, he was honest, he was up front. And I believe that for Mr. Dolan to bring in someone such as Isiah, he believes Isiah's definitely going to help.

Layden did not return calls to his cell phone.

Thomas was introduced at a press conference in the same Garden restaurant where Layden made his first public appearance as the Knicks' general manager 4 1/2 years ago.

Thomas said everyone in the organization will be evaluated, providing no assurances to anyone.

``We've got players and coaches probably a little bit unsure of what's going on, and my job is to come here and calm the waters,'' Thomas said.

Calming the waters, however, could be a tough task after Thomas emphasized in several recent interviews that his desire is to return to coaching. That might not bode well for Don Chaney, who has been coaching the Knicks throughout their decline into insignificance.

The task confronting Thomas is a difficult one if he wants to overhaul a roster with the league's highest payroll _ $88 million. The contracts of Houston, Van Horn, Howard Eisley and Shandon Anderson will take up almost all of the team's salary cap space for the next three seasons,

``Everyone who looks at the cap situation, the first thing they say is, `You can't fix this, you can't do it,''' Thomas said. ``We have to be a team that's very unconventional and very creative in going out and getting players.''

Thomas paused several seconds when asked his opinion of the Sprewell-Van Horn trade.

``I wasn't on the watch,'' Thomas said. ``What's done is done.''

With the Knicks losing regularly and failing to draw the sellout crowds that were a staple during the 1990s, Layden became a lightning rod for criticism.

The anti-Layden feeling was so strong in New York that when LeBron James was selected with the No. 1 pick in the draft at the Garden last June, commissioner David Stern's announcement of the selection was drowned out by a loud chant of ``Fire Layden!''

``I'm going to commend Mr. Dolan because he surprised me the way he pulled the trigger,'' Lee said, drawing a reference to the film The Godfather. ``It was a cool Corleone move, straight up Corleone. It shocked me.''

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