The constant manufactured noise inside Madison Square Garden, noises that would be deemed too cruel to use on prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, can either excite or irritate those attending Knicks games. Nate Robinson is a similar polarizing force. In the midst of a decade full of losing and controversy, two distant types of Knick fans have emerged: those who will sacrifice their bodies and $9 beer for a free T-shirt, and those who get annoyed at every turnover and missed defensive assignment and aren’t afraid to show it.
Donnie Walsh, though, is different. He is impervious to the madness surrounding him. Whether the Knicks are winning, losing or losing some more, the man who has staked his reputation on rebuilding the once-proud franchise is poker-face calm.
Occasionally, he’ll turn to his constant companion, younger brother Jimmy, and whisper a quick thought. But mostly, the Knicks president sits 10 rows up at center court with his arms folded, watching and thinking. It’s as if he knows something that everyone else doesn’t.
“You will not find a more focused executive anywhere,” says NBA commissioner David Stern. “He’s always thinking about basketball and his team and ways to get better.”
Stern, deputy commissioner Adam Silver and Walsh ate dinner at a Manhattan restaurant just hours after Walsh was introduced as Knicks president and savior last April. The NBA’s two highest ranking officials were thrilled that Walsh, raised in Riverdale, had postponed retirement to return home. He didn’t need the Knicks. The Knicks needed him.
The team Walsh inherited had just completed its seventh straight losing season. Reggie Miller, the best player Walsh drafted when he ran the Indiana Pacers, had called the Knicks “a league-wide joke” and that was the day before they lost to the Boston Celtics by 45 points on national television.
Miller was obviously selling the Knicks short. As awful as they were on the court, their conduct off it included an embarrassing sexual harassment trial featuring Isiah Thomas and screaming headlines about the star point guard, Stephon Marbury, having an extramarital encounter with an intern in a truck. The Knicks weren’t just bad, they had become hard to like.
“That is why he was hired,” Stern says. “This is the guy you want.”
Next week marks the one-year anniversary of Walsh’s hiring and his welcome to New York dinner with Stern. On the surface, there has been little to celebrate. The Knicks faded rapidly after the All-Star break and have lost seven of their last eight after last night’s defeat against the Bobcats.
Their streak of losing seasons has reached eight and barring a small miracle the Knicks will miss the playoffs for the seventh time since 2001. Danilo Gallinari, Walsh’s first draft pick, is likely headed for back surgery and an uncertain future. Chris Duhon, Walsh’s first significant free-agent signing, is crawling to the finish line.
“When you’re trying to build a team, it takes times,” says Walsh, the Knicks’ third president since 1999. “People don’t leave you great teams. I knew it would be hard. But basically, I wanted to see the players I had and work from there. The last thing I wanted to do was rip everything apart from the start. I wanted to look at the pieces we had.”
Walsh understood the inherent risks of making in-season trades, particularly at the trading deadline, and blames himself for disrupting the team’s chemistry by orchestrating deals designed to help the Knicks in the future.
“I have to take responsibility for that,” Walsh says.
But Walsh, always looking at the big picture, made the decision to trade the contracts of Zach Randolph and Jamal Crawford in November because losing in the short term could lead to the Knicks signing a major free agent in two summers: That free agent may or may not be LeBron James and/or Chris Bosh. But getting under the salary cap gives the Knicks something they haven’t had in over 10 years: the opportunity to upgrade their roster with proven talent.
When the Knicks were under the salary cap in the summer of 1996, the club signed free agents Allan Houston and Chris Childs and also acquired Larry Johnson in a trade. Johnson and Houston were starters and Childs was the backup point guard on teams that reached two conference finals and one NBA Final.
“We made the trades primarily for the cap space,” Walsh says. “But I also think the players we got back have helped us. I wanted Cuttino Mobley but he wasn’t able to play (due to a heart condition). He would have been an important player.
“But I’m happy with the team. The players have played hard and I have a lot of faith in Mike (D’Antoni). He’s a very good coach and at the end of the year we’ll sit down and decide what we’re going to do.”
The summer will be a critical time for the Knicks. They have a first-round pick and will have to decide what to do with their restricted free agents, David Lee and Robinson. Walsh can also free up additional salary cap room if he can somehow trade Eddy Curry and Jared Jeffries.
In typical Walsh style, he isn’t tipping his hand. Now 68, and eight months after having a small cancerous tumor removed from his tongue, Walsh seems more determined than ever to finish the job.
He is a constant presence at practice, where he can evaluate the roster each day. He has attended every home game, has made several road trips and was in Los Angeles two weeks ago to scout the Pac-10 tournament. Having been forced to quit smoking last summer after the cancer scare, Walsh looks better and appears re-energized.
And in a corporate environment that devoured his predecessors - Scott Layden and Thomas - Walsh has remained true to himself. He speaks regularly with Garden chairman James Dolan but he also tries to eat lunch with D’Antoni every day after practice to talk basketball.
“I love being around the team,” Walsh says. “I love going to practice every day. I know I’m getting older and I still get nervous about everything. Just being an executive is not my tea. My cup of tea is running a team. My job is to build the team. When you do that, all the other things fall into place.”
Walsh’s immediate goal is to rebuild the basketball product, but he’s also been proactive in repairing the Knicks’ image. Addressing the team’s infamous restrictive media policy has been on his agenda since last April and while there has been noticeable change - Walsh always makes himself available - old habits are hard to break. In keeping with tradition, at least two assistant coaches were “warned” by a member of the media relations staff to avoid certain beat reporters. Walsh says he doesn’t condone such policies.
More importantly, Walsh is reconnecting with the Knicks’ past. He wants the team’s former players to feel welcome at the Garden. It was Walsh’s idea to honor Knicks from each decade and last Monday the team welcomed back Richie Guerin, Willis Reed, Bernard King and Patrick Ewing. As Walsh greeted each player at midcourt, he said the moment nearly brought him to tears.
“It was a great night,” Walsh says. “It’s important to recognize these great players and celebrate history. I wanted to do it.”
All that remains is for Walsh to create his own piece of history, one that would include the club’s first championship since 1973.
“Hey, I knew this would be a difficult job,” Walsh says. “But that’s what appeals to me. If I can’t do it I’d be the first one to say it.”