Frank Isola started on the Knicks beat for the New York Daily News in the fall of 1996, when he was 29 years old. Now, at 46, he has been covering the team longer than anyone else.
Somewhere along the way he got on the team's bad side. These days, the Knicks will not allow Isola or anyone else from the News to conduct one-on-one interviews with players or coaches. The team's publicists regularly warn players, Madison Square Garden employees, and even other reporters to stay away from him, Isola told me.
"The assistant coaches, they're sometimes afraid to even look at you," he said. "It's the most bizarre working atmosphere."
On a cold afternoon in February, Isola drove his Honda Accord into Manhattan from his home in Montclair, N.J., and parked near the Garden, where the Knicks were playing the Bucks. He walked uptown, toward the SNY studio on Sixth Avenue, where he would be co-anchoring Daily News Live at 5 p.m. He stopped at the wide window and waved to his co-host, Joe Benigno, a veteran of WFAN. Then Isola stepped across West 51st Street and into a coffee shop. At the cash register he ordered a small coffee.
"I always say I'm like the Kevin Costner character in Bull Durham," he said, once he had sat down. "It's like being the all-time leader in home runs in the minor leagues, when you've been on the beat 17 years."
The Garden was a more pleasant place for him to work when he was starting out. Patrick Ewing was the star, Jeff Van Gundy was the coach, and the Knicks made the playoffs every year. But not long before Van Gundy resigned, in December 2001, the team instituted a media policy that required a PR official to be present for press interviews with players and coaches. The new rule was put in place in the first of what would become nine consecutive losing seasons. And sometime during the losing, the organization began to take an unfriendly view of Isola.
"It causes a lot of heartache," Isola said. "There's all this revisionist history with Jeff Van Gundy, like: 'Oh, you guys were his lapdogs.' We used to get into arguments with Jeff at practice about the way we were covering Patrick Ewing. He would be pissed off for a couple of days, but he got it. It was, 'All right, you guys are criticizing me,' but after a couple of days, it was over and done with."
The mood is different now.
"Here, they keep score," Isola said. "You're either with them or you're against them, and they want you to be biased. They want you to be 100 percent biased toward them, that everything they do is great."
As the Peter Gabriel love ballad "In Your Eyes" wafted down from the ceiling speakers, he began to get a little worked up.
"What are you supposed to write? They didn't make the playoffs for how many years? They hadn't had a winning season—what are you supposed to write? They turned Marbury against me, and I knew Stephon Marbury when he was 9 years old! But I have to be honest with the readers. Honest with myself."
This season, Isola has been critical of the team for downplaying the seriousness of the many injuries to its players, and he is forever annoyed by the Garden officials who keep surveillance of his locker-room interviews.
"They're professional eavesdroppers," said Isola, the Brooklyn-born son of a New York City police officer. "They tell the player, 'You gotta be careful, especially of Frank. He's going to burn you, this and that.' I always tell the player, I say, 'Listen. Go on the Internet and go find every single story I've written and you point out where I burned you. You tell me where I burned you.'"
Isola said he had a good relationship with Barry Watkins, the team's former head of public relations, but it has been a different story with Jonathan Supranowitz, who assumed the post in 2006. "I haven't spoken to the guy in four years," Isola said. "First of all, because he's evil. And he's a bad guy. Supranowitz. He's the worst."
He blames Supranowitz for the ouster of former Knicks assistant coach Tom Thibodeau, who is now the head coach of the Chicago Bulls.
"I've known Tom Thibodeau for 15, 16 years," Isola said. "He has never once given me a story. We were just very friendly. Whenever I used to get a story, he used to accuse Tom Thibodeau. Here's a guy who might be coach of the year, but they wanted to run him out of the organization not because he didn't do his job well—he was great at his job. They thought he was leaking stuff to me. This is how dangerous some of the people are in this organization. Tom is the most loyal employee you'll find, and these knuckleheads ran him out because they thought he was telling me stuff. I mean, give me a break."
(Supranowitz did not reply to an emailed request for comment.)
A similar incident occurred last summer. It arose from Isola’s relationship with Kurt Thomas, who played in New York this season after serving as a Knick from 1998 to 2005.
"I was friendly with Kurt Thomas, very friendly with him," Isola said, as "She's Gone" by Hall & Oates played in the background. "And Marbury hated Kurt Thomas. So any time I had a story, they were convinced that Kurt Thomas was telling me—to the point where Kurt was like, 'I know they're trading me in the off-season.' I said, 'A hundred percent.' Sure enough, they traded Kurt. And when they made the trade to bring Kurt back [last summer], I called him up and I said, 'I feel bad for you.' He said, 'Why?' I said, 'Well, first of all, you're going to get the phone call.' He goes, 'What do you mean, I'm gonna get the phone call?' I said, 'At some point, Supranowitz is going to call you up and tell you you really shouldn't be seen talking to me.'
"So I was at the Olympics. And my phone rings at two o'clock in the morning, London time. It's Kurt Thomas, and he's giving me, 'Oh, look at you! They sent you over there. You're big time!' And I could tell he wanted to say something. So maybe like two minutes go by, and I say, 'What else is up?', and he said, 'Oh, I just wanted you to know, I got that phone call today.' Yeah, no kidding. I told him, I said, 'Kurt. Listen. You need to do what's best for you and for your family. You don’t ever want to talk to me, you don't have to. I'll be able to get stories anyway. Just worry about yourself. Because they're going to accuse you of telling me stuff.' That's the way they operate over there."
(Thomas, sidelined with a broken foot, was let go by the Knicks right before the playoffs. Fittingly, he was asked by the team not to speak to the press).
Isola does not trust the team's press office enough to give any of its staff members a heads-up when he is working on a story. The team won't confirm or deny his scoops, he said. Furthermore, if he were to let the team's publicists in on something, Isola believes, they might hand the story to a rival—perhaps even fellow veteran beat writer, Marc Berman, of the New York Post, whom Isola regularly rips for the amusement of his 43,000 Twitter followers.
But being the most hated man among Garden management has its perks. "What they've done is, they've almost made me a cult hero within my own office," Isola said. "They've made me out to be like I'm the young Jimmy Breslin—which is a joke, because, when you cover a sports beat, it's pretty easy. They've made me seem a lot tougher and a lot crazier than I really am."
Jim Windolf is a Vanity Fair contributing editor. He is also @jimwindolf and the co-writer of the @wise_kaplan and @crankykaplan Twitter feeds.
Image by Jim Cooke. Source photo via AP.