The pursuit of a superstar in a complicated, potentially multi-team trade in the middle of a season is never easy. With the Knicks, for whom nothing is ever easy, it goes beyond the scope of anything most normal NBA franchises could imagine.
Even after 2½ years in the alternate universe that is Madison Square Garden -- and its satellite offices in Westchester County -- Donnie Walsh still seems mystified by it all. Walsh told reporters this week he is "embarrassed" the focus is on him and whether Garden chairman James Dolan will let him finish the job in New York.
|Chairman of Madison Square Garden, James Dolan supervises day-to-day operations of the Knicks. (Getty Images)|
For so many executives who aspire to see their names on the famed Garden marquee, running the Knicks represents the ultimate dream. But not for the reasons Walsh coveted it. They want it for the money and the celebrity and to make it all about them. The Knicks have already gone down that road too many times, most recently during the apocalyptic administration governed by Isiah Thomas, whose fingerprints and velvety whispers are never far from the dealings at 2 Penn Plaza.
Walsh is a native New Yorker, a basketball treasure of the city, and he wanted to come here to restore order and make the Knicks measure up, once again, to the kind of stature that for more than a decade was little more than a myth.
"If I were to leave tomorrow, I want to leave here with dignity," Walsh told reporters Thursday at the team's practice facility in Greenburgh, N.Y. "I wouldn't blame anybody."
He said it even better in a phone interview with the New York Times: "It seems to me everybody who leaves the Knicks has some story to tell. I have no story to tell."
And he never will. But if Walsh has learned anything about New York, it is that the stories never stop.
If April 30 rolls around without Walsh's option for the 2012-13 season being picked up, and without any indications he will receive an extension that will remove all these doubts, it will be among the most shameful days in the history of this franchise. And that would be saying something, given the cesspool of sleaze and mismanagement that came before. But that day is not here yet, and the only way to interpret Dolan's contrarian strategizing is to study his past.
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Take two aspirin -- or better yet, a hallucinogen -- and join me for a trip down memory lane.
Whether you like it or not, Dolan will not do something because the public wants him to do it; in fact, he's quite the contrarian. He sat in the first row behind the basket for months while chants of "Fire Isiah" drowned out and overshadowed the abysmal basketball product on the court. This after Dolan had decided to extend Thomas' contract as coach and president on March 12, 2007 -- with the Knicks apparently having satisfied Dolan's directive to show "evident progress." How did Thomas do that? With a 29-34 record that for one day was good for the eighth playoff spot in the East. The Knicks won four games the rest of the season.
So why did Dolan extend Thomas under such dubious circumstances while letting Walsh languish in uncertainty, after giving the Knicks a star to build around in Amar'e Stoudemire, cap space as far as the eye can see, and an outpouring of money and passion from fans and sponsors who believe basketball is back at the Garden? To you, me and anyone with an objective perspective, it is a no-brainer that Walsh deserves the same treatment. But we are forgetting about the person making the decision.
In Dolan's reality, the situations are beyond comparison.
After receiving his "evident improvement" ultimatum, the insecure Thomas fretted about his contract status almost daily. He is nothing if not a survivor, and Thomas used his talents for manipulation to achieve the security that Walsh could care less about. That's because Isiah was at the Garden for Isiah, and thought the Garden was there for him. Walsh actually wants to be there for the good of the Knicks, and for a city that is more to him than a payday or mechanism to inflate his own ego.
When Thomas wasn't bending the ears of Garden operatives about his extension back then, he was bloviating about the allure and work ethic of a city he knew nothing about in a pointless effort to attract star free agents. So delusional was Thomas' opinion of himself that he thought the stars of basketball would only come to New York if escorted on his arm -- and he continued to peddle this absurd notion to the point where he scored a last-ditch free-agent meeting with LeBron James last summer and somehow got himself hired as a Knicks consultant while still employed as a college coach. (The deal was disallowed by the NBA as an obvious violation of the rules.) The saddest part was, as long as Thomas was running the Knicks, they never would've had the cap space to get any of those players.
Walsh, who turns 70 next month and has overcome multiple health problems to continue resurrecting this franchise from the dumpster Thomas left it in, has never once inquired about his extension or his status. He is too proud, but that's beside the point. To Walsh, this is about the team and the franchise and the city. It is not about him.
As if more evidence is needed, Walsh at the very least signed off on the hiring of former executive Mark Warkentien as an adviser -- hardly the move of a paranoid executive looking over his shoulder. Whether Walsh himself made the hire -- as he told the Times on Thursday -- or it was just following orders as Creative Artists Agency launched the first attack in a coup d'état, we'll never know. CAA represents Warkentien and a certain aspiring Knick named Carmelo Anthony. Yet, to this point, the Knicks have illustrated with their cautious pursuit of Melo that they have no desire to hand the keys to the franchise over to power brokers armed with agendas.
If the Knicks inform Walsh they're done with him, he will be on his porch in Indiana the next day, petting his dogs. That you can bet money on. It would also be a safe bet that the vacuum he leaves behind will be vulnerable to another self-serving, rogue regime -- led by Thomas or maybe even someone worse.
If you're a Knicks fan, do you panic? On one hand, no. Dolan works in mysterious ways, and just because Walsh's contract is a public issue doesn't make it a priority for the emperor of the Garden. Dolan, for all we know, views Walsh's contract as an issue for June 30, when it expires. He may do nothing about it until then, or he may emerge like a groundhog from his hole and proclaim when you least expect it that the Knicks' nuclear winter isn't coming back.
If Dolan derives some sick pleasure from keeping the nattering nabobs in the tabloid press guessing, that's fine. There is no volume of pro-Walsh articles that can dull his appetite for absurd theater. But he should know someone besides Isiah is keeping tabs on this story -- someone who will never be as good as Isiah was on the court, but is sure as hell more valuable now: Anthony himself.
Yes, Melo's motivation for getting out of Denver is to team up with another superstar or two, and if he can do it in New York, all the better. But don't underestimate how tired Anthony became of the dysfunction in Denver's front office. The infighting between Warkentien and Rex Chapman, the meddling of adviser Bret Bearup, the departure of George Karl's strongest ally, Tim Grgurich -- all of it led Anthony to believe the Nuggets would never get out of their own way and become a championship team.
Maybe I'm giving Melo too much credit, but what is he to think if the Knicks are evicting the respected, skilled, no-nonsense executive who built the team back to the point where players like Stoudemire, Anthony and maybe Chris Paul want to come in the first place?
That is a question Dolan, in all his peculiar, stubborn glory, should not want answered.