Steaks may be the main attraction at Peter Luger. But there’s an equally rich sense of time to the restaurant, permeating everything from the heavy wooden tables to the thick-sliced-tomato-and-onion appetizer. Donnie Walsh looks slowly around the dining room. He’s been trying to get back here for 40 years. Doesn’t look as if much has changed, he says.
“When I was recruiting for South Carolina, there was an older man who was a friend of Frank McGuire’s—his name was Harry Gotkin, a wonderful guy,” Walsh says. “He used to scout for us, and when I came up to New York, he knew the high-school players, and he’d say, ‘You gotta go see this kid.’ And Harry knew all the restaurants in New York, so he’d bring me to places like this.”
In just a few sentences and references, Walsh has summoned a sprawling, exotic basketball family tree. In the mid-thirties, McGuire was a starter on an overpowering St. John’s team. Anti-Semitism ran high when the team and its Jewish players traveled to rival Catholic schools, and McGuire brawled with opposing players and fans to protect his teammates—one of whom was Dave (Java) Gotkin. When McGuire, as a coach, built dominant college teams at North Carolina and then South Carolina, he did it using what was called an “underground railroad” of recruits from city schools; McGuire’s street agent back in New York—steering players to McGuire purely because he wanted them to get a sound college education—was Java’s older brother, Harry, a jowly garment-district operator.
Among the many great players who found their way into the strange land of the fifties Deep South were Billy Cunningham, from Brooklyn; Larry Brown, from Long Island; and Donnie Walsh—the oldest of five children, born in Manhattan, raised in Riverdale, the son of a dentist for the longshoremen’s union.
McGuire’s teams employed a signature New York playing style, taught alongside the catechism in city Catholic schools: give-and-go, pick-and-roll offense; zone defense. Walsh played guard, and was a deadly jump-shooter from twelve to fifteen feet out (all these years later, he’s still Fordham Prep’s second-highest career scorer) and one of the few white guys to play in Harlem’s summer Rucker League. But he was an even better defender—a smart, hard-nosed player who was rarely out of position. What really made McGuire’s system work, though, was the players’ fierce loyalty to him. McGuire was a friend of their dockworker and cop parents—or, in Walsh’s case, his father the union dentist. McGuire instilled an us-against-them mentality in his boys, tough city kids far from home going up against the rednecks and archenemies like N.C. State.
Walsh revered McGuire, so much so that after attending law school, he turned down a job with a major Wall Street firm and ended up joining McGuire’s coaching staff at South Carolina. He left only when offered a job by another member of the family, Larry Brown, who had been hired to coach the Denver Nuggets. Several years later, Walsh moved to the Indiana Pacers, first as an assistant coach and then as general manager, and turned around the woeful franchise. His masterstroke came in 1987, when, instead of giving in to intense pressure to draft local hero Steve Alford, Walsh selected Reggie Miller out of UCLA. Alford was gone from the NBA after four seasons; Miller, after spending many of his eighteen seasons tormenting the Knicks, is a lock to be elected to basketball’s Hall of Fame.
Walsh proved sharp not only at acquiring complementary parts, like the bruising Dale Davis and the underrated Rik Smits, but in the off-court deals that turned Indiana into one of the league’s most profitable franchises, like building Conseco Fieldhouse, a $183 million showpiece of an arena and museum. (He also, in 1993, hired Larry Brown to coach the Pacers.) The teams Walsh built around Miller never won a championship—they came closest in 2000, when they lost in the finals to the Kobe-and-Shaq-era Lakers—and he was in the middle of retooling the roster when disaster struck one night in Detroit: Pacers Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson went into the stands to fight belligerent Pistons fans. The aftermath of that nasty 2004 brawl slowly destroyed the team and wearied Walsh. In the past few years, Pacers players have been involved in a series of shootings, and last season, the team missed the playoffs and registered the worst attendance in the NBA. Ownership promised a shake-up. Walsh had hired Larry Bird to coach the Pacers in 1997, then promoted him to president of basketball operations in 2003. Bird made it clear that he eventually wanted to run the whole show. Walsh’s contract with the Pacers would end after the 2007–8 season, and he thought he was headed into retirement. But when the Knicks’ troubles continued and management shifts became inevitable, Walsh grew curious. So did an old friend from his South Carolina days, a basketball junkie from Brooklyn.