Commentary

Fix the unfixable Knicks? Walsh's credentials make it seem possible

Originally Published: May 16, 2008
By Stephen A. Smith | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- He's 67 years old. He looks it. And even by Donnie Walsh's very own account, the last thing he needs in his life is more stress.

Yet there he was, the new president of basketball operations for the New York Knicks, preparing to introduce fellow franchise savior and freshly anointed head coach Mike D'Antoni, talking about the "excitement" in his life and speaking of the day this moribund organization will ascend from basketball atrocity to a source of civic pride.

Stop laughing!

Walsh is serious about his Knicks, and he wants you to be, too. Never mind that they haven't won a playoff game in seven years. That Jerome James and Jared Jeffries -- both with at least two years left at more than $6 million per year -- couldn't be given away for a box of cookies. Or that New York's franchise player, Stephon Marbury, spends more time dreaming about one day spreading his ashes over Madison Square Garden than about capturing an NBA championship.

Walsh is on the scene now, determined to make things better. And yes, of course he sounds as if he's dreaming. The thing is, he has the credentials to make the unfathomable seem possible. Even when it concerns these Knicks.

"I'm serious about turning this franchise around," Walsh says. "I'm going to go 24/7. I said that when I took the job. The only way I know how to do this job is just by coming in every day, bang it out and do it. But the only way to get to that point and make it happen is to work, and that's what I do. I just work as hard as I can. I get on the phone. I try to find out what's out there. I try to see what things can make us better.

"We'll work on the draft extremely hard. We'll hope we get a [draft lottery] pingpong ball. But we'll be ready if we don't get a pingpong ball."

To be honest, I'm not so sure about that. Perhaps even if the Knicks fail to land one of the top two picks and get Memphis point guard Derrick Rose. But I hope I'm wrong.

The upside of Walsh's arrival in Manhattan is pretty simple. In 22 years as the executive point man for the Pacers (he actually began his Pacers career as an assistant coach), Walsh drafted guys such as Reggie Miller and Rik Smits, traded for Mark Jackson and Chris Mullin, spent 16 of the past 19 years visiting the postseason and saw his squads advance to six Eastern Conference finals and one NBA Finals series.

Let's be clear: New Yorkers could care less about all this nice-guy talk. Knicks fans are more concerned with two numbers: four, as in the number of consecutive seasons their team has failed to reach the playoffs, and zero, as in the number of championships on Walsh's résumé.

Along the way, Walsh established himself as equally solid off the court, a man widely appreciated for being one of the most engaging, cooperative executives in the game. This is no small thing. Given the indelible stain created by the Brawl at the Palace in Auburn Hills, an event that sullied a franchise he had worked so hard and so proudly to elevate to prominence, Walsh might easily have chosen to adopt a different approach.

"Obviously," D'Antoni said shortly after inking a new 4-year, $24 million deal Monday night, "the chance to work with Donnie has a lot to do with why I'm sitting here today."

Let's be clear: New Yorkers could care less about all this nice-guy talk. Knicks fans are more concerned with two numbers: four, as in the number of consecutive seasons their team has failed to reach the playoffs, and zero, as in the number of championships on Walsh's résumé.

For all those Pacers winning records, all those heroics by Miller, Walsh spent a good chunk of the past 20 years watching Michael Jordan elevate himself and the Chicago Bulls to heights Walsh's Pacers (and now, his Knicks) still fantasize about reaching.

So here's the lowdown: New York fans can't stomach deception right now. They can't take being told they have a chance at resurrection, only to plummet once more. Sure, losing sucks. But so does chairman James Dolan's apparent lack of concern over losing as long as fans continue to pack the Garden and Cablevision shows a quarterly profit.

"This is New York," Walsh explained. "I'm not about to hoodwink anyone, and I'm not here to hoodwink anyone. I'm here to do the best possible job for this franchise. Obviously, that translates into winning games. That means having the right coach and staff in place. Drafting, trading and signing the right players. Changing the culture that's existed around this franchise for the last several years. That's why I'm so excited, because it's all I have to focus on now."

That last sentence is meaningful. Walsh said this because his responsibilities changed July 11, 2003, the day he was moved upstairs to be the CEO/president of Pacers Sports and Entertainment -- a development designed to place Larry Bird in charge of the Pacers' basketball operations.

That's not the case in New York. Instead of shepherding business initiatives, such as new arena deals or bringing a WNBA team to town, Walsh now gets to decide whether he's going to keep or get rid of Marbury and whether Nate Robinson and Jamal Crawford are serviceable for D'Antoni's up-tempo system.

In the process, he'll have to restore the faith that has disintegrated amid the Knicks' fan base, pray he'll find a sucker to take some of this "talent" off his hands and accept all accountability for the product on the court. After all, it's Walsh who claims: "I'll take input, but I'm the one who'll make the decisions."

Walsh's biography reveals that he's an avid dog lover. Ordinarily, this would be a good thing. That is, until you look at the Knicks' roster, knowing the overhaul that's needed. Then you find yourself saying, "Let's hope he doesn't love dawgs too much."

Because if better results don't arrive shortly, nice guy or not, Walsh will hear the Knicks fans howl.

Stephen A. Smith is a columnist for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.

Stephen A. Smith | email

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Stephen A. Smith is a featured columnist for ESPNNewYork.com, host of a weekday show for ESPN New York 98.7 and a regular on "SportsCenter" and "First Take."

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