Walsh’s words border on blasphemy: Those Knicks teams are venerated in the old-boy New York basketball subculture, held up as an exemplar of how the game should be played: intelligently and unselfishly. But Walsh is a pragmatist, and he knows the days of Dick Barnett are not coming back. “Every year you look up, and those are the guys that do it—Kobe or Shaq or Duncan or Garnett,” he says. “Or a kid coming up like Greg Oden. You’d love to have a chance to get a guy like him. But they come around once every fifteen, twenty years.”
He doesn’t have that long to wait, yet he is determined not to conduct a fire sale to jump-start the team. Instead, Walsh is focused on getting the Knicks below the salary cap and freeing up money to spend on new talent—just not immediately. “I’m not trying to get the cap down by the end of this season, or by the end of next year,” Walsh says. “I’m trying to get it down two years from now, in 2010.”
Which also happens to be the year that the NBA’s transcendent young superstar, LeBron James, becomes a free agent. Pure coincidence, Walsh says. Rival G.M.’s see a conspiracy in the making, however, in which the NBA subtly steers James to the league’s flagship team. “Aw, they’re just paranoid,” Walsh says with a laugh. “You know what’s interesting to me? What year do you think [Chris Bosh] is a free agent?” The gifted Toronto Raptors forward also hits the market in 2010. “Yes,” Walsh says. “And that kid’s a great player. But nobody talks about him. It’s all ‘Oh, you’ve got to get LeBron!’ Look, I understand that. But you look at that free-agent class, and there’s a lot of really good players in it.”
Yet none of them will come to the Garden, for even the fattest paycheck, if the Knicks remain a last-place carnival act. That’s why the Dolans paid millions to hire Walsh: to hold the fort for a couple of years and instill a sense of professionalism in the franchise again, making it attractive to the upper rank of free agents, who are selling their image as much as their game. LeBron—or Bosh, or Dwayne Wade—would become an exponentially bigger marketing star if he led the Knicks back to the top, which will be part of Walsh’s sales pitch. Will it work? “We’ll do it or we won’t,” he says with a shrug. Coming from anyone else, those words would sound passive. Coming from Walsh, they have the ring of something that hasn’t been associated with the Knicks in a very long time: serene, rational confidence.
As the regular season starts, Walsh says one of his biggest problems is finding a good spot to watch games at the Garden. He wants to be close to the court, but also inconspicuous. “I’m not there to socialize with fans,” he says. “I’m not scared about taking shit. If they want to yell at me, they can yell at me. But if you want to see me meditate, watch me watch a basketball game. Meditation means focusing on one thing. And that’s what I do. I just watch. I really get into it. Watching is part of the reason I love the game, now that I can’t play it.” With luck, and some street smarts, Donnie Walsh will make the Knicks worth watching again.