It's a Monday night in late February, nearly three-quarters of the way through the 2008-2009 NBA season, and the pasty-faced man who single-handedly whacked point guard Stephon Marbury from the New York Knicks' existence is holed up in his office in the bowels of Madison Square Garden, sifting through a mass of papers while taking quick drags of water from a plastic bottle.
When Mike D'Antoni passed up the cushy Chicago Bulls' coaching gig to take on the same position with the dreaded Knicks in May 2008, some friends thought he'd totally lost it, if not committed career suicide. Why would a coach with such a stellar track record, building the Phoenix Suns from a nothing, spiritless bunch into a Pacific Division run-and-gun powerhouse, do a crazy thing like that? Why would he follow the self-destructions of Larry Brown and Isiah Thomas into such a black hole of an organization—a bottom-dwelling team of hopelessly negative vibes, terribly disconnected parts, and a ridiculously bloated payroll, which not only hadn't cracked above the .500 mark in seven straight seasons but suffered through two years in which they lost more than 70 percent of their games? Well, everybody needs a challenge, is how D'Antoni essentially would put it later, smiling as if he knew something the rest of us didn't.
His biggest challenge, of course, was what to do with the chronically unhappy Marbury, the team's highest-paid player (at an obese $21 million a year), lone legitimate star, and resident problem child, whom D'Antoni's Suns, coincidentally or not, had traded away to the Knicks in January 2004. In the time since, the man who once proclaimed himself "the best point guard in the NBA"—to mostly rolling eyes and snickers—had not only become the grim, if not glowering face of a once-great franchise, but its abysmal body language: slumped over on the bench, head hung low, white towel draped over him.
Marbury's highlight reel with the Knicks, his fourth pro team, featured neither a single play-off victory nor a shred of any ability to make those around him better (to where, under his shoot-first, pass-second guidance, the team plummeted to dead last in assists one season). Instead, there were a string of protracted beefs with coaches, including an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with Isiah aboard a team plane, in which afterward he reportedly issued the cryptic threat: "Isiah has to start me. I've got so much shit on Isiah—and he knows it." There were suspensions and fines, and one odious appearance in the Anucha Browne Sanders sexual harassment case against Isiah and MSG in which Marbury admitted on the witness stand to an extramarital romp with a Knicks' intern in the back of a truck.
D'Antoni's answer to the Marbury situation was simple, shocking, and unprecedented: a preemptive strike of addition by subtraction. From Day One of the regular season, without a triggering incident or a hint of forewarning, he performed a David Blaine trick, if not something taken from an episode of the "Sopranos": He made the perfectly healthy, tatted-up guard all but disappear right before our eyes, pinning him to the bench and keeping him there, ultimately having him dressed in civvies and listed among the "inactive" walking dead, as if to say: "I'll be damned if I give this guy a chance to screw it up for me the way he did all the others."
It not only stunned Marbury, but supposedly caught MSG owner James Dolan and Knicks team president Donnie Walsh completely by surprise as well. While some felt the unusual move was entirely understandable, if not well deserved, others viewed it as mean-spirited with the Knicks refusing to release him to play elsewhere and Marbury doing a decent job of painting himself as a powerless, pissed-on David fighting a soulless "billion-dollar" Goliath. "[Marbury] was actually looking like the victim, for a change," says the ever-frank ESPN basketball analyst Stephen A. Smith. "It seemed to me that [what the Knicks did at the beginning of the season] was juvenile. It created an unnecessary soap opera. Keeping him on the bench in street clothes? Just send him home. It was almost like [D'Antoni] wanted to embarrass him. Stephon deserved to be out there, in his jersey, competing for a spot. Besides, how can you sell Knicks fans that you're trying to win when your best player is sitting on the bench?" Adds a former head PR man for a major sports team, requesting anonymity: "[The Knicks] essentially robbed a year from a 30-something guy who has a limited window of playing opportunity. I hope a lot of thought went into that."
Yet what happened to Marbury was only the most enduring episode of a startling wave of events this winter, a seemingly righteous cultural shift, as if the collective powers that be in sports, finally fed up, said, "Enough's enough," and thusly conspired to unleash a karmic comeuppance, by any means necessary, on the most notorious malcontents and misanthropes, oddballs and yammer mouths, bad boys and drama kings.
Character suddenly mattered. Consequence suddenly appeared. Payback, long overdue, suddenly prevailed.
Like the Dallas Cowboys, despite having to take a $9 million hit to their salary cap, dumping Terrible T.O., Terrell Owens, one of football's greatest wide receivers but who has spent a career alienating his quarterbacks and sucking the air out of every locker room in which he's resided.
