INDIANAPOLIS — Everything in the room is as it was, except for Larry Bird’s desk, which was much too big, made Donnie Walsh
feel as if he were in kindergarten again, and had to go.
“They had the old one stored away somewhere and I had them put it back,” he said. “Otherwise it’s exactly the same.”
He meant the paintings that Walsh hung after moving into his office when the building — then Conseco Field House, now named for Bankers Life — opened in 1999; the books he had stocked on shelves behind the desk; strangely enough, even the nearly empty bottle of cologne and other used toiletries he had reminded himself to dispose of before he vacated the place more than four years ago, but forgot.
Walsh pointed out the state of the bathroom to Bird. “He just laughed,” Walsh said. “You know, that’s Larry.”
Such is the life that Walsh has returned to with the Indiana Pacers
, who have welcomed him back as president for basketball operations after three years with the Knicks
and one in the brief retirement he was talked out of when Bird decided late last spring to take leave of the job.
After departing his nearly quarter-century Pacers perch for his native New York in 2008, Walsh has proved that he could have his late-career fling and go home again. Think of the Knicks as the big-city temptress with the substantial bank account, the best seats on Broadway, but lacking the emotional depth to make good on a vow of extended commitment.
The money retrospective on Walsh’s lucrative run at the helm of the Knicks was that it was a common case of wanderlust. His long marriage to the Pacers was experiencing turbulence, the team’s roster nearly in ruin. The Knicks — in the person of Madison Square Garden’s executive chairman, James L. Dolan — winked and promised him a good time.
Which, after all that was said and done, he insisted he did.
“I have no misgivings for having gone up there,” Walsh said, nestled in the comfort of his office. “I enjoyed myself, I really did.”
When Walsh had eyes for New York, the Pacers’ attitude was, more or less, go right ahead, painfully aware that even the most tenured and loving relationships come to a crossroads.
“Everything in life is timing, and our team was at a tough point, in the years after the fight,” said the Pacers’ owner, Herb Simon, referring to the November 2004 brawl with the Detroit Pistons in Pontiac, Mich., that turned Walsh’s Pacers, his pride and joy and continuous playoff contender, into a veritable N.B.A. pariah.
“The Knicks gave him a lot more than the Pacers could pay him,” Simon said, “but even if the New York job hadn’t come up, he needed a change of scenery. It was a good time for him to go on a sabbatical.”
If leaving temporarily wasn’t the original plan, it is surely how the homecoming appears to have worked out. When Simon picked up the telephone to comment on Walsh, he said, “You want to talk about my favorite person?” Visitors to the reception area outside Walsh’s office are greeted by Susy Fischer, his longtime executive assistant.
It is as if the Pacers left a candle burning for Walsh in the window.
“Most of the people working here, I hired,” he said, while acknowledging one glaring difference from New York: the ability to have an open-door policy and to avoid the perception of his vocational activities being a clandestine affair.
“Here, my whole career I’d go out and watch players while they shoot before a game,” Walsh said. “Maybe one writer would come up to me. I’d do that in the Garden and next thing I knew there were 40 people there. They’d grill me on everything. In the beginning I’m thinking, this isn’t a Senate investigation committee; let’s calm down.”
But there never seemed to be much tranquillity or, as those insistent well-placed newspaper sources had a habit of contending, organizational liberties in New York. Between Dolan’s rocky policies of not cooperating with the news media and the reporters’ hard place, Walsh tried to be a one-man demilitarized zone. In doing so, he put himself in the middle of a firefight and in a certain sense might even be considered a casualty of war.
Upon arrival, Walsh made known his plans for deconstructing the bloated and bungled roster of his predecessor, Isiah Thomas, and soon after realized that he had unwittingly set the franchise game-change clock to count down to the arrival of LeBron James.
“When I said the first day about going after free agents if we could get under the cap, I honestly didn’t even know who was going to be out there,” Walsh said. “The press went and checked and started writing about LeBron. Of course, I wasn’t going to disagree.”
The bar was raised in the minds of the news media and ownership to the point that Anyone But LeBron was going to be a consolation prize — and, in the case of Amar’e Stoudemire and his $100 million contract, one the Knicks no longer want. To make matters worse, when the free agent James began entertaining panting suitors in the summer of 2010, Walsh was suddenly and visibly no longer the man Dolan had fancied in the first place.
