Dan Klores grew up to become a New York public-relations wizard, building a business with dozens of elite clients in the city’s business and media industries before becoming a filmmaker (he also wrote a Frank McGuire biography along the way). Walsh had provided contacts and advice for Black Magic, Klores’s documentary on the civil rights era and the unsung heroes of black-college basketball. Klores, watching the Knicks devolve into a laughingstock last season, returned the favor by advising Walsh on his next career move. “We talked about it day and night,” Klores says of Walsh’s concerns about joining the Knicks. “The issue was, ‘Are the Dolans gonna let him do his job?’ He didn’t care about money or anything else.”
And as luck would have it, just as Klores was working on selling the Knicks to Walsh, a friend in the NBA office, one with his own vast connections in the city, was selling Walsh to the Knicks.
David Stern loves all 30 NBA franchises equally. The commissioner would no doubt have been just as upset if a former team executive were suing for sexual harassment in Minneapolis or Portland or Memphis. But it was especially irritating to have the Knicks’ latest misdeeds delivered to his Manhattan desk every morning in Stern’s copy of the Times. He held his tongue until the humiliating Anucha Browne Sanders lawsuit had been tried, with the Knicks losing. Then Stern blasted the state of the once-proud franchise and Knicks owner Jim Dolan. “[The lawsuit] demonstrates that they’re not a model of intelligent management,” Stern told ESPN. “There were many checkpoints along the way where more decisive action would have eliminated this issue.”
“Donnie is very patient,” says Reggie Miller. “He’s brilliant at keeping the big picture clear in his mind.”
Clearly it was time for adult supervision of the Knicks. The season unfolded and the circus continued—with the Knicks losing by record numbers of points and star guard Stephon Marbury bolting the team during a feud with coach and general manager Isiah Thomas—while Stern worked quietly behind the scenes. “Jim Dolan does care more about the Knicks than people think he does,” says another NBA executive. “He’s accused of meddling in the team, but that wasn’t as big an issue as New York sportswriters made it out to be. If anything, he should have been more hands-on and moved Isiah out quicker. Now he was in essence saying to David and the league, ‘Help.’ David suggested Donnie.”
Dolan didn’t know Walsh personally, so Stern filled him in. And Walsh’s current employer in Indiana needed to approve the Knicks’ talking with him about a new job, so Stern acted as emissary. “David had to call [Pacers owner] Herb Simon and make sure it was acceptable to them,” says the NBA executive. “And Herb blessed it. The league is not typically involved in G.M.’s moving from team to team, but in this case, we saw three wins, frankly: a win for the league in terms of bringing a certain respectability to a franchise that was otherwise down, a win for Donnie personally because things had become flat at best in Indiana, and also a win for Jim Dolan.”
Stern deflects questions about his role in brokering the marriage. “When a franchise is in pain, as the Knicks have been, that’s something you just don’t want to see in your league,” he says. But he’s plainly thrilled with the short-term results. “A period of quietude for the Knicks is a very good thing,” Stern says. “Very good. The franchise is calling out for a period of calm. There’s enormous pressure in the world’s largest media market to do something and do it now, however prudent or not it may be. If there’s anyone well-suited to make careful analysis and do the best thing for the long-term health of the franchise, it’s Donnie. And one does get the sense the Knicks will improve just from the calm that has descended on the team.”
In April, on the night of his first day as Knicks boss, Walsh celebrated at Elio’s, the classic Upper East Side Italian restaurant, along with Stern, Klores, and Walsh’s brother Jimmy. As Walsh walked in, the bartender recognized him and began shouting. “Oh, man, you gotta help us out!” he said, speaking for thousands of Knicks fans. “You don’t have any idea how bad this is! We’re rooting for you! Welcome back!”
Maybe the third time will indeed be the charm. Because this homecoming thing hasn’t worked so well for the Knicks the first two times around.
Stephon Marbury comes from a very different time and place in New York basketball culture. Growing up in the Coney Island projects, Stephon was hyped from grade school as the Marbury who would finally deliver the family to the big time and the big money, after his three older brothers failed. Marbury and Walsh both learned early on what it’s like to deal with hoops hustlers, but by the time Marbury was a teen, the stakes and the pressures had escalated dramatically. So when Thomas and the Knicks traded for Marbury in January 2004, it was supposed to be a storybook ending for his career and a boon to the team. Marbury certainly became the dominant Knicks personality, but not in the way he and the team had dreamed: He’s become the symbol of the team’s bizarre decline, on the court and off. Marbury was in the middle of the sexual-harassment lawsuit that shamed the Knicks and cost the team’s owners $11.5 million.