LOS ANGELES -- "This is part of being a coach in this league," Isiah Thomas said, as if having a key player skip a game, fly home, then fly all the way back across the country was as normal as calling a play from the sideline.
The crazy thing is he's right, these kinds of things do happen in the NBA -- and only the NBA. For instance, Rod Strickland went AWOL twice; first in Portland, then in Washington. But they only happen to the teams that deserve it, to the ones that don't heed the warning signs, ignorantly and arrogantly believing that things will improve.
It says a lot about the New York Knicks that Stephon Marbury showed up to work for them on Wednesday. We've learned that no act is too disgraceful for them, not assembling an overpriced, underachieving roster or failing to win a playoff game or having sex with an intern in the back of a truck or dragging the franchise through the public laundromat of a sexual harassment trial. And skipping a game in a snit isn't a horrible offense either. Oh, it cost Marbury money. But in the world of Madison Square Garden, financial payouts are merely an inconvenience -- an $18.5 million settlement with a fired coach here, an $11.6 million jury award to a former employee there.
Marbury should have been suspended for his insubordinate act of flying home after getting in an argument with Thomas about playing time. There were reports -- all denied by the Knicks -- that punches were thrown and Marbury threatened to dish info on Thomas. The fact that he wasn't suspended shows that the Knicks are just that desperate. Indeed, Marbury's starting lineup replacement in Phoenix, Mardy Collins, sprained his foot and was unavailable Wednesday.
Marbury was docked about $195,000, according to reports, for missing the game in Phoenix Tuesday. That got his attention all right, prompting him to catch a 7:45 a.m. flight to Los Angeles Wednesday morning. But he was rewarded with the privilege of playing in an NBA game. And what type of message did that send to his teammates? Anytime you want to take an unpaid vacation during the season, your uniform will be hanging in your locker when you return.
So there was Marbury, one day and 4,600 air miles later, bouncing into Staples Center, all smiles as he entered the locker room and prepared for a game against the Los Angeles Clippers. He came onto the court for some practice shots. A Knicks fan yelled, "Good shot Steph! All day!" sounding like one of those entourage members at an open boxing workout.
At the conclusion of his pregame workout Marbury stopped at the edge of the court to meet the media.
"I'm here to play basketball," Marbury said. "I'm just going to concentrate on that. I'm going to leave it internal, like Isiah said. I would expect that everyone can just respect that. That's it. That's all I really have to say."
A little while earlier, Thomas used a lot more words, but essentially said the same thing, his core message being:
"Whatever we discussed, that will remain a private matter between us and our team."
Marbury didn't start, but he did play 33½ minutes making 4 of 12 shots (13 points) in an 84-81 loss to the Clippers. He said he was tired. Guess crisscrossing the country can have that effect.
If anyone had a legitimate excuse to be tired it was Zach Randolph, who had missed the previous two games to be with his family in Indiana after his grandmother passed away on Friday. Randolph scored 16 points on 5-for-18 shooting from the field and pulled down 19 rebounds.
"I wanted to help the guys out, any possible way I can," Randolph said. "I know that's what my grandma wanted me to do, is play."
Those are the stories we love in sport, guys making commitments to their teammates in the most trying of circumstances. It's too bad it had to be overshadowed by the Marbury circus.
Marbury's presence on the court was strictly business, Thomas made clear afterward.
"My goal is to try to win a basketball game," Thomas said. "I've played with people I don't like, I've won with people I don't like. We're a professional basketball team. My job is to try to win a basketball game.
"However I feel about a person, that doesn't matter. We're trying to win. Whatever happened in the past is in the past and we move forward."
Before the game, Thomas expressed some hope that Marbury could provide the leadership and defense the team required from the point guard position (the implication being that he had yet to do so).
"There's work to be done here," Thomas said. "Unfortunately, sometimes lessons in life have to be learned on a public stage. But this is what we do and this is what sports is all about. This is how you overcome tough situations and this is how you overcome adversity. He's a kid that made it out of Coney Island. I think what I'm asking him to do, he's capable of doing it. If he can't do it we have to find someone who can."
But why would Marbury learn a lesson now, when his career has been a series of bad decisions and bad results, and yet he continues to be rewarded. All of his previous NBA stops -- Minnesota, New Jersey and Phoenix -- nobody forced the Knicks to take on Marbury's $76 million contract. And even if they buy it out, as they reportedly have discussed, he'll still get the bulk of the $42 million that remains.
This is how and why organizations stay in ruts.
Thomas said, "I'm not going to settle for us being the same type of basketball team that we were last year." But after losing to the Clippers the Knicks are 2-5 -- exactly what they were after seven games last season on their way to a 33-49 record.
On a bad shooting night by both teams, the Knicks came back and tied the score after trailing by 16 points. This is the pattern they established last year, especially at home. Bad game, furious comeback, close loss.
In the final minute, with the Clippers ahead by two, Marbury missed a 3-pointer from the corner. Then Cuttino Mobley came down, backed in Marbury and made a turnaround bank shot over him.
So much for leadership and defense.
The Knicks lost with Marbury, just like they lost their previous game without Marbury. The Knicks didn't gain anything by playing him. They just lost a little bit of the minimal amount of credibility they have left.
Marbury did express remorse when he addressed his teammates, but he sure didn't seem like a humbled man by the whole experience.
"I feel good," Marbury said. "I'm cool. I can walk with my head up. I know there was speculation, things that I said, which I know that's not even my character. Going forward, I'm fine. I'm able to do that."
He's able to do it because the Knicks enabled him. Just like always.
J.A. Adande joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.