Walsh takes high road as Knicks' uncertain steering continues
Donnie Walsh took the high road on his way out, which should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen him drive before.
The now-former New York Knicks president of basketball operations claims he ran out of gas, that the combination of his age (70) and his health history (hip and neck surgeries since last November) left him unwilling to take the two-year extension that he had been discussing with owner James Dolan because that was simply too long of a commitment.
He insists this was mutual and without malice, that he understood Dolan's reluctance to give him the sort of one-year deal that would have kept him around or pick up the one-year option that had expired on April 30.
"Because of the uncertainty of next year, that would be a windfall for me," Walsh said in reference to the league's labor situation and a looming lockout. "And it wouldn't be fair to the franchise. I knew that probably, to myself, in December."
But when it came to these modern-day Knicks and their well-chronicled rebuilding efforts, the question of who was behind the wheel was always driving the conversation. As Walsh wanted to point out, owners are heavily involved with their teams in almost every NBA city. But not every owner has an influential and allegedly-underhanded voice like that of Isiah Thomas in their ear so incessantly, which was the consistent claim made by those who cover the team on a daily basis. Nor does every owner hand over the keys so reluctantly to executives who have done good work, in Walsh's case the three-year job of clearing salary cap space, securing stars (Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony), guiding the Knicks back to the playoffs for the first time in seven years and to a winning record (42-40) for the first time in a decade.
Walsh's work wasn't done, but he is. He has been relegated to consultant status, agreeing to spend next year chiming in from Indiana while occasionally checking in from his New York City apartment. No matter the reasons, this isn't how he was supposed to go.
As the lifelong basketball man discussed his situation Friday in a conference call that lasted approximately 30 minutes, the most telling moment arose organically when yet another reporter offered Walsh their heartfelt and unwelcome congratulations.
"I don't know why you're congratulating me," he said after interrupting the questioner. "I'm ending my time in New York."
And ending it too soon.
Dolan clearly left the red carpet stored away in the closet when it came to Walsh, expressing concerns of the financial and logistical sorts when it came to their possible future together. A source close to Walsh confirmed reports that autonomy was an issue in the extension negotiations that had dragged on in recent months, with Walsh uncomfortable with the wording as it pertained to decision making on personnel.
Numerous reports indicated the two-year deal that was offered came with a significant pay cut from Walsh's $5 million annual salary. Still, it was widely believed that he would return.
Instead, Walsh sidestepped this latest Garden saga, calling it quits and calling on names like Jerry Sloan and Jerry West to help explain how the fatigue factor came into play. He could relate to the legendary Jazz coach's reasons for retiring, when he said back in February that he simply realized he didn't have the energy for the job anymore. He spoke to Golden State's recently-added consultant on Thursday, discussing the luxuries that come with having a voice within an organization but not all of the day-to-day responsibilities.
All the while, Walsh insisted until the end that Thomas -- who is still the head coach at Florida International after Dolan famously tried to hire him as a consultant in the summer of 2010, only to have the deal nixed by league commissioner David Stern -- played no part in his storyline.
"I haven't talked to Isiah about (the reported conflicts), and I think if it had gotten to a point where I was worried about it, I would've talked to Isiah," Walsh said. "But I had never got to that point...I didn't see signs here that that was an issue."
Walsh, who is being replaced by vice president of basketball operations Glen Grunwald as an interim general manager, said he has already given recommendations for a more-permanent replacement to Dolan and that he'll have a voice in that hiring. A source close to the situation said that the process was under way months ago, when one possible plan was to hire an executive under Walsh as his eventual successor. Outside candidates who are well thought of by Walsh include former New Orleans general manager Jeff Bower, ESPN/ABC analyst and former Knick Mark Jackson, and former Portland general manager Kevin Pritchard.
The Knicks already have a strong candidate in-house who will be given significant consideration in Mark Warkentien as well. The former Denver executive and current New York director of pro player personnel was brought aboard in early February, having parted ways with the Nuggets in August when they decided not to extend his contract.
The timing of his arrival was ironic, as Warkentien had spent months trying to convince Anthony to sign an extension in Denver, only to eventually play a part in his recruitment to New York. The eventual pick will likely play a big part in the future of coach Mike D'Antoni. He has one year left on his contract, and a source close to him said he is safe for the time being.
He's just like Walsh and everyone else in Dolan's towncar in that regard, left looking for something to grab even if the steering wheel is out of reach. It is, after all, always a wild ride in New York.