Grunwald and Oneil Likely Replacements For Donnie's Double Job
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SCOTT O'NEIL was making millions for Madison Square Garden and rising in stature by securing corporate sponsorship deals with Anheuser-Busch, Coca-Cola and Delta Air Lines.
"A great, great salesman," one of O'Neil's current co-workers calls him.
But the president of Madison Square Garden never saw himself as simply a businessman mingling with CEOs at ****tail parties before Knicks games. Much like his ambitious mentor, Nets CEO Brett Yormark, O'Neil yearned for a taste of the basketball side of the organization. He wanted to hobnob with the coaches, and cut deals with the high-profile free agents.
O'Neil, educated at Villanova and Harvard, finally got his wish on July 3, 2010, when James Dolan sent him to Ohio for a clandestine meeting with the agent representing a one-man corporation unto himself, LeBron James.
Dolan's decision to have O'Neil and VP of basketball operations Glen Grunwald meet with James' agent, Leon Rose, two days after the Knicks' celebrated meeting with James fell flat spoke volumes of how Dolan felt about Donnie Walsh and of the confidence he had in O'Neil and, to some degree, Grunwald.
O'Neil was unable to close the deal, but months later he would prove his value to Dolan by helping to broker the Carmelo Anthony trade through his close relationship with Anthony's agency, CAA.
According to a Knicks source, O'Neil and Grunwald are emerging as the front-runners to replace team president Donnie Walsh, who announced on Friday that he would not return to his job, effective June 30.
Grunwald seems like the ideal choice to run the day-to-day operations of the team. A former teammate of Isiah Thomas' at Indiana, Grunwald worked under Thomas in Toronto and New York and has been one of Walsh's most trusted lieutenants.
Grunwald's association with Thomas, who serves as an unofficial adviser to Dolan, doesn't hurt, either. Plus, the reticent Grunwald has the type of low-key personality that Dolan admires. In fact, Dolan appointed Grunwald as acting general manager until a full-time GM is hired.
O'Neil, 41, would serve the same role Dave Checketts once served as president of Madison Square Garden. He would delve into Knicks issues when required and would take an active role in free agency, especially next summer when Chris Paul and Dwight Howard are eligible to hit the market.
"I don't know how it happened, but one day Scott was in marketing meetings and the next thing you know he's in meetings where players are being discussed," one Garden employee said.
In that regard, O'Neil has a lot in common with the controversial Yormark. Their relationship dates back to the 1990s when both worked for former Nets president and marketing guru Jon Spoelstra. If the name sounds familiar, that's because Spoelstra's son, Erik, is the head coach of the Miami Heat.
Yormark is a tireless salesman who had a falling-out with Nets president Rod Thorn, who eventually left the team and was hired by Philadelphia. O'Neil didn't run Walsh out of town, but Walsh did object to O'Neil's insistence on having sponsors in the locker room and on the team plane.
When Walsh was negotiating a contract extension with Dolan, the chairman of Madison Square Garden, he wanted assurances that with full autonomy he would have the power to tell the marketing department to back off. According to a source, Walsh and Dolan reached an agreement, but when the contract was sent to Walsh, several terms had been changed, including Walsh's salary and control over the basketball operations.
If O'Neil does in fact become a bigger player with the Knicks, it is unclear how - or if - he could work with Thomas. According to a source, O'Neil made it known to Dolan last summer that he felt that hiring Thomas as a consultant was a bad idea. Thomas didn't get the job but he serves as an unofficial adviser to Dolan. Whether O'Neil would want Thomas involved in recruiting free agents, as Thomas did last summer, remains to be seen.
And if O'Neil does become more powerful at MSG, that could be good for lame-duck head coach Mike D'Antoni. O'Neil, according to a source, has been D'Antoni's biggest supporter.
Then there is the question of how much longer O'Neil will stay with the Knicks. O'Neil came to the club directly from the NBA, where he was senior VP in charge of marketing and business. He maintains a close relationship with commissioner David Stern and deputy commissioner Adam Silver. He sat with the league's two highest-ranking officials at Game 2 of the NBA Finals on Thursday in Miami.
Those who know O'Neil best believe he could eventually become second-in-command in the NBA hierarchy if Stern moves on, and say his goal eventually is to become commissioner.
That's a long way from selling soda and beer.
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Most would see this as a minor issue but Walsh insisting on sponsors not being in the locker room or on the team plane was probably bigger than it seemed given the Knicks/MSG corporate pedigree and how much money the Knicks make with corporate sponsorships.
Walsh wheeling himself around in a wheel chair also didn't help against young guns like O'Neil and Grunwald.
My first thought was "if Dolan likes him, he can't be good." But on second thought, Scott O'Neil is a very accomplished exec who's excelled in multiple capacities around the NBA. You don't get that kind of success with a one-track mind. Maybe he would have the sense to listen to basketball men making basketball decisions, and at the same time be smooth enough to keep Dolan from messing things up. Although, I'm not crazy about how he's pushing corporate marketing noise into the players' domain. But I might just settle for a guy who's not incompetent and who's best skill is keeping Dolan at bay.
You know, these guys don't seem like TERRIBLE candidates. Grunwald has been working with Walsh for the past few years, and O'Neil at least seems like a smart guy...he might not be proven on the basketball side of things but anybody's better than Isiah.
That being said I'd still rather have a guy who has proven himself with knowledge of the game and player development like Kevin Pritchard or Warkentien