Donnie Walsh nearly resigned from New York Knicks upon learning of hiring of Isiah Thomas
BY Frank Isola
DAILY NEWS SPORTS WRITER
Sunday, August 8th 2010, 4:00 AM
Isiah Thomas nearly climbed the corporate ladder from consultant to Knicks president on Day 1 of his new job with the club.
The Daily News has learned that Donnie Walsh considered resigning after Madison Square Garden chairman James Dolan made the controversial move to hire Thomas, but Walsh decided to continue running the team despite his objections to Thomas having a role in the front office.
"Donnie finds this entire thing distasteful," said one NBA source. "He's had second thoughts about staying but he wants to finish the job."
Walsh, who did not return phone calls yesterday, is under contract through 2012. Last month, he denied a published report that he was contemplating retirement for health reasons.
Dolan's insistence on giving Thomas the ambiguous title of consultant angered Walsh, who for two years has been trying to hire former St. John's All-American Chris Mullin as general manager. Dolan has refused to sign off on hiring Mullin and clearly has designs on giving that position to Thomas, who also holds the title of head coach at Florida International University in Miami.
The News reported yesterday that Dolan advised Walsh to hire Thomas as his general manager two weeks ago. When Walsh refused, Dolan decided to make Thomas a consultant, a move that was universally panned by several of Dolan's top executives, according to sources.
Besides Walsh and Knicks head coach Mike D'Antoni being against the move, Garden vice chairman Hank Ratner and Garden president Scott O'Neil voiced their displeasure but were overruled by Dolan, sources said.
The Thomas-Dolan relationship is baffling to many, but the two men grew closer after a former female executive at the Garden accused Thomas of sexual harassment in the workplace. The Garden was found liable in the case and eventually settled out of court with Anucha Browne Sanders for $11.6 million.
Thomas has been plotting his return to the Garden since the day Walsh replaced him in April of 2008, and began to put on the full-court press two months ago. Thomas volunteered to help the Knicks in their recruitment of free agents this summer and almost immediately became Dolan's most trusted confidant on matters concerning LeBron James.
When Dolan's band, JD And The Straight Shot, was touring out west in June, Thomas set up a meeting between Dolan and a top Nike executive at the company's headquarters in Beaverton, Ore. According to a source close to Dolan, Thomas said the Nike executive could help the Knicks land James, who was scheduled to become a free agent on July 1.
Thomas apparently sealed his return to the Knicks when he was a guest at a Fourth of July party at Dolan's estate on Long Island. According to several guests at the party, Thomas never left Dolan's side and "was working him the entire time. It was incredible."
Amar'e Stoudemire was also in attendance that day after having made the decision to accept the Knicks' five-year, $100 million contract, a deal that no other team, including the Phoenix Suns, was willing to match.
At Stoudemire's introductory press conference, Dolan instructed Walsh to publicly thank Thomas for his assistance in recruiting Stoudemire. There are conflicting accounts on what role, if any, Thomas had in helping the Knicks land Stoudemire, who had previously played for D'Antoni in Phoenix. Most league executives acknowledge that Stoudemire simply went to the highest bidder. In fact, Stoudemire's agent, Happy Walters, said in July that Stoudemire hadn't even spoken to Thomas until Dolan's July 4 bash.
But in an awkward joint statement from Walsh and Dolan that the Knicks released on Friday, the club again credited Thomas with helping it sign Stoudemire. Walsh, according to a source, was told he had to have Thomas' name attached to the statement.
Three days after Dolan's party, Thomas compromised Walsh's and D'Antoni's power by volunteering to meet with an unidentified associate of James in Ohio in a last-ditch effort to convince James to sign with the Knicks. The mystery associate wasn't James' business manager, Maverick Carter, or his agent, Leon Rose. Nor did Thomas meet with James' confidant, William Wesley, who is most commonly referred to as World Wide Wes.
The Knicks believe that the mystery man may have been Steve Stoute, a New York-based record executive who may be best remembered for being beaten up by rapper Sean (Diddy) Combs in Times Square 11years ago. Stoute also serves as an adviser to James.
Regardless, Thomas' visit failed to make much of an impression on James, who eventually signed with the Miami Heat. In the aftermath of the Knicks failing to sign James or Dwyane Wade, Thomas used the opportunity to make his case to Dolan that Walsh and D'Antoni don't have street credibility with today's young NBA stars, their agents and their entourages.
Dolan concurred and felt compelled to rehire Thomas, especially with the Knicks in position to sign at least one major free agent next summer. The Knicks believe they have a chance to land Denver's Carmelo Anthony and possibly pursue the Hornets' Chris Paul the following summer. Thomas has told Dolan he can deliver both players.
Coincidentally, Paul has drawn favorable comparisons to Thomas, an all-time top 50 player. But the Knicks may already have a famous guard capable of recruiting Paul to New York: Paul's grandfather idolized Earl Monroe and told his grandson stories about the legendary guard who starred at Winston-Salem State. Paul attended college at nearby Wake Forest.
For years, Thomas has worked the angle that because current NBA players still idolize him, they will want to play for him. He felt he scored a minor victory when Kobe Bryant invited the Knicks to his home in Newport, Calif., several years ago when the Lakers star was a free agent. The Knicks could offer Bryant only the mid-level exception, which to Thomas meant that Bryant would consider taking a huge pay cut only because Thomas was running the team.
From all indications, Thomas will eventually return to his old job with the Knicks. Under his agreement, Thomas is not supposed to attend Knick games, especially in New York. But he does have free rein to telephone Dolan whenever he sees fit.
"When the Knicks lose two games in a row he'll be on the phone with Dolan and Donnie saying, 'This is all D'Antoni's fault,'" one Knicks official said. "And if they lose three games he'll be on the phone with Dolan and Mike saying, 'This is all Donnie's fault.' That's Isiah."