Knicks name Donnie Walsh president

Walsh says he still needs to talk with Isiah Thomas
April 2, 2008 6:48:40 PM PDT
Donnie Walsh is in. Now he needs a little time before deciding if Isiah Thomas is out.Walsh was hired Wednesday as the New York Knicks' president of basketball operations, taking one of Thomas' jobs. Sometime soon, he will decide if Thomas keeps the other one as coach.

That won't happen yet, though. Thomas is in Memphis, where the Knicks continued a five-game road trip Wednesday night, and Walsh won't determine the coach's future until they have met in person.

"I need to sit down with Isiah and have a meaningful basketball conversation," Walsh said.

Thomas was asked if he felt he would need to save his job when they do meet.

"If that's necessary, you know I think with any new boss you have to sell your program," Thomas said. "There'd be some things that hopefully he'll like and I'm sure there will be some things he wants to change."

Walsh hired Thomas to coach the Indiana Pacers in 2000, and both say they enjoy a good relationship. Walsh said they spoke Tuesday, adding that Thomas has a "great basketball mind" and believes he can still help the organization in some way.

"Whatever I can do to make the Knicks better, that's what I'll do," Thomas said.

Walsh will have complete power to decide. Madison Square Garden chairman James Dolan gave the longtime Pacers executive full autonomy to shape everything from the team's roster to the organization's media policy.

"His mandate is clear - do whatever is necessary to turn this team around," Dolan said.

There is so much to fix.

The Knicks (20-54) are finishing their seventh straight losing season and are just as dysfunctional off the court. Thomas and Dolan were found to have sexually harassed a former team executive, Thomas has feuded with some players this season, and fans at Madison Square Garden frequently chant for him to be fired.

But Walsh, a New York native, said he is not returning home to be a savior.

"I'm not the great new hope. I'm just a guy who's going to come in and try to create a team." Walsh said. "And it's not going to happen overnight, so I don't want any illusions. But I think it has to get better right away.

"I think the people in this city that are paying money to go to games, they've got to see a competitive team. They've got to see a team and I think they have to see a team that makes sense that they can say, 'OK, this could get better.' There has to be a direction, which I think is difficult to do."

Still, there are high hopes that Walsh can turn around a franchise that hasn't won a playoff game since 2001. He isn't sure if he will bring in someone to serve as his general manager.

"In Donnie, the Knicks have secured the services of a seasoned basketball professional who is held in high regard throughout the league and to whom I have often turned for input on basketball matters over the years," commissioner David Stern said in a statement.

"Donnie, in turn, is joining one of our storied franchises, whose team and arena are rich in NBA tradition, and he gets to return to his hometown and a metropolitan area that many of his family members call home."

Walsh will report directly to Dolan - Thomas reported to MSG Sports president Steve Mills - and has been assured there will be no interference from above. Dolan remains loyal to Thomas, but Walsh said that won't be influence his decision concerning a coach.

"He's more or less left this up to me," Walsh said of Dolan.

The 67-year-old Walsh recently announced he was leaving the Pacers after 24 years with the organization. He joined the Pacers' front office as general manager in 1986, became team president in 1988 and CEO in 2003. He helped the franchise rise from NBA laughingstock to title contender.

"One of the highest things on my list is Donnie's happiness," Pacers co-owner Herb Simon said. "If that is what he wants, I'm very happy for him. He has given us 24 years of incredible service. I think he'll do a great job."

Walsh also said he needed to talk to players like Stephon Marbury and Eddy Curry before deciding their future with the team. Like many people throughout the league, Walsh said the Knicks have talented individuals on their roster and believes the problem could be "the mix of players."

"Beginning of the season, if you just looked at the roster, you'd say these guys could be pretty good," Walsh said. "And I really thought that."

Dolan will even allow Walsh to dictate his media policy. The Knicks don't allow individual interviews with players or staff unless a public relations official is present, and Walsh is known to be friendly with the media.

"I think access is a big part of most franchises," Walsh said.

The Knicks and Pacers once had a fierce rivalry, meeting in the Eastern Conference finals in 1994, 1999 and 2000. Walsh remembers what Madison Square Garden was like back then, and wants it to be that way again.

"That's it. That was it. That is it. That's where I want to go to, get that back," he said. "That's what I'd like."