Walsh had had a scare with a cancerous spot on his tongue and had long understood that he was going to need a replacement hip. He was in such pain after a scouting trip to Europe that he couldn’t walk up stairs without help. He called Dr. Lisa Callahan, the Knicks’ medical director, and had her go to his West Side apartment.
“I was sitting on my bed and she said, ‘O.K., Donnie, stand up,’ ” he said. “So I stood and I really was off balance, really bad, and she goes, ‘Oh, no, this is not the hip.’ ”
Walsh needed surgery to repair a disruption on his spinal cord, same as Peyton Manning, but his age, pushing 70, made it more risky. Relieved afterward when he could move his hands and feet, he got into a wheelchair and returned to work to help recruit James.
“I hadn’t even taken part in the preparation for the presentation,” he said. “Now I’m wheeled in to see LeBron, so that looked really ridiculous. It got to be a big story and, yeah, I think it did impact on the franchise.”
It might also have made Dolan reconsider the autonomy originally granted him, though Walsh — who passed the bar exam in South Carolina 13 years after he graduated from North Carolina law school but chose a career in basketball coaching, much to his professors’ astonishment — defended Dolan against the widespread belief that he had committed repeated crimes of ownership interference.
Walsh maintained that he, not Dolan, had made the call to include the additional players Denver demanded to part with Carmelo Anthony in February 2011, even though, he said, he “didn’t like the deal.”
“It just came down to, we do it or we don’t,” Walsh said.
He also insisted that his transition into a titular consulting role last season — more than other factors, including a reported offer of diminished pay — was based on his desire to be in Indianapolis full time again, with his wife, Judy, some of their 11 grandchildren and their dogs.
In other words, he has stayed on the high road he took into and out of New York.
“All I can say is that Jim Dolan treated me very well, paid me well, and I have no ax to grind,” he said. “With Jim, I think people only get part of the story, and that’s because he doesn’t want to put his being on display. When you’re the owner of a team, and the team hasn’t done well and people are judging you by what you do there, it’s usually not good. I mean, George Steinbrenner — who loved him when the Yankees weren’t any good?”
Walsh added: “Jim let me do some things he wouldn’t let other people do, and I think in the end I did what I said I would do when I got there. I put them in a position so the next guy didn’t have to do the things that Isiah and Scott Layden had to do: try to keep their job by trading sideways, taking the worst contracts.”
Walsh shook his head and said, “No game-changers in that.”
On that subject, he scoffed at the common perception that his most notable acquisitions, Anthony and Stoudemire, would never coexist and carry the Knicks to a higher playoff level.
“There’s nothing stopping them; it’s just a matter of believing it,” he said, adding that the only thing holding Anthony back from universal acclaim is getting “into superstar shape.”
Walsh said he followed the Knicks closely last season and would continue to keep an eye on them and hope they can give New York fans — “who really blew me away with how passionate they were; never seen anything like them” — the deep playoff run they crave.
Conversely, the Knicks’ championship drought, turning 40 next spring, is not his problem anymore.
Although the team he inherited from Bird has no individual talent comparable to Anthony, it was by the end of last season a more balanced and better-functioning unit than the more expensive one he began building in New York. Walsh believes the Pacers might even be a contender if the young wing player Paul George, center Roy Hibbert and point guard George Hill can maximize their skills as they gain more experience.
Assisted by the Pacers’ new general manager, Kevin Pritchard, Walsh filled out the bench over the summer but called himself “kind of a caretaker.” Bird’s departure from a promising young team has been attributed to back and shoulder problems or organizational friction, depending on the source. Walsh, 71, said he did not know if Bird was merely on leave or gone for good, but added, “At my age, I’m no long-term solution.”
He is, however, walking steadily, requiring only the occasional use of a cane, recovered from all that occurred after his three-year liaison that transported him from the suburbs of the city they call Naptown to a 2,700-square-foot apartment on the Upper West Side and to the Garden’s bright lights, where he was often struck by the thought, “Oh, man, this is the top of the food chain.”
Back in more staid surroundings, there will be no fraternizing with the likes of Spike Lee and Chris Rock. Pregame interview sessions will be small and pleasantly conversational. But in his adopted home and old work space, Walsh could acknowledge feeling like a new man — a family man, devoted to the Pacers, for better or worse.