The questioners start out asking what every Knicks fan desperately wants to know: How the hell is Donnie Walsh going to turn this mess around? And could Walsh please erase seven years of embarrassment in about, oh, seven days?
Walsh laughs. He’s back among his people. Walsh’s title is president of basketball operations, but really he was hired in April to be the Knicks’ latest savior, exorcist, and general manager. He is 67 and moves slowly; his hair is slicked back, and he wears a dark-gray suit. He looks like a low-key, pre–John Gotti don. Today Walsh is on a temporary stage constructed amid the seats in a small theater inside Madison Square Garden attending to one of his roles: calming down the Knicks’ angry, sorely abused fan base. It’s a Wednesday night in mid-August. Season-ticket holders have been invited to a Q&A session with the new basketball boss—which is, all by itself, a real breakthrough; Walsh’s immediate predecessors spent much of their tenures avoiding fans, the media, and process-servers.
Walsh’s inquisitors submitted questions in advance by e-mail. John Andariese, a longtime Knicks broadcaster, sits beside Walsh and reads them off cards. Most of the questions stick to the obvious subjects, like how quickly Walsh intends to ship overweight, underhustling forward Zach Randolph out of town. Boos erupt at the mention of Randolph’s name; someone yells, “He’s gotta go!”
“Yeah, ‘He’s gotta go,’ I love that,” Walsh says. His tone is heavy with sarcasm; his voice, a rumbling baritone, silences the crowd like a principal walking into a schoolroom of kids misbehaving for a substitute teacher. “Twenty [points per game] and ten [rebounds per game] and he’s gotta go! I know Zach from when he was in high school. Zach was the best low-post player I ever saw in high school. I say to him, ‘What happened? Where’s your game? You should be an all-star in this league!’ We’ll see.”
Hostile fans Walsh knows how to handle. But “Howard from Riverdale” throws Walsh off stride: “Will you be paying a visit to St. Gabriel’s now that you’re back in town?”
St. Gabriel’s was Walsh’s elementary school in the Bronx. After the nuns were finally done with the boys each day, Walsh would spend hours on the school’s playground, until he was shooting by streetlight. Back then, in the early fifties, the NBA was in its infancy; the real action was in amateur basketball—especially New York City basketball, whose farm system was the highly refined network of Catholic schools. St. Gabriel’s was a lower rung in that ladder, and it was the beginning of Walsh’s life in the game. So when he answers this time, his words are quiet, but the catch in his voice is unmistakable. “Well, I’ve already done that with my brother during the first week I was in town,” he says. “We went up and ate at our favorite deli and went by the church where I was married, the schoolyard where I played.” Then he pauses. “You’re going to get me crying,” he says.
Much of what Donnie Walsh’s new job entails is waiting. He’s inherited a stack of expensive long-term contracts attached to a locker room of mediocre players. It will take him at least three years to completely renovate the Knicks’ roster and turn the team into a title contender. Oh, the team will play better long before 2011, maybe even this season, thanks mostly to the run-and-gun offense installed by new coach Mike D’Antoni. Yet the soul of the Knicks, as an organization, has already been transformed. They are now run by an authentic product of New York’s old-boy basketball culture.
Walsh comes out of New York’s glorious Irish-Italian-Jewish hoops history, a world stretching back to the thirties and populated, in its mid-fifties glory days, by guys named Ziggy and Spook, a world of longshoremen and garmentos and cigarette haze hovering over the hardwood. When the white-haired Andariese, himself a veteran of that scene, asks Walsh to describe the lofty honor of playing in a high-school all-star game at the Garden, he makes sure to clarify that it took place in the legendary “old” Garden, the one on Eighth Avenue that was torn down in 1968.
But a basketball ethos survives from those days, passed down through gym rats and pickup games. Walsh is no nostalgist; he doesn’t subscribe to any rigid theories about offense and defense on the court, and one of his greatest strengths as an NBA executive has been his ability to adapt to the changes in rules and athletes over the years. He’s also a color-blind liberal. But he is fiercely attached to the morality of the game he learned in Bronx CYO halls, at Fordham Prep, and, especially, at the feet of the legendary college coach Frank McGuire. And last year, when lurid headlines described the Knicks’ demise, that city-hoops subculture was quietly maneuvering to bring Walsh home, after 50 years, to try to resurrect New York basketball.