Navigating the unforgiving terrain of the Knicks' head-coaching job

ByIan Begley ESPN logo
Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Editor's note: This story was originally published on April 12 and has been updated with the Knicks' hiring of David Fizdale.

Mike D'Antoni was still in the Phoenix area when he agreed in principle to be the head coach of the New York Knicksin 2008. The club needed him in New York to prepare for an introductory news conference, so they sent a plane. The plane.

The Knicks flew D'Antoni to New York on a Gulfstream IV, which is generally valued at more than $10 million. They landed at a small airport in Farmingdale, New York. Thirty feet away, a private helicopter awaited D'Antoni, his assistant Phil Weber and others.

The chopper would fly the new coach and his crew 40 miles west to a heliport on the West Side of Manhattan, a few blocks from Madison Square Garden.

"How about that?" Weber said. "Welcome to New York, baby."

Weber has worked in the NBA for nearly 20 years. He says most teams provide quality accommodations for their employees, but New York was different.

"If there are levels," Weber said. "[The Knicks are] at a 10. ...

"It's a situation where they take care of their people and they expect to win. They have high standards."

That last part, of course, is where things have gone sideways for many Knicks coaches over the past two decades. Eight different men have started the season as head coach of the Knicks since Jeff Van Gundy left the club in 2001. That leaves the Knicks tied with the Detroit Pistons, Sacramento Kings and Minnesota Timberwolves for the highest turnover rate in that span.

The reported hiring of formerMemphis Grizzlieshead coach David Fizdale makes nine, as the Knicks' front office is hoping to bring stability and sanity to an organization that hasn't had enough of either since Van Gundy left.

Due to the difficult -- and sometimes bizarre -- nature of the job, navigating life as head coach of the New York Knicks is a one-of-a-kind task.

'They haven't got a lot of patience for you losing'

It's been nearly three decades since Paul Silas sat on the Knicks' bench at Madison Square Garden. But Silas, an assistant under Stu Jackson in the early 1990s, still remembers the harsh words he heard from fans seated near Knicks coaches.

"They would curse at [Jackson]. They were very rude," Silas said.

"[New York] was the most difficult place that I'd ever been. Because in the other cities I played and I coached, that just didn't happen. Nothing like that at all."

Nearly every coach and executive interviewed for this story cited the intensity of Knicks fans as one factor that made New York a unique market.

"There's a pressure to win in every NBA city, but there's an acute pressure to win there because it's New York, that's just the way it is," ex-Knicks general manager Donnie Walsh says. "It's a winner's culture. They haven't got a lot of patience for you losing."

Adds Mike Woodson, former Knicks head coach and current LA Clippers assistant: "It's just a unique city to coach in and if you're not ready for it, it can be tough on you."

But that intensity of being in the Big Apple isn't always a bad thing.

"It's not an easy market," Tom Thibodeau, an assistant with the Knicks under Van Gundy, said. "When it's great, it's unbelievable."

Adds Turner analyst Mike Fratello, who was an assistant under Hubie Brown in 1982-83: "When it is going right, it's an incredible high for everyone in the city."

Woodson was the last coach to experience that high: He coached the Knicks to 54 wins and a playoff series victory in 2013.

One night after having dinner in Harlem that season, Woodson was stopped by a group of young fans.

"There were 8, 9, 10 [teenage] kids that were on a corner and they happened to recognize me in the car. How they recognized me, I don't know because the windows were tinted. But they were happy as hell," he said.

"They're saying 'Coach Woodson!, Coach Woodson!' And I rolled the window down and had a few words [with] them. And that just made my day."

Dave Hanners, an assistant under former Knicks coaches Larry Brown and Isiah Thomas, was impressed by the knowledge of fans he encountered at Madison Square Garden. He remembers talking about salary-cap strategy with a group of fans behind the bench -- subject matter that was usually reserved for league executives.

