NEW YORK (AP) -The final seconds ticking away, the ``Fire Isiah!'' chants grew louder. Just another night at Madison Square Garden.
Even during a rare Knicks win.
Movie director and die-hard Knicks fan Spike Lee was back in his courtside seat for that recent victory over New Jersey. The Knicks even looked like a good basketball team that night.
They're not. But as a soap opera, they're unbeatable - and perhaps the most dysfunctional team in America right now.
The jeers start the moment Thomas is introduced, and the Knicks are desperate to find ways to throw the dogs off the scent.
Take, for example, ``Kid's Night.'' Besides an excellent ``Simon Says'' competition at halftime, the Garden has a 12-year-old girl introducing the starting lineups for Philadelphia and New York. No way the fans can work up their usual anger after such a cute voice, can they?
``For your New York Knicks, the head coach is Isiah Thomas!''
Yes, they can.
After all, the Knicks are 7-17, last in the Atlantic Division despite a league-high payroll of more than $95 million.
It's even worse off the court.
Thomas had to defend his conduct toward a former team executive and the team's fans - all in one night. He reportedly received a vote of confidence from his boss - minutes after his team fell into last place.
Still, Thomas remains hopeful, even when his team looks hopeless.
``There's a lot of time left, and I've been around a long time,'' he said. ``Before you know it, you're right back in the thick of things.''
Somehow, the Knicks always are. Usually as someone's punch line.
``We had a rough start, but we're starting to stabilize here.'' - Isiah Thomas, pregame.
Nobody buys that, because nothing about the Knicks implies stability. Certainly not after an awful loss at last-place Philadelphia the night before. The 76ers are here tonight for the rematch, and the Knicks look even worse, losing 105-77.
The ``Fire Isiah!'' cries come frequently during the blowout, so the MSG staff crank up the volume on the music and sound effects to try drown out the voices. It doesn't work. Thomas admits hearing the chants but not the songs.
``I love these guys. They're good people and they're good players, and have to work, that's all. I'm satisfied with our team.'' - Isiah Thomas.
``KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK'' blares the back-page headline in the New York Post.
Following the loss to the 76ers, a Knicks official leaked word that MSG chairman James Dolan had given Thomas a vote of confidence during a postgame meeting. Perhaps the fact that the loss dropped New York into last place was lost on Dolan.
It's not all laughs, though. Stephon Marbury has left the team, realizing he's not ready to play just a week after his father's death. Donald Marbury was taken from Madison Square Garden to a hospital at halftime of a loss to Phoenix on Dec. 2 and died before the game ended.
Marbury played against the Sixers but found returning to the Garden too emotional. He'll miss four more games before he's prepared to come back.
``As I've said before, I am completely innocent, this decision doesn't change that. However, it's in the best interests of Madison Square Garden to move forward, and I fully support it.'' - Isiah Thomas, pregame.
Thomas begins his press conference with that statement, just in case anyone thought we were here to talk about basketball.
Earlier in the day, MSG agreed to pay $11.5 million in the sexual harassment suit brought by former team executive Anucha Browne Sanders against Thomas, Dolan and MSG. The trial embarrassed the organization, the NBA and forced Thomas to explain to Al Sharpton, Rutgers women's coach C. Vivian Stringer and others just what he means when he uses the word ``bitch.''
Still, commissioner David Stern, who wanted the Knicks to settle the case without ever going to trial, announces the next day he won't punish Thomas or the Knicks.
Mark Cuban is here, and the New York writers are delighted.
The Dallas owner is media savvy and accessible, unlike Dolan. And it's obvious how much Cuban cares about winning.
Dolan talks twice a season to a select group of writers. He's remained silent since rewarding Thomas with a multiyear contract extension in March, and there are no plans for him to speak anytime soon.
The writers try to get Cuban to say something about the Knicks' leadership, but he sees right through it.
``Look at you guys trying to get me to pop up the one-liner that can run headlines everywhere, and that's how much pressure there is in this town,'' Cuban says. ``Dallas is a heavy pressure sports market, but nothing compares to this.''
With fans focusing most of their wrath on center Eddy Curry's poor first-half performance, Thomas gets a temporary reprieve. But as the Mavericks pull away in the third quarter on their way to a 99-89 victory, the ``Fire Isiah!'' chants resume, as loud as they've been at any point this season.
A TV replay will show Dallas coach Avery Johnson - one of the most intense people in the league - looking as if he's trying to avoid chuckling in disbelief. Earlier in the day, he was asked what it must be like to face what Thomas does.
``The New York fans have historically been pretty tough, even when Patrick Ewing was here,'' he said. ``Don't catch amnesia. They treated Patrick Ewing pretty rough on some nights for all he did. ... If they can boo him, they can boo anybody.''
Ewing, the Knicks' career scoring leader, got a huge ovation last month when he returned as an Orlando Magic assistant coach. Maybe there's still hope for Thomas.