Like Manny Ramirez, one of baseball's scariest hitters but also a dreadlocked flake, declaring free agency with virtually no one caring. The man rumored to have peed in water bottles behind Fenway's Green Monster, who seemingly thinks running full-speed is too much of an effort at times, and who's prone to sitting games out with dubious ailments was ultimately left to re-sign—for no longer than a piddling two seasons—with the Los Angeles Dodgers, apparently the only team still willing to let Manny be Manny anymore. On top of that, his former Boston Red Sox teammate, ace reliever Jonathan Papelbon delivered a less-than-nostalgic goodbye note, quoted in Esquire as saying: "(For Manny) not to be on the same page as the rest of the team was a killer, man! It just takes one guy to bring an entire team down, and that's exactly what was happening. It's like cancer...He had to go."
Like the New York Giants swallowing untold millions to release their best receiver, Plaxico Burress, who, with egregious lack of sense, showed up packing heat—an unlicensed .40-caliber Glock—at a Manhattan nightclub one evening last season, and ended up accidentally shooting himself in the thigh, abruptly derailing his team's mad dash for a second straight Super Bowl championship. Like the Dallas Stars severing ties with possibly hockey's most loathed player, left winger Sean Avery, only 23 games into a four-year, $15 million deal, after, in particularly bad taste, he accused a couple of NHL players of falling in love with his "sloppy seconds."
"The tail has wagged the dog for too long a time," insists Fox Sports's Tim McCarver, a former catcher who's been one of the baseball's best TV broadcasters for years. "I believe in independence. I think guys should be able to do their own thing. But I also believe in some conventionality when it comes to players adhering to team discipline. I believe in a civility that sports has gotten away from."
"These [problem stars]," says Gene Grabowski, who operates in the court of public opinion as a crisis management specialist for the D.C. firm Levick Strategic Communications, "are in for a rude awakening. The age of the coddled athlete is over. America is angry and confused over what's happening economically in their world. Just look at how we're scrutinizing Wall Street and the CEOs of all those failed companies. We're living in an era of accountability now, and more and more you're going to see these athletes, like those honchos in corporate life, thrown out with Golden Parachutes."
But the aftermath doesn't just magically get smoothed over. Even months after the Knicks banned Marbury for insubordination, exiling him to somewhere akin to Elba, his presence lingered awkwardly around The Garden to where his bright blue—cushioned locker, near the back left-hand corner, remained bizarrely intact, nameplate and all, albeit curiously empty—not even an orphaned sock—and scrubbed clean as if someone sanitized it daily. "Well, technically, he still is on the roster and payroll," an unsmiling Knicks employee, thoroughly missing the irony, reminds me.
A week earlier, at his stall directly across from Marbury's, veteran Quentin Richardson, dripping sweat from a pregame shoot-around and unplugging from his iPod, confessed: "We got a good thing going on here now. Coach D'Antoni is very positive, even pats you on the back when you do something wrong. We've moved on [from Marbury]." It should be noted that Richardson hadn't had much with do with Marbury since the two nearly mixed it up after a practice three years ago, needing to be separated by teammates. "When Stephon was here, there was always a side story," Richardson goes on. "I thought it took guts to do what [the Coach] did with him. That's how you get your team behind you, when you take a stance. You got to respect him for that, because it can make you or break you."
As it turns out, a prearranged private chat with D'Antoni, before a home game against the Indiana Pacers, is the day before Marbury and the Knicks would have one last showdown: an arbitration hearing to settle $400,000 worth of docked pay for Marbury's apparent refusal to play a November game in Detroit with the Knicks severely shorthanded (a week after which he stormed out of a meeting with Walsh and was summarily ordered to stay away from the Knicks indefinitely).
The Marbury thing, all this time later, continues to be touchy. "The Coach won't talk about that," a Knicks flack, upon finding out my intentions, tells me just minutes before the interview, eyes locked onto mine, adding the icy warning that if I even mention the word Marbury, "the interview's over." I have little choice other than to consent.
D'Antoni is kicked back in his chair, legs crossed. In his late 50s, he's a genial sort with a salt-and-pepper moustache, a disarming grin and a hiccup of a chuckle that often follows a constant flow of dry jokes. Although he's well-known as a player-friendly coach, if not a complete softie, his wife, Laurel, once made a point of acknowledging that when it comes to getting his way on the basketball court, he could—and would—be a "very cold [competitor that you] wouldn't want to cross." In fact, as a pro player in Italy nearly three decades ago, D'Antoni once up and clocked with a right hand some thuggish defender in the tunnel at halftime for doing nothing more than hand-checking him too hard. "He's extremely intense and prickly—like a big ol' cactus," Laurel said. "It's a beautiful thing to look at. But you don't touch."