"The average fan in the average city, there's no way they would know that. It's just a sophistication level that's higher than a lot of places," Hanners said. "New York wanted to give you a chance. But if you put a bad product out there, you were going to know it."

The product has been mostly bad for some time now. New York has the lowest winning percentage (41.4 percent) in the NBA since the 2000-01 season (among teams who have played in every season) and the club has won just one playoff series in that span.

All of the losing has led to some ugly moments for coaches. Fans at Madison Square Garden have routinely called for coaches to be fired at the tail end of losing seasons. Thomas, D'Antoni, Woodson, they've all heard it.

"The fans can jump on you. They've been starving for a winner for so long," Jim Todd, an assistant under Woodson, said. "I think if you've been beaten down for a while, I think that's what compounds it and makes it more difficult. They want a winner and that's just the way it's going to be."

Jackson, currently an analyst for Turner and NBA TV, laughed when recalling fans booing the Knicks at the end of a meaningless preseason game when he was an assistant under Rick Pitino.

"In the closing minutes of the game, we were up by a double-digit margin, and the game ends and the fans behind us and around us were booing," Jackson said. "I said, 'Rick, what's the deal? We just won the game?' He said, 'We didn't cover the spread.'"

The best advice for dealing with the intensity of New York fans?Jim Cleamons, an assistant coach under Derek Fisher during the Phil Jackson era, offered some insight.

"What did Frank Sinatra say? I did it my way? Do it your way," Cleamons said. "I'd rather be myself and get fired than not be myself."

'Mr. Dolan might not love me, I don't know, but he didn't ever stand in the way'

Hanners believes it's in any Knicks coach's best interest "to form a really good relationship" with owner and MSG Chairman Jim Dolan.

"I mean, a really personal relationship where he trusted you and would stay out of your way and not try to tell you what to do," Hanners said. "If the owner doesn't have any faith in [the coach], he starts trying to micromanage and [owners] are not any good at it."

Dolan's influence on the day-to-day operations of the Knicks has always been a topic of intrigue among fans and media. When he hired Jackson to become team president in 2014, Dolan acknowledged that he'd been involved with basketball decisions in the past. But he said he was "willingly and gratefully" ceding control to Jackson.

"I am by no means an expert at basketball," Dolan said during Jackson's introductory news conference. "I think I'm a little out of my element when it comes to the team. I found myself in a position where I needed to be more a part of the decision-making for a while. It wasn't necessarily something that I wanted to do, but as the chairman of the company, I felt obligated to do."

When Jackson was fired, Dolan reiterated that he'd remain on the sideline and let team president Steve Mills run the show. All indications are Dolan has been more involved in the entertainment business than the basketball side recently. The Madison Square Garden company has several entertainment venues outside of New York which have Dolan's attention. He also has spent significant time playing music with his blues band.

Regardless of how often he involves himself in basketball decisions going forward, coaches and executives give Dolan credit for providing them the resources to win.

"Jim Dolan was great to me. I know there's a lot of things that people say about Jim, but you can't get me to say one bad word about Jim Dolan," Woodson said. "He did everything that was asked of me and [GM] Glen Grunwald at the time and Steve Mills when he came in. He was very supportive of me and he's still supportive of me."

Van Gundy cited Dolan when pushing back against the idea that it may be harder to win in New York than other markets.

"You have an owner that's willing to spend money, so they'll try to get the best players that they can. So there's no shortcuts taken there," the current ESPN NBA analyst said.

Adds Brendan Suhr, an assistant coach on Thomas' bench: "I don't remember him once saying we couldn't do anything. He basically says, 'You guys do what you think is right.'"

One of the more widely reported instances of Dolan getting involved in basketball matters was the Carmelo Anthony trade. Several outlets, including ESPN, have reported that Dolan pushed Walsh to make the deal happen.

Walsh denies that.

"Whatever happened during that time was on me and was not on Jim Dolan," Walsh said.

