There must be times when Donnie Walsh wonders if the past four years were a dream sequence. Did he really spend three seasons in New York to untangle the Knicks' financial web? Did he really live in New York City, in an apartment, away from his wife? Did he really have those three surgeries?
Evidence to the contrary can be found in the private bathroom adjacent to his office in Bankers Life Fieldhouse. When Walsh returned there to resume his position as the Pacers' team president this summer, he found it to be nearly identical to how he left it in 2008. Same toiletries on the counter-top, including the same empty bottle, and the same container of shampoo in the shower.
"I thought I was in a time warp," he said.
Low-maintenance Larry Bird filled the role of team president for the past four years and helped set the Pacers back on a course of upward mobility, but he didn't perform a makeover on the job any more than he did the bathroom. That's why Walsh has been able to move back into the office he held for nine years, and the job he held for 22, as if he had never left.
It's a rare occurrence in professional sports for a successful team president to voluntarily leave his job, go work successfully for another franchise for a few years, retire for a year, and then come back to his original job. Walsh has done that, although not by his own design. He's just going with the flow, responding to pleas for his help and, now, enjoying the work as much as ever amid renewed health.
Walsh was prepared to retire in 2008, when he handed over the complete task of rebuilding the Pacers to Bird. The Knicks—and some say commissioner David Stern as well—asked him to come to New York City to restore that franchise, however, and after some internal debate Walsh agreed. It was, in a way, a chance to go home for a while. He grew up in the Bronx, and his brother and sister still live near the city. He also had attended Knicks games at the old Madison Square Garden as a child, and could take pride in making the franchise relevant again. And, yes, it was a helluva payday.
Walsh accomplished most of what he was hired to do, which was improve the franchise's financial standing and make it a playoff team again. He even managed a decent working relationship with the infamously difficult New York media, and managed to instill a less paranoid approach within the franchise toward reporters. Ultimately, however, ongoing and occasionally emotional conflicts with owner James Dolan led him to walk away from the job, return to Indianapolis and, for the first time in his life, not work at anything.
He returned in much better shape than he had left. He had three surgeries while in New York, which turned out to be a timely and fortunate place for him to be. There was the removal of a cancerous spot on his tongue, the removal of bone spurs in his neck, the result of a damaged disk resting on his spinal cord (very similar to Peyton Manning's surgery), and a hip replacement.
A hip replacement is a major ordeal for most people, but by comparison it was the least of Walsh's concerns. For a while, he feared having to have his tongue removed, but a surgeon regarded as "literally the best guy in the world" saved it. For a while, he feared becoming paralyzed from his neck surgery. He still recalls the relief of being able to wiggle his fingers and toes upon awakening, although he was confined to a wheelchair for a while and literally had to learn to walk again.
He gave up his lifelong smoking habit after his tongue was saved, something that turned out to be much easier than he expected. The statistical analysis helped; he was told there was a three percent chance of the tumor returning if he gave up smoking and a 45 percent chance if he didn't. The offshoot is that his skin tone has improved from gray to pink and he breathes better than at any time in recent memory.
"I went (to New York) thinking I was healthy and I wasn't," he said. "Now I'm healthier than I've ever been."
Surprisingly to many who know him, Walsh enjoyed his retirement during the previous NBA season. He returned to Indianapolis, stayed away from Pacers operations and found that the days remained full. When owner Herb Simon called him last spring to invite him back in the wake of Bird's decision to leave, he did so reluctantly.
"When I walked through the door the first time I thought, 'What am I doing this for?'" he recalled.
He was a passive participant in the draft proceedings that Bird directed, and then resumed the presidency when the free agency period began. It rekindled his spirit, and he's since merged smoothly into a relationship with general manager Kevin Pritchard that is similar to the one he had with Bird. Pritchard will have the freedom to make roster decisions, but Walsh has final authority.
When the Pacers played out of Market Square Arena, Walsh ran the entire franchise and worked endless hours to do it. When Bankers Life Fieldhouse (then known as Conseco Fieldhouse) was built, and the basketball team expanded to become Pacers Sports and Entertainment, he delegated the non-basketball responsibilities. Now he delegates more than ever, but remains fully engaged. Whereas he once arrived at the office as early as 6 a.m. and worked into the evening, he now shows up about 10 a.m. and leaves around 6. It's a fulltime job, but not a fixation.
"Back then I was trying to learn," Walsh said. "Now I kind of know more and I have people here to help me. The things (Pritchard) can do I don't want to do now. I don't want to be flying all over the country looking at college guys. I will probably go on (Pacer road) trips.
"I'm coming to the end of my career, so it's not like it was back then when I was wanting to build this and make it into something."
Walsh, 71, has no idea how long this sequel will run. Largely, it will depend if and when Bird wants to come back to the office. A few months ago Walsh thought Bird would return in a year, after undergoing his own surgeries. Now, Walsh isn't sure what Bird will do, and most likely neither does Bird.
Walsh only figures he won't be in the job for several more years. In the meantime, he'll enjoy continuing a building effort that in many ways reminds him of what he directed in the 1990s. It's another time warp.
"You can see the future of this team," he said. "But there's an uncertainty. You wonder, 'Can we beat these teams?' I'm feeling we can, but I'm not sure. Until you do it, nobody's sure. But that's the excitement of it."
Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Indiana Pacers. All opinions expressed by Mark Montieth are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Indiana Pacers, their partners, or sponsors.