BASKETBALL: The Most Hated Figure In The History of New York Sports?

I have to wonder at this point if Isiah Thomas is the most unpopular sports figure in New York history. At least while in New York, that is; Walter O’Malley is still hated in many quarters 50 years after taking the Dodgers from Brooklyn, but O’Malley was only disliked for leaving town. Leo Durocher was hated by Dodger fans when he managed the Giants and Giants fans when he managed the Dodgers, but that’s also not the same.
Consider the elements that went into Isiah’s unpopularity:
1. As a player, he was a hated rival of the team.
2. He came to town with a seemingly endless stream of controversies in his past, many of them racially charged.
3. His prior record as a coach, GM and league executive was an unbroken string of failures, including the collapse of the league he ran.
4. He took over in NY as both the GM and, subsequently, the coach, thus eliminating any competition (other than the owner who hired him) for the fans’ hatred.
5. He assembled a roster that was unsuccessful, seemingly designed not to play well together to match the talents of the players involved, expensive, not young, and not full of hustling, aggressive players. After this failed, he basically turned that roster over for another one just like it.
6. This method of roster construction left the team unable to change its direction for the foreseeable future due to the salary cap, while competing teams found ways to acquire major stars on the market at the same time.
7. On top of the failures in constructing, motivating and managing the team, he managed to get himself embroiled in a sensationally ugly offseason sex scandal.
8. He is apparently in no danger of ever being fired.
It’s reached the point where the Onion’s satire seems plausible enough and Knicks fans are reduced to discussing assassinating the coach.
I’ve certainly seen unpopular people in NY before. M. Donald Grant comes to mind after the Seaver trade, Steinbrenner’s been hugely unpopular at times, and of course there’s Joe Walton. Plenty of failed players have found ways to expand their portfolio of unpopularity, like Bobby Bonilla. Going back further, I don’t believe there was ever this kind of hate directed at the likes of Ralph Branca or Fred Merkle or Joe Pisarcik or even Charles Smith.
Unless someone has a compelling case for someone else, I’m going with Isiah.

18 thoughts on “BASKETBALL: The Most Hated Figure In The History of New York Sports?”

  1. During their playing days, the difference between Isiah Thomas and Bill Laimbeer was that Laimbeer had the decency to be upfront about being a jackass.

  2. Thomas stuns me every day I hear something about him, and that’s coming from 3000 miles away. After his stint in the CBA, I would have thought that there’d be no place for him going up the ladder of responsibility, but I guess the Peter Principle can be outdone in some instances. He is way beyond his level of incompetence.

  3. To be fair, Isiah wasn’t a failure as a coach of the Pacers from 2000-2003. He won 41, 42 and 48 games and made the playoffs all three years. The first two years the Pacers went in as the 8th and 7th seeds so losing to the 76’ers and Pistons wasn’t surprising. In 2003 they were upset by the Celtics in the first round but they weren’t that much better (the Celts had 44 wins). The following season Rick Carlisle took over and the Pacers led the NBA in wins but they lost in the Eastern Conference Finals so they were still a disappointment.

  4. Isiah also wasn’t a failure as a GM of the Raptors. He drafted Damon Stoudamire, Marcus Camby and Tracy McCrady.
    As for Isiah’s record with the Knicks, I respectfully direct you to the multi-part “Book of Isiah” series at, which makes a detailed and compelling case that Isiah has done a passable, or even excellent, job as a GM considering the horrendous situation he inherited from Scott Layden.
    More to the point, however, I don’t think Isiah is particularly singular in attracting fan hatred. The chants for Ray Handley’s head were deafening at Giants Stadium (as well as Joe Walton). Also, Hubie Brown was hugely unpopular as a Knicks coach. William Goldman, in the book he co-wrote with Mike Lupica, talks about the chants of “Hubie Sucks” starting during the national anthem. Those were also ugly years. Steinbrenner hatred, as you mentioned, was the only thing that brought together Yankee and Mets fans (and was even the subject of Frank Costanza’s tirade to Steinbrenner on Seinfeld).
    That said, Isiah probably is the least popular person in connection with the media that I can remember in the last 40 years. At least Steinbrenner would feed them dirt and deliberately cause conflict. Isiah just ignores them, which drives them crazy.

  5. I’m no longer in NYC, and I stopped caring about the NBA years ago, so take what I say with a shaker of salt, but I would suspect the Knicks have been bad enough, for long enough now—coupled with the decline of the Leaue in general—that people in NY probably don’t care as much as they did in your historical villain scenarios…

  6. I haven’t thought of Joe Pisarcik in a long time, and probably because I’ve blocked him from my memory. I can’t say I hated him, though. It’s just that he and the Giants team of that era always seemed to find a way to lose a game.
    Isiah, on the other hand, is definitely in a class of his own.

