- Ian O'Connor, ESPN Senior Writer
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People around the New York Knicks say Jim Dolan, not Donnie Walsh, was the man who added Mark Warkentien to a front office as packed as Penn Station at rush hour, and over the phone Monday the team's newest executive preferred to keep that issue up in the air, a bit like a jump ball.
"I have no idea, other than I dealt with Donnie," Warkentien said. "I wouldn't know how much he had to deal with Jim or not on it. That's a conversation above my pay grade."
Nobody can figure out why Dolan hasn't picked up the option on Walsh's contract, or whether Warkentien's hiring as the director of pro player personnel says something about the curious dynamic between the Garden chairman and the team president, if only because nobody can ever figure out Dolan on anything.
Warkentien wasn't about to play referee, either, not during one of the most satisfying times of his basketball life. In a spirited conversation with ESPNNewYork.com, his first interview in the Knicks' employ, the former NBA Executive of the Year with the Denver Nuggets, former lead recruiter for Jerry Tarkanian's national championship team at UNLV, and current lead recruiter in the hunt for Carmelo Anthony said landing a job with the Knicks "was like hitting the exacta."
"You get to work for a guy you always wanted to work with in Donnie Walsh, and then it's Madison Square Garden," Warkentien said. "I'm 57, and is there anyone in our age group who doesn't want to be a part of the Garden? It's the mecca, and it's New York. It's like, 'Wow.'"
Of course, the Garden's "wow" factor would be multiplied tenfold if Warkentien can help the Knicks make a deal for Anthony, who enjoyed a strong relationship with the former Nuggets VP of basketball operations.
Can Warkentien's intimate knowledge of Denver's management -- coupled with the fact he's represented by the same Creative Artists Agency tag team (Leon Rose and William "World Wide Wes" Wesley) that represents Anthony -- give the Knicks the competitive edge they need to land the Denver superstar before the Feb. 24 trade deadline?
"I can't talk about anything related to our roster," Warkentien said over the phone. "That's a conversation for Donnie."
Donnie. With Warkentien, everything comes back to Donnie.
"Donnie and I have been talking about working together in New York for a long time," he said before scouting Monday night's Missouri-Kansas game for the Knicks. "It's not like this was a new conversation. Donnie flew me into New York right around Labor Day, I spent two days there, we talked at great length about it, and it's been gathering momentum since then. Thank goodness it got done.
"If Donnie's the godfather, and he is, I'm a mere consigliere. But I think Donnie and I have real synergy. I have my finger on the pulse of the west big time, and his roots are all eastern."
Warkentien has spent most of his career in the Western Conference, allowing him more freedom to solicit advice from the Eastern Conference likes of Walsh, who established his reputation in Indiana before assuming control of the massive rebuilding project that was his hometown Knicks.
Warkentien didn't call Walsh only about this veteran or that prospect. Before Anthony was suspended 15 games for his role in the Nuggets-Knicks brawl in December 2006, Warkentien phoned a mentor and father confessor who had to weather a more violent storm -- the Pacers-Pistons brawl for it all two years earlier.
"When we had our fight at the Garden," Warkentien said, "I called Donnie the next morning at 5 or 6 a.m. He'd been through this so I asked him, 'What did you do? What would you do differently?' He walked me through everything and was a huge help.
"I had a chance to possibly trade for Ron Artest once, and Donnie spent hours on the phone walking me through that. I mean, almost any time I had to make a big decision in Denver, I leaned on Donnie. He's a giant in the game."
Warkentien worked for another giant, Tarkanian, back in the days when the UNLV Runnin' Rebels ran Vegas like Sinatra's Rat Pack once ran Vegas. Over the phone, Tarkanian remembered Warkentien as the assistant who shaped the juggernaut team of the early '90s, and as the recruiter sent to watch a junior college star named Spoon James only to return raving about another kid who wasn't even starting for his juco team.
"Turned out to be Armon Gilliam," Tarkanian said. "He ended up as an all-American and the second player taken in the  NBA draft."
Melo or no Melo, the Knicks want Warkentien to find them a sleeper to call their own. They've already sent Warkentien to watch several college games, and this is the fun part of the business for Warkentien, the evaluation part, the part he does best.
On the rebound, Warkentien wouldn't comment on the length of his Knicks contract, or on a New York Daily News report that said his deal expires July 1. But no, he didn't sound like a guy planning on a quick getaway.
Warkentien doesn't have Walsh's New York roots; he grew up in the Hoosier heartland of Indiana before moving to Riverside, Calif. in junior high. But as a teenager in 1970, Warkentien was among a group invited to watch Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals live by a San Bernardino company demonstrating the wonders of something called cable television.
"I watched Willis limp out of the tunnel," Warkentien recalled, "and since I'd never really embraced the Lakers I was the only kid there rooting for the Knicks. On the drive home we were all saying, 'Hey, that was cool, but who the hell is ever going to pay to watch TV when you can watch it for free?'"
On the Cablevision payroll more than four decades later, Warkentien is long out of the prophecy business. He isn't promising the Knicks a quick delivery of Carmelo Anthony, just an honest effort in pursuit of a personal goal.
"I want to be one of the few guys who helped put together an NCAA champion and an NBA champion," he said. "And there couldn't be a better place to get that NBA ring than New York."
1dMarc Stein and Ramona Shelburne