With press seating at NBA games often right on the floor, there's more interaction between the writers and the crowd than any other major sport.
After the game, fans will stop to peek at a story, vent about the Knicks and ask when Thomas will be fired.
After the final buzzer tonight, longtime season ticket holder Mara Altschuler walks directly to the press table and tells us how Thomas had a dialogue with some fans near the bench, blaming them for being a poor ``sixth man'' and claiming the lack of support is the reason the Knicks are struggling at home.
Asked twice about her account during a brief postgame press conference, Thomas dances around the question both times.
``If there's one thing that I hope all of you know about me or will learn about me, I'll fight until I die. It's not about giving up or quitting. To me, it's win or die. And I literally mean death, I don't mean walk away, I mean death. And that's how I approach it.'' - Isiah Thomas
That quote comes near the end of what, even by Knicks standards, might have been the season's wackiest interview session.
The final tally from Thomas' remarks to the media: 11-plus minutes, 12 questions.
Questions about anything that takes place on the court: zero.
He's constantly searching for ways to avoid saying anything that would make Dolan mad.
Dolan's media policies are clear: Nobody talks to the press without a public relations official present, and criticizing the team in the media isn't allowed.
A PR staff member is always nearby, listening in on conversations and typing notes into a BlackBerry.
Thomas isn't about to ignore that. Not after the last coach, Larry Brown, only got $18.5 million of the more than $40 million that remained on his deal after Dolan fired him. Dolan claimed he didn't have to pay the whole contract because Brown violated MSG policies.
Thomas has won more than Brown. And he talks a whole lot less.
``I get a lot of support from coaches around the league, from my former coaches and players. It's a difficult challenge here, arguably the most difficult challenge in sports. They sympathize with you but they still have to do their job, too, and their job is to try to beat you.'' - Isiah Thomas.
The Knicks are wearing uniforms from the 1972-73 season, when they won the last of their two NBA titles. Might as well be nostalgic, because thoughts of another championship have rarely seemed further away.
The Knicks fall 117-110 to a Seattle team that lost by 27 points the night before in Chicago and didn't even arrive in its New York hotel until about 4 a.m.
Worse, there are signs the fans are losing interest. Even with rookie sensation Kevin Durant making his lone appearance here this season, the announced crowd of 17,637 is the Knicks' smallest of the season at home. Those who do come seem bored for most of the game.
It's a tough scene for Seattle coach P.J. Carlesimo, who estimates he's been in the Garden as a coach or fan hundreds of times, sometimes sitting two rows behind the bench during the Knicks' championship seasons.
Can Madison Square Garden still be great when the Knicks aren't?
``It doesn't get much more special than when the Knicks are winning world championships in this building,'' Carlesimo said. ``But still, I think of Big East championships, I think of Muhammad Ali fighting here. It's great when the Knicks are, but it's still Madison Square Garden. The building's bigger than the Knicks.''
``I only know one way out, and that's to put your hard hat on and start digging.'' - Isiah Thomas.
Thomas must long for more days like this.
With the Mitchell Report on drug use in baseball to be released later in the day, and reports already circulating that it will include Yankees pitchers Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, the Knicks couldn't land on the back pages of the tabloids if they tried.
Combine that with a winter storm that drops the first significant snowfall of the season in the area, and only three writers make the trip to the Knicks' practice facility, about 25 miles north of New York City.
The Knicks are rushing so they can get to the airport for their flight to Chicago, where they will lose the next night. Thomas takes a few minutes of fairly easy questions, even laughing and joking.
``We finally got a win tonight, but we still have a long, long, long, long, long way to go, and we've just got to keep working.'' - Isiah Thomas, postgame.
The fans can't get rid of Thomas, but maybe they can make some money off their desire.
That's what Scott Suprina is trying to do. Seated in section 66, the season ticket holder is wearing a FIRE ISIAH hat that he and his son created and are selling at
Suprina wants a change because he doesn't think the Knicks play hard for Thomas.
``Anybody can coach a winning team. You look great when you coach a winning team,'' Suprina said. ``It takes somebody special to motivate people who are out there getting paid millions of dollars whether they win or lose. And that's why 'Fire Isiah' makes sense.''
No such talk is coming from the guy in the orange hat seated across from the Knicks' bench.
Spike Lee is back in his courtside spot after spending time working on a project in Europe. He became a season ticket-holder when the Knicks got Ewing, and while frustrated with the record, says the Knicks can still turn things around this season.
``It's obvious it's disappointing. You look at the roster. We're a better team than this. But the season's still young, and I'm not giving up,'' he said. ``It's going to get better.''
It does for a night as the Knicks break their five-game skid with a 94-86 victory. Curry and Zach Randolph combine for 43 points and 22 rebounds, clicking as they rarely have this season.
It's an encouraging victory, because the Nets have dominated the rivalry in recent years. Now with Marbury set to return, the Knicks will be healthy and whole. LeBron James and Kobe Bryant come to town this week, so the Garden will be packed.
Stay tuned.

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