Coaching careers usually begin with some mix of ambition and intent. Woodson’s began with a double-cross, a mischievous misdirection play by his friend and mentor, Cotton Fitzsimmons.
Woodson, drafted as a scoring guard by the in 1980, had retired from basketball after a respectable 11-year career. He was happily building his real-estate portfolio in Indianapolis when Fitzsimmons — his former coach in Kansas City and Sacramento — asked him to help with the Suns’ summer-league team.
“You’d be an excellent coach,” Fitzsimmons told him.
“Absolutely not,” Woodson said.
The deal was closed when Fitzsimmons promised a week of golf. The ruse was exposed on Woodson’s first morning, when Fitzsimmons departed the gym with his golf bag and left Woodson in charge.
“Cotton, what am I supposed to do?” Woodson said to his friend.
“Coach the team,” Fitzsimmons said.
Woodson chuckles at the memory.
“He played golf every day,” Woodson recalled, his broad smile stretching his stern black goatee. “I coached them. I never got to play golf, not one time.”
In that week, the reluctant student would become an energized and demanding coach, launching a second career he never envisioned.
Nearly two decades later, Woodson, 54, is still coaching (well), golfing (badly) and summoning the lessons of his famed mentors — from to Red Holzman to Fitzsimmons to — while embracing the greatest challenge of his career: steadying a perpetually wobbly Knicks franchise.
The Knicks are 8-1 since Woodson replaced Mike D’Antoni as the head coach. They have crushed the Indiana Pacers, outhustled the Philadelphia 76ers and humiliated the Orlando Magic and pushed their way over .500 (26-25) for the first time in two months.
The surge has burnished the reputation of Woodson, who spent a year out of the N.B.A. after being fired as head coach by the Atlanta Hawks in 2010. He makes his first return to Atlanta on Friday, as the Knicks take on a Hawks team now in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, two spots ahead of New York.
The Knicks’ emerging personality is now a blend of D’Antoni’s kinetic offense, Woodson’s grinding half-court sets and a defensive grit rarely seen at Madison Square Garden since Jeff Van Gundy’s departure more than a decade ago.
“It’s no accident,” said Isiah Thomas, Woodson’s longtime friend and former teammate at Indiana University. “I think what we’re seeing is if Woodson gets the right pieces and players, he can do it.”
The new buzzwords in the Knicks’ locker room — hustle, accountability, shared responsibility — reflect the ethos of their new coach, and by extension the men who groomed him.
In games, Woodson exudes Knight’s steely discipline, stopping players on the sideline to deliver an impromptu lecture.
In his verbiage, Woodson sometimes assumes Brown’s philosopher-coach persona, speaking earnestly of “playing the right way” and the need to “teach” his players.
Though his Hawks playbook was derided as isolation-heavy, Woodson actually favors the share-the-ball mentality preached by Holzman. And off the court, Woodson radiates Fitzsimmons’s collegiality, with a far-reaching network of N.B.A. friends who praise his dedication, his passion, his sense of humor and his loyalty.
Woodson is the one who invites everyone to dinner on the road, who loans cuff links to forgetful staff members, who is the first to call when a friend has been fired.
“He’s just a really good, decent guy who respects the game and is loyal as hell and loves to coach and teach,” said Brown, who hired Woodson in Philadelphia (2001-3) and again in Detroit (2003-4, when the Pistons won the N.B.A. championship). “And he’s fun to be around.”
Tim Rohan contributed reporting.