Forced into a roundabout but safe route to the taboo formerly known as Marbury, the question is posed to D'Antoni about team chemistry, what it means to him; he answers the split second the question hits its punctuation point. "It's the most important thing," he says, immediately uncrossing his legs and leaning forward on his desk. "You want everybody pulling in the same direction, everybody happy with their roles, everybody confident and positive and in a working environment that gets the best out of them.
"The thing about basketball is that it's real connected, since you only have five people [on the court at any one time]. So if you have one guy off the reservation, that's 20 percent; it screws up the whole thing. "I do know that once you have [the right feel] you do everything to protect it—so it doesn't go away."
He pauses, chugs some water, then blurts: "It could be one person out of the locker room and things become good."
There it is, the aha! moment: D'Antoni's reasoning—uncomplicated, unvarnished, unapologetic—in a nutshell. He doesn't need to say the name. No one needs to hear it. But around 10 minutes later, during his usual pregame press briefing in a conference room down the hall, D'Antoni can't avoid the news of the arbitration hearing—or dealing with the M-word head-on one last time. "It's not a great situation for anybody," he says, his voice uncharacteristically strained and his grin transforming into flat-lined lips as he craned his neck around to look at the questioner. "I hate it for Steph. I hate it for the Knicks. I hate it for everybody. But we'll deal with it and get it over with." By night's end, D'Antoni had savored a slice of validation: the Knicks won their 24th game of the season, exceeding their 2007-2008 total, with 26 games to go. And by the next day, the Knicks, at last, released Marbury to pursue his craft some other place— bringing a merciful end to the NBA's messiest divorce of the season but not before, far more profoundly, providing a cautionary tale for problem stars everywhere.
Just mention Marbury and Owens in the same sentence to ESPN baseball analyst and former Mets general manager Steve Phillips, and before you even utter another name, it's already too much for him to handle without boiling over. "Listen, I watch Terrell Owens and I say, 'Never!' I mean, I know talent wins, but I'm not touching him. And Stephon Marbury, I don't care if I need another point guard," he says. "There are certain guys who are just misfits. They might be good for a year, on their best behavior while they form new relationships and [enjoy their] new surroundings. But once they get comfortable and start digging their heels in, they'll go off and do their own thing again"—which becomes a chemical catastrophe waiting to happen. "Because a clubhouse is a living, breathing organism, and when the head of that organism is acting and talking a certain way—bitching and moaning all the time, even when the team is winning—it gives permission to everybody else to be that way. It creates a pervasive negativity, destroys your team chemistry. And even though I believe that team chemistry doesn't win games, winning teams have the right chemistry, which is one of the great paradoxes."
Here's the dilemma, Phillips says: "You can have 25 of the nicest guys in the world on your team and that won't win either. That's just the way it is. So, [whether you're a GM or manager], you have to go in with the understanding that there will be some quirky, difficult personalities you'll have to deal with, some being your stars." But at the first sign of trouble "you have to confront guys quickly, trying to nip it in the bud [before it spreads], and in a respectful way—behind closed doors, not by leaking it to the media. Yes, even with bad guys, you show a level of respect, especially since others stars around the league you'll want in the future might be watching you."
Brian Billick, a Fox NFL game analyst who coached the Baltimore Ravens to a 2001 Super Bowl championship, once used this nifty little ploy on a receiver whose "self-interests were draining from the common good": "I called the guy in on a day off to go over the game plan. I wanted to make him feel involved in the thinking. 'Just tell me where you'd like to be on this play and I'll put you there,' I said. Then I said, 'Of course, I can't promise you that the ball will go there, because we don't know what the defense will do.' It was just a way of trying to prevent him from getting upset about things we really can't control."
The great former NFL coach Dan Reeves, for his part, would call the Problem Star into his office, gently shut the door behind him, and look the guy squarely in the eyes, the way a dad would a son not doing well in school. He wouldn't scream or reprimand or demand a thing, but with a measured tone, he'd reason, if not plead: "You know, you can be the best that's ever played the game. But you have to change a little. You've got to be willing to work a little harder, stay at the meetings a little longer, watch more game film." Then the kicker: "You know, it won't happen unless you make it happen." And the Problem Star would act like he took it all in, shaking his head like a bobble head doll, and even, in the most sincere way, make the promise to try. "But talk is cheap," says Reeves, now a football analyst for Sirius satellite radio. "There are a lot of coaches and organizations who still think players can change with a new system, or new scenery, but I don't know in all my years of coaching that I ever turned around a bad apple into a good one."