Darrell Walker, an assistant under Woodson, acknowledged that Dolan asked questions about basketball matters -- which he had no issues with.

"Let's get some things straight: You own a team, you pay that much for a team, you should have some say so," Walker said. "Was Mr. Dolan somebody that meddled all the time? ... I mean, he wanted to know what was going on but did he meddle and mess up things? Not in our time."

Even Brown, who had to go into arbitration to settle a contract dispute with Dolan and the Knicks when he was fired, credits the owner for his spending.

"Mr. Dolan might not love me, I don't know, but he didn't ever stand in the way of trying to give you the resources to help win," Brown said.

One piece of advice ex-Knicks coaches and executives offered? Make sure Dolan, your president, your general manager and you are all on the same page.

"You're looking at why [there's been] turmoil and everything -- everything has to get lined up for things to be successful," Dan D'Antoni, who was an assistant coach under his brother Mike, said. "You have to have ownership and management that's biting in to the same page as the GM and the GM biting in to the same page as the coach. ...

"I think when you get them out of whack, you run into some trouble."

In the Knicks' recent history, the chain of command has been out of whack far too often. There have been competing interests among coaches and executives that have leaked out publicly. Thomas and Brown weren't on the same page. Jackson and his coaches were at odds.

Van Gundy, though, sees an opportunity for the Knicks to change that pattern going forward.

"I like that they seem to have a togetherness now in how they see the game," Van Gundy, who was highly supportive of Hornacek, said last month. "I don't think they're getting in their own way like they may have previously."

"I'm hopeful that for the Knicks, that Steve [Mills] and Scott [Perry] can be together for a period of time that they can draft and sign whatever they believe is necessary in concert with their coach and their best player. There's got to be some continuity."

'It's the rosters, stupid'

If Walsh could do it all over again, he says he would get Mike D'Antoni an elite point guard in New York.

"I ultimately did not get him the players that he needed in order to win," Walsh said. "So that was on me. I did the best that I could but I couldn't get what was a key player for him."

Yes, that means Walsh probably would have acquired an elite point guard instead of trading for Carmelo Anthony.

"Look, you want to get all good players. And Carmelo was certainly a good player," Walsh said. "But if I had it to do over again and could do it, I would get Mike, I think his best player should be the point guard. The way it is now [with James Harden and Chris Paul] and the way it was with Steve Nash.... I don't think I served Mike well by not getting a guy who could be considered a great player (at lead guard)."

The most important part of the New York equation -- or the equation for any NBA team -- might be the quality of the roster. Just ask Van Gundy

"Success in New York is no different than success in anywhere else in the NBA," Van Gundy said. "You need Hall of Fame players on your roster. And if you have a Hall of Famer or hopefully two, then you have a chance for sustained success. Anything short of that or an injury situation, you're going to have a lot of nights that are frustrating.

"Everybody says it's a players league but then the moment you lose it becomes a coaches league. And we forget, if all you've done is change a coach, you've changed nothing at all. It's the rosters, stupid."

Knicks rosters haven't exactly been overflowing with talent in recent seasons. And, just like the coaching position, there's been a ton of turnover in the Knicks' locker room.

In Anthony's last six seasons in New York, he had 72 different teammates -- the sixth-highest total in the NBA over that span.

"I've had nightmares about that," Anthony said during his last season with the Knicks.

Mills and Perry are hoping to bring more stability to the roster moving forward. The goal is to build a young core around All-Star Kristaps Porzingis that can attract big-name free agents -- perhaps as early as the summer of 2019. If Fizdale is the right fit and the Knicks can develop their young core, maybe they can distance themselves from the drama and dysfunction of the recent past.

Grunwald, the architect of the Knicks' 54-win playoff team in 2012-13, would like to see that happen.

"I hope the Knicks can get it back turned around again. Because being successful there is a wonderful thing," Grunwald said. "Fortunately, I was able to experience it there a little bit."

Unfortunately for New York, he's one of a select few.

Related Video