Leon Rose, the influential agent, had told Knicks officials that the Miami Heat were busily creating payroll room for three stars: James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. He was skeptical that the Knicks could do the same.
It was up to and resident salary-cap wizard, to make the case in a face-to-face meeting.
“It was a specific request: ‘How can you do this?’ ” Walsh, the Knicks’ president, recalled recently. “They looked at the books, and they didn’t think we could do it. I knew Glen could do that.”
It was a quintessential Grunwald moment: mining the numbers, working in the shadows, exerting influence with more logic than flair.
After five years of dutiful behind-the-scenes work at Madison Square Garden, Grunwald will step into the spotlight Friday as the top basketball executive for the Knicks, one of the league’s most political franchises, at a most critical juncture.
at the close of business Thursday after failing to secure assurances of autonomy in a new contract. Grunwald will assume a temporary-sounding title — interim general manager — but a possibly prolonged assignment. With a lockout expected, there is no rush to name Walsh’s replacement. In Grunwald, the Knicks have a capable caretaker and, perhaps, a potential heir.
“He’ll be very good,” Walsh said in a phone interview. “To do what initially he’s doing, you couldn’t find anybody better than him.”
Grunwald, 53, is known as studious and easygoing, diligent, intelligent and detail-oriented, with a law degree from Northwestern and a master’s in business administration from Indiana. His N.B.A. résumé includes 19 years of front-office work, including seven seasons as the general manager of the Toronto Raptors, who rose from the draft lottery to the playoffs under his leadership.
Although he keeps a low public profile, Grunwald has been Walsh’s right-hand man since 2008 — effectively the general manager, but without the title. He has been the point man on numerous trade discussions and has often been the first Knicks official to make contact with other teams during exploratory talks.
“He’s been heavily involved,” said a rival team executive, who did not want to be identified discussing another franchise’s inner workings. “He’s been pretty key to what Donnie’s done.”
True to character, Grunwald is declining all interview requests while Walsh is still in the president’s chair. (He did speak briefly to ESPN during the draft last Thursday.)
In addition to Grunwald, the Knicks’ front office as of Friday will consist of Allan Houston, the assistant general manager; Jamie Mathews, the vice president for basketball operations; and John Gabriel, the director of pro scouting and free agency. Several key officials and most of the scouts have contracts that expire July 31 and are awaiting word on their future.
Grunwald joined the Knicks in 2006 as the top adviser to Isiah Thomas, the former team president and a longtime friend. But Grunwald is not viewed as a Thomas loyalist, either within the Garden or among his peers in the league.
Grunwald’s greatest feat in Toronto mirrored Walsh’s work in New York: successfully cleaning up a mess left by Thomas.
The Raptors, an expansion team in 1995, averaged 22 wins in three seasons under Thomas, who was a part owner and the executive vice president. Grunwald assumed the lead role in November 1997 — after Thomas left in a dispute with team ownership — and moved swiftly to upgrade the roster.
Three months into his tenure, Grunwald shipped Damon Stoudamire, the Raptors’ disenchanted point guard, to Portland in a deal that sent Kenny Anderson, Alvin Williams, Gary Trent and two first-round draft picks to Toronto. Five days later, Grunwald sent Anderson and others to Boston for a package including Chauncey Billups, Dee Brown and Roy Rogers.
That June, Grunwald acquired center Kevin Willis by sending Rogers and two first-round picks to Houston. He later swapped Marcus Camby for the Knicks’ Charles Oakley, toughening up the Raptors’ frontcourt.
In , his first at the helm, Grunwald selected Antawn Jamison and immediately flipped him to the Golden State Warriors for Vince Carter, completing a furious five-month makeover and giving Toronto its first certified star.
The Raptors improved from 16 wins in 1997-98 to 23 wins in 1999, despite playing just 50 games in a lockout-shortened season. The next season, Carter led Toronto to its first winning record (45-37) and its first playoff appearance. In 2000-1, the Raptors came within one win of the Eastern Conference finals.
But the good times did not last, and Grunwald was fired in April 2004.
The next Knicks general manager will have a much easier task than Grunwald inherited in Toronto in 1997 or than Walsh had with the Knicks in 2008.
Thanks to Walsh’s payroll maneuvering, the Knicks have two elite players, Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony, and a solid (if incomplete) roster. His successor needs only to find the right complementary pieces to make the Knicks a top playoff team.
For that reason, the Knicks might not need a flashy hire. They might need only a bookish, detail-oriented executive who knows his way around a salary cap.
“He’s a very low-key guy to the public,” Walsh said, “but you shouldn’t underestimate him because of that.”