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Knicks in search mode

By Sam Smith

Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- If Phil Jackson wants to return to where he began his professional basketball career as coach, he now can. If Pat Riley wants to return to where he enhanced his reputation as a coach after his run with the All-Star Los Angeles Lakers, he now can. If Larry Brown wants to return and coach in the city of his birth, he now can.

That's because New York Knicks coach Lenny Wilkens resigned Saturday, probably ending his Hall of Fame coaching career at 67.

Assistant Herb Williams will replace him for the rest of the season, but his resignation is likely to start the greatest coaching star search in NBA history.

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"He said, 'I don't know if I can do this anymore,' '' the team's president of basketball operations, Isiah Thomas, said in a phone interview Saturday. "We talked after the (Friday night buzzer-beater loss) for a good hour. I went home and told my wife Lynn I was 99.9 percent sure he would resign.

"I was speaking to Chuck (Daly) the other night, and he said you just wake up one morning and that's it. He said he was on the bus in Orlando and looked around and said, 'What am I doing with all these kids? I'm 68.' That was it. I think it's probably where Lenny is at, where Hubie (Brown) was also."

Wilkens leaves with both the most wins and losses in NBA history at 1,332-1,155. He was 40-42 with the Knicks, for whom he had a four-year contract with $12 million remaining that is to be paid in full.

Thomas, though, is expected to wave big money at the biggest coaching names in the NBA with the lure of the New York market, if not a highly talented team.

There is speculation around New York that Thomas will return to the sidelines to coach the team he is rebuilding if he cannot hire a big-name coach like Jackson, Riley or Larry Brown, who won the NBA title with Detroit last season. Others speculate Thomas eventually will coach, though only when the team improves after another coach, maybe George Karl, gets it to a higher level.

Thomas said he is not a candidate for the high-profile job, but after Larry Bird fired him as coach of the Indiana Pacers in 2003, Thomas said he had found his true basketball love: coaching. Thomas always has said he eventually would return to coaching, but not in New York.

He didn't say whether he was 99.9 percent certain.

"I was never going to fire him," Thomas said of Wilkens. "I know everyone has been talking about it the last week or two, and we did give thought to what we'd do if something did happen. You have to remember where we came from (16-24 when Wilkens replaced Don Chaney last season). He got us into the playoffs. He got us in a mode where we were competitive.."

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