  7. While Zeke did inherit a messed up situation he has done nothing but throw gas on the fire. I’ve read some of the stuff on and it a totally apologist point of view. His passing out of bad contracts to bad players, bad trades and bad draft picks (not to mention the Hubie Brown fiasco or his sexual harrassment issue-which Norm McDonald described as “having to pay $11 million dollars to not have sex with an ugly woman”) has saddled the Knicks for years to come with no possibility of anything but a losing team. They invented the so-called “Allen Houston Rule” to allow teams to trim bad contracts by cutting a player and then the Knicks did not cut the aforementioned Allen Houston who had an egregious contract and could not play. There is no doubt that every credible GM in the NBA who has a lopsided trade in mind calls Zeke first.
    Remember the scene in Seinfeld when George is doing his opposite thing and gets an interview with the Yankees, meets “Steinbrenner”, proceeds to chew him out and gets hired. They could easily re-create that now with some forelorn Knicks fan and Zeke.

  8. His only real competition would have to be Jim Dolan himself, who contributed to the Knicks sucking before Isiah arrived, gave him an extension when they still sucked, didn’t fire him even after the sex scandal, and will likely ensure the Knicks keep on sucking for years after Zeke is gone.
    Not to mention, also running the Rangers, he’s managed to suck in two sports at once 🙂

  9. No, I think O’Malley is still number 1. John Brush might be 2. And I will personally never forgive or forget M. Donald Grant. Never. Not ever.

  10. Zeke does not rate the hate. Mr Furious nailed it, too few folks give a damn about the Knicks and NBA in New York. Regarding NY hoops, I hold a greater grudge against Mike Jarvis. Zeke and Dolan amuse me, I enjoy the action in court more than the action on court.

  11. Well, if you’re going back to John Brush, what about Andrew Freedman, aka “George Steinbrenner on Quaaludes” (Bill James, natch). Until the fans surround him when he’s trying to leave the floor, Isiah will be #2. (And if that happens, I don’t think Dolan will let him give the fans their money back.)

  12. Not to mention, also running the Rangers, he’s managed to suck in two sports at once 🙂
    That’s the thing – the Rangers have turned things around and are back to being one of the better franchises in hockey. So how has he managed to mess up one franchise so spectacularly, while the other has clearly turned a corner?

  13. Charles Smith gets a bad rap. His teamates should have been crashing the lane behind him so he could dump off to them, not watching him try to push up a shot with 3 long-armed jumping jacks surrounding him.
    Sometimes NY basketball fans are really stupid, especially about big men, but then they’re usually little Italian and Jewish guys who never had the stones to play inside anyway.
    /incendiary short-guy snarking

  14. paul – It certainly appears that what has, at least to some extent, fixed the Rangers was the new collective bargaining agreement, which forced the team to abandon the Dolan style of throwing good money after bad to sign high priced guys who were good three years ago. Glenn Sather does have a pretty good history with young players, after all. But pre-strike, they went almost a decade with the highest payroll in the game, and never made the playoffs.

  15. Smith was fouled. Repeatedly. But in basketball, you earn the foul. Had it been Charles Oakley under there, he would have gotten the call because he would have made the contact a lot harder. Smith’s wussiness cost him the chance to draw the whistle.

  16. Regarding the Rangers, two things:
    1. Glen Sather runs the Rangers, not Zeke.
    2. What saved the Rangers was the rule changes put in place just after the lockout ended, when the NHL had finally (and after way too long) had enough of bad, boring, illegal (according to the rules of the game) hockey in which the refs had stopped enforcing the rules against interference, hooking, slashing, obstruction and the like. As with Thomas, Dolan is the only owner in the world who would still employ Sather after his record with the team. Sather basically is still running off the model he used in Edmonton, where he did, legitimately, build one of the all-time great dynasties, the one centered around Gretzsky, Kurri, and Messier. The problem was, by the time Sather got to the Rangers, the NHL was mired in a low-scoring, defensive era, sort of the hockey equivalent of the Dead Ball Era or the late ’60s in baseball, and the team he built just couldn’t succeed in that era. It was like building a station-to-station team in the Dead Ball era, or trying to put togther an offense based on high batting average in Shea or Dodger Stadium.
    Since the rule changes and enforcement of existing rules subsequent to the lockout, hockey has become a more balanced game, and as a result, the Rangers of the past three years basically fell ass-backward into success because they had a team pre-built to take advantage of way hockey is played today, built in an age when it was totally out of place, and thus the result of sheer dumb luck and not any special type of managerial legedarmaine on Sather’s part. And the Rangers have other problems as well, that date back to before the lockout and continue on now, but I’ve gotten the basics out, and don’t want to turn this into a full-blown essay. Enjoy.

  17. Crank, point taken. And even if I disagreed I wouldn’t say so. Oakley might read it and take it as a slight against him. I have small children, you know, who need their father.

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