PARIS - David Stern shouldered the blame for initially allowing the Knicks to hire Isiah Thomas, their former team president and coach, as a special consultant in August, only to deny the move a few days later.
"I blew that one pretty good," the NBA commissioner said here Thursday in a meeting with New York-based reporters.
Though he wasn't directly involved, Stern said he was aware of the plan to bring Thomas back into the organization. It wasn't until after the Knicks announced the move that the NBA's legal staff told Stern the hiring did not comply with league rules because Thomas, the coach at Florida International, works at the NCAA level.
The announcement produced so much media and fan outrage in New York that it made the reversal an easy call. Donnie Walsh had just spent the summer rebuilding the roster, and fan optimism was at a 10-year high. News of Thomas' return, and reports suggesting it was the first step in eventually replacing Walsh, created controversy at a time when the club appeared to have finally found stability.
When Stern was asked if he would have stood in the way of the Knicks bringing back Thomas if there hadn't been a compliance issue, he said, "Absolutely not." Thomas has said he intends to work again in the NBA, and friends say he wants another chance to be a general manager.
Thomas was hired in December 2003 but his teams qualified for the playoffs only once in five seasons despite often having the NBA's highest payroll. It eventually was enough for Stern to recommend that the Knicks have Walsh step in to fix the mess.
About two years after Walsh came to New York, the Knicks are among the showcase teams in the NBA's annual international preseason tour. Stern, a native New Yorker who grew up as a Knicks fan, spoke glowingly of the revitalization of one of his anchor franchises.
"Donnie has done what he was brought in to do," Stern said. "They have a team that's young, talented and athletic and on an upward tick, with just enough question marks to make it interesting. I think the fans of New York will be in for a fun season."
The Knicks could return to the international stage again soon, as Stern was pleased with how the team "responded well" as part of the NBA Europe Live tour this past week in Milan and Paris. Perhaps by then the roster will include more stars to join Amar'e Stoudemire and compete with loaded teams such as the Heat, Celtics and Lakers.
Stern sounded as if he has no problem with the example set by LeBron James and Chris Bosh during the summer. The Knicks are planning to join that party by trading for Carmelo Anthony this season or signing him as a free agent next summer. Then the idea is to have Anthony and Stoudemire help lure Chris Paul or Deron Williams in 2012.
"I grew up in the sport with the Celtics and Lakers having Hall of Fame teams," Stern said. "To me, you always have players who want to play for winners."
Stern said he is "a little bit of a fan" and that he even kept an eye on Russian rookie Timofey Mozgov at the FIBA World Championships last month. Though he is quick to say that as commissioner, he roots for all his teams, it's undeniable that the Knicks hold a special place in his heart. He praised Walsh for getting the team under the salary cap and also spoke highly of the privately funded $750-million Garden renovation.
Said Stern: "I think the Knick organization in itself should be given its due."
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