Still, hubris combined with an irresistible, blinding lust for talent—especially that of the wondrous kind—sometimes replaces rational thinking, Billick confesses, and makes you take a silly chance on what you know in your heart of hearts isn't good for you or your team in the long run. "You succumb to that pretty girl, so to speak," he says. "You convince yourself that you're a special enough coach to deal with the guy. 'He'll listen to me,' you say to yourself. 'I'll make him better. I'll make him a team player.' It's all a lie, of course. "Or, if you're a new coach coming in and already have [The Problem Star], you try the clean-slate approach. You dump everything that happened before on the last [coach], try to get the player to recognize there's an opportunity here. But…very few players take advantage of it. They are who they are, especially at the first bump in the road.
"That's why I think Coach D'Antoni did what he did [with Marbury]. He probably said to himself, 'Hey, I know how this is going to go down. I don't have the time to deal with this a year from now, six months from now, when it will eventually blow up. So I'm going to just cut to the chase right now.'" If the classic profile for the star athlete is a money-intoxicated narcissist with a distorted view of himself and the world around them, with a sublime sense of entitlement and being above the rules, then the problem ones, says Dr. Stanley Teitelbaum, a clinical psychologist who wrote the 2005 book Sports Heroes, Fallen Idols, are merely "extreme examples… [with the additional fatal flaw of having too much] aggression but no understanding of conflict resolution."
Indeed, according to his experience, says Reed Pickens, a former White House Assistant Press Secretary who's now the CEO of Outside Eyes, a consulting firm specializing in media strategy and crisis management, there are common threads clearly running through the personalities of players constantly getting into jams: "They don't listen well. They're stubborn. And they're surrounded by assistants and friends that laugh at all their jokes and do whatever they say—putting their lives in such a bubble that they're convinced everybody else is crazy and they're right." This is exacerbated, Gene Grabowski believes, by having "handlers who are often fast-taking guys barely older than they are. In fact, [the handlers] are just like [their clients]: arrogant, [feeling] entitled, paid a lot of money, think they can do no wrong—but who really don't understand crisis and career counseling."
It has all produced a strange brew of 21st century athletes—and, as a result, incredibly depressing times in the world of professional sports. We have a dog-abusing quarterback, who once seemed destined for greatness, being sent off, utterly disgraced, to federal prison; we have what we thought were future Hall-of-Famers turning into pariahs in the blink of an eye, now all but glowing from the radioactivity associated with steroids; and we have Pro Bowlers toting guns deep into the night as freely as they do their cell phones. "It's eroded the belief," says Dr. Teitelbaum, "that our superstars are pure, untainted, and worthy of adulation."
Eventually, T.O. landed with the off-the-map Buffalo Bills, his fourth professional home in only six years, though, true to form, whining that "everybody nit-picks anything and everything I do" and claiming that Cowboys owner Jerry Jones "blindsided" him. And just days after the Knicks waived him good riddance, Marbury signed with the 2008 champion Boston Celtics, relishing a bit of vengeance—and even spotted smiling, which is as rare as a yeti sighting—by making it to the play-offs while the Knicks didn't. Manny was, predictably, Manny—in major trouble a little more than a month into the season (and his new two-year, $45 million Dodger Blue contract), he was busted for using performance enhancers and suspended for 50 games. Around a month after the Stars waived the trash-talking, dirty-dealing Sean Avery, who had agreed to seek professional anger management, he returned to his old team, the Rangers (via the American Hockey League's Hartford Wolf Pack) in March, but in the first round of the play-offs was yanked a game by his coach for goonish behavior—in consecutive games, popping his stick under the chin of one opponent, then bloodying another with a fist to the face. And Plaxico Burress, well, he was waiting for his day in court, lost in that weird, uncomfortable nether zone between freedom and incarceration and wondering if he will play in the NFL in 2009.
Where we go from here is anyone's guess. Are we really in the midst of an era of accountability in sports? Will the bad actors continue to pay for their misdeeds, finally suffer consequences like the rest of us, and be forced to show some character or else?
Or was last winter nothing but a crazy coincidence, a freaky fluke, a terrible, terrible tease?
Freelance writer Michael P. Geffner lives in New York City. His work has been acknowledged by the annual anthology Best American Sports Writing.