Showdown: Isiah Thomas vs. George Costanza

I’m not a huge basketball fan, but being in the New York radio & TV market and being a sports fan has made it nigh impossible to not know something of the disaster that was Isiah Thomas’s reign as head coach and president of basketball operations for the New York Knicks. In four full seasons as the team president and two as head coach, Isiah’s Knicks set new standards in futility, twice tying the team record for losses in a season (59 of 82 games). Playing in a city with a proud sports heritage, the Knicks became the real-life equivalent of the Washington Generals.

But losing was only part of the humiliation – tawdry scandal and general piss-poor decision-making reared their ugly heads at every turn with Thomas. In trying to think of a sports executive who displayed equal parts cluelessness and bad taste, I had to turn to the fictional world of the long-running sitcom Seinfeld, which placed the typically incompetent George Costanza in a cushy assignment with the New York Yankees. A stretch? Yeah, probably. But hey, let’s run with it anyway.

Impact on Team Success

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. Whatever anyone thinks about these two, what really matters to fans is how their respective teams performed.

IT – The Knicks made the playoffs as the Eastern Conference’s seventh seed the same season Thomas was hired, but were swept in the first round by the rival New Jersey Nets. After that they finished with season win totals of 33, 23, 33, and 23 respectively. In other words, it wasn’t pretty at all.

GC – Assuming that the Seinfeld timeline was fairly faithful to real life, Costanza’s tenure with the Yankees would have been from about spring/summer 1994 until the spring of 1997 (approx. three seasons). During that time the Bronx Bombers made two playoff appearances, culminating with their 1996 World Series title, the team’s first since 1978. Sure, Costanza was only the assistant to the traveling secretary, but somebody had to make sure the players had clean hotel rooms waiting for them.

Verdict – It doesn’t take a statistician to see that the Yankees thrived with Costanza, while the Knicks shriveled with Thomas.

Off-Field/Court Misdeeds

Winning helps to cover up a lot, but it can only do so much. And if you’re losing, well, any outside indiscretions/distractions just make a bad situation even worse.

IT – Thomas did very little to endear himself to his team or its fans, but his nadir had to be the sexual harassment lawsuit brought against him and Madison Square Garden by former senior Knicks executive Anucha Browne Sanders. She alleged in her suit that Thomas made untoward sexual advances and described her with colorful and eloquent terms such as “bitch” and “ho”. After all the sordid details were revealed during the trial, Sanders won and was awarded $11.6 million in punitive damages. The parties eventually settled, but beyond any monetary damages, the PR damage was incalculable.

GC – George committed a carnal sin of his own when he started sleeping with his secretary (he was apparently turned on by her superior organizational skills). During a moment of passion he promised to give her a raise, which he was not authorized to do. The humiliation kicked in when he pleaded with George Steinbrenner to give her the raise, only to end up with a secretary who made more than he did. Later, toward the end of his tenure with the Yankees, George went out of his way to stomp on the team legacy – he wiped strawberries on an original Babe Ruth game jersey, streaked across Yankee Stadium (wearing a flesh-toned body suit), and dragged the team’s World Series trophy behind his car in the stadium parking lot.

Verdict – While Costanza’s buffoonery was obviously intentional, it caused relatively little harm to the team. Thomas cost his bosses and himself a hell of a lot of money, and in the process guaranteed that people were even more fixated on his childish stupidity than on his crappy coaching.

Player Relations

While getting along with a large group of distinct personalities is always desirable, it’s usually not possible. Still, you at least should strive to have their respect.

IT – Thomas didn’t make a whole lot of friends on the team, least of all mercurial point guard Stephon Marbury, who at some point became Isiah’s punching bag. Marbury had his own faults to be sure, but any time a player openly revolts as he did, some of the blame has to go to the coach. Thomas also ended up benching underperforming center Eddy Curry, for whom he had traded away what turned out to be a pair of valuable lottery draft picks.

GC – Although he didn’t have daily interaction with the players, Costanza certainly had an impact on most of them. Memorably, he made them all look like fools when he convinced the team brass to switch to all-cotton uniforms, which proceeded to shrink and split. Mostly he was just a nuisance, as when he made Danny Tartabull miss a public television fundraiser, or when he pressured Paul O’Neill to hit two homers in a game for a sick kid.

Verdict – Tough call here – loathing vs. persistent annoyance. I’ll declare this one a draw.

Relations with Superiors

IT – For some inexplicable reason, Thomas seemed to have the ear of Knicks owner James Dolan. Long after it was apparent that the team was going nowhere fast with Isiah, Dolan even handed him a lucrative contract extension. As a result, the team currently owes the still-employed but title-less Thomas in the neighborhood of $18 million for doing absolutely nothing.

GC – It’s hard to argue that Costanza’s stay with the Yankees wasn’t at least two years too long, but that was more of a reflection on his employers’ inattention than on his obvious incompetence. Still, he did manage to get himself temporarily sent to a chicken distributor in exchange for having the Yankee Stadium concessions converted to all-chicken products; and he was sent to Cuba to recruit a player for the Yankees, only to find that Castro was just as clueless and long-winded as Steinbrenner. And when he was finally let go from the team he received what amounted to a pretty standard severance package.

Verdict – It’s hard to beat getting $18 million for just showing up to work, so this is a big win for Thomas.

Final Verdict

Well, I tried. Even when I wandered into the realm of fiction I simply couldn’t find a sports executive whose unique mixture of professional incompetence and sheer disregard for others matched that of Isiah Thomas.  Yikes.