Walsh Proud of Two Teams, Loyal to One
There’s no mistaking Donnie Walsh’s loyalties when the Pacers and New York reunite for their second-round playoff series. He’s worked for the Pacers all but three years of his career as an NBA general manager and team president, and works for them now.
But he can’t help but feel some pride in the Knicks as well. In fact, it would be understandable if he occasionally let slip a “we” or “us” when referring to the Pacers’ greatest playoff rival. He set the Knicks on the course that led them to their first playoff series victory since 2000, when they advanced to the Eastern Conference finals and lost to a Pacers team he had patiently pieced together.
“It’s going to be weird,” Walsh said.
Walsh will be a primary subplot to the series that begins Sunday afternoon in Madison Square Garden, having had a hand in both teams. He left the Pacers’ front office in 2008 after 22 years as general manager/team president to let Larry Bird take over the basketball operations, but then decided to take on the challenge of unwinding the tangled mess in New York. He had grown up there as a fan of the Knicks, and his brother and sister still live nearby, so it wasn’t going to be too uncomfortable for him.
He signed a three-year contract with New York owner James Dolan and moved to Manhattan, where he set up headquarters he knew all along would be temporary. He was provided an apartment, and a driver took him to and from his office. His wife stayed at their home in Indianapolis, although his daughter, Shannon, visited often.
Walsh was able to do what a younger, less secure GM could not have done: tear down the roster so it could be rebuilt more sanely. From the first time he met with reporters in New York, he declared his intent to create salary cap space so the team could take advantage of ownership’s endlessly deep pockets and chase free agents in the future. A younger GM would have tried to apply quick-fix bandages to win as many games as possible and keep his job, but Walsh had no such ambition. He was able to take a long-term view and let the franchise suffer a lot of losses in the process.
It was Walsh who traded for forward Carmelo Anthony, the NBA’s leading scorer this season, and drafted forward Iman Shumpert, who scored 17 points in New York’s closeout victory over Boston on Friday. He also signed six-time All-Star Amare Stoudemire as a free agent. Stoudemire has missed most of this season and had knee surgery in March, but still has a slight chance of returning for the playoffs. Walsh’s moves also enabled his successor, former Indiana University basketball player Glen Grunwald, to fill out the roster by signing the likes of center Tyson Chandler.
Walsh did not return last season, but returned to the Pacers last summer when Larry Bird decided to retire or take a sabbatical, whichever turns out to be the case. Bird had done most of the work building the current team, but Walsh and general manager Kevin Pritchard made the post-draft moves to fill out the bench.
Thus, Walsh stood in a hallway outside the Pacers’ locker room following their Game 6 victory over Atlanta on Friday and spoke with pride about both opponents in the upcoming series.
“I did what I said I would do and then I left,” he told three reporters, including a columnist from a New York newspaper who had traveled to the game to speak with him. “Glen Grunwald did a great job of building the roster in line with that. They’re a really good team.
“I take a lot of pride in what New York is doing.”
But he doesn’t want them to win. He’s married to the Pacers. The Knicks were just a fling.