After avoiding the muddy pool of his boss, James L. Dolan, for the duration of his time as the ’ president, Walsh refrained from lowering himself for a farewell swim. He took the same high road out of Madison Square Garden that he rode in on.
Remember the clamor for Walsh to stake out his territory by sending Isiah Thomas to the guillotine before his contract was processed? No, thank you, Walsh replied. There has been enough blood shed in this organization, proud N.B.A. lifers like Don Chaney, Lenny Wilkens and Larry Brown literally escorted out of the Garden or undermined without a shred of compassion.
No, Walsh let Thomas finish out the 2007-8 season, allowed him a dignified closure, for all the good it did. Recognizing there wasn’t an N.B.A. franchise that would touch him with a pole the length of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Thomas worked on Dolan to let him back in, with the purpose of weakening Walsh, all while Walsh was cleaning up after the catastrophe of Thomas’s four-plus-year run.
“I feel very good about what I did here,” Walsh said Friday as he discussed his departure. Above all the salary-cap maneuvering and personnel sleuthing, what Walsh did best was restore honor and credibility under circumstances that never approached the perimeter of ideal.
Right through Friday’s telephone news conference, Walsh was the class act in Dolan’s clown show, denying there were problems that went beyond the norm of occasionally contentious consensus-building between ownership and management.
Despite many reports that he was on the verge of re-signing and not resigning, Walsh said that he had decided that he was too tired or old or some combination thereof to accommodate Dolan — as usual, nowhere to be found Friday — on a multiyear commitment.
According to one person who knows Walsh well and spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect their relationship, Walsh was technically telling the truth.
He couldn’t stomach a contract for more than one year under the conditions Dolan had imposed: a 40 percent pay cut to offset the likelihood of a prolonged lockout, the inability to hire and groom his successor and no guarantee that corporate interference would cease and desist, including what Walsh considered excess marketing demands on the players.
To paraphrase John McEnroe, Dolan cannot be serious! Knickologists may recall that Thomas and Dolan were entangled in a lawsuit brought by a former executive, Anucha Browne Sanders, who alleged harassment by Thomas and others at the Garden for doing her job — marketing the players. In 2007, a jury awarded her $11.6 million.
Round and round spins the carousel of Garden dysfunction, while Walsh steps off to serve for a year as the proverbial team consultant. He said he would keep an apartment in Manhattan, but anyone looking to get in touch would be well advised to dial the Indianapolis area code, 317.
Assuming Dolan finally realizes that rehiring Thomas would set off a nuclear fan reaction, he pays well enough to land a competent replacement. But whoever it is will be hamstrung by a dearth of assets and in all likelihood a lack of salary-cap space once a new labor deal is reached.
And he will have Dolan to eventually blame, despite Walsh’s insistence Friday that Dolan did not force him off his hardball position with Denver and into the Carmelo Anthony trade that cost too many players needed to fill the holes in the roster, much less land a third cornerstone star.
Why would Walsh cover for Dolan? The person who knows Walsh, who worked with him for years, said he was congenitally incapable of publicly pointing fingers, of crossing party lines.
It makes sense that Walsh, a Bronx native, came of age when Red Holzman was the Knicks’ most quoted spokesman, saying nothing to blame or inflame, even when he was the victim of what has been decades of interior Garden warfare.
For those who argued that Fred Wilpon shouldn’t have looked first in the mirror when he was looking to find fault for the Mets’ sad fortunes, the Knicks are Exhibit A in making the case for the trickle-down effect of unstable ownership. They have spent more money on players than an oil kingdom on comforts and haven’t won a championship in 38 years, and counting.
Walsh wasn’t perfect in New York. He blew a draft pick two years ago, choosing an underwhelming power forward, Jordan Hill, when a number of talented point guards were available. He compounded that mistake by trading Hill to Houston with another first-round pick to clear cap space. And maybe you didn’t like his coaching hire, Mike D’Antoni, a Western Conference stylist in the trenches of the East.
But within two years, Walsh made the Knicks matter after a decade of irrelevance. Walsh said Friday that he never expected to win a title because the Knicks were so deep in distress upon his arrival and, at 70, he was never here for the very long haul. But when asked if he was finished with high-stress employment, he said “never say never.”
Distance from the likes of Dolan could be like guest-starring on an episode of “Nip/Tuck.” Above all, remember Walsh for being a man who reported for work in a wheelchair day after day after surgery on his neck, who put up with Dolan’s attempt to rehire Thomas, and who would say of that sad episode only that it was annoying because of “the attention it generated.”
Such a good man. Such a loss for everyone involved here except the tabloid headline writers.