Walsh’s Past and Present Clash, and He Wins Either Way
by Harvey Araton
A generation ago, the small-market Indiana Pacers had to climb a figurative mountain inside Madison Square Garden before realizing they had what it took to win a playoff series in the big, forbidding city.
They lost in the first round to the Knicks in 1993 and a year later wasted a chance to eliminate the Knicks at home before losing Game 7 on Patrick Ewing’s putback. It was the same situation in 1995, except Ewing’s infamous Game 7 finger-roll rimmed out, Reggie Miller kissed the Garden floor, and the team cast as hicks had the last laugh on the Knicks.
“I think the year we lost in seven we were pretty convinced that we could win,” Donnie Walsh said. “But until you do, you don’t know for sure.”
Walsh — who left the Pacers in 2008 to deconstruct the Knicks so they could be built into a supposed title contender — was in his old pregame courtside perch Sunday afternoon. Back at the Garden, once again with the Pacers, he was sitting as pretty as any 72-year-old who has had multiple surgeries in recent years and has worked for an owner named Dolan could possibly sit. And that was before his Pacers hung a 102-95 loss on the Knicks in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, foretelling a different series from the one the Knicks concluded Friday in Boston.
Whereas the Pacers once needed Miller to hit miracle shots to win in New York, these Pacers snatched the Knicks’ home-court advantage by hitting the boards. The Pacers are big and long-limbed, and they turned the lane into a forbidden zone for a Knicks team that had enjoyed itself going inside against the Celtics’ comparatively puny front line.
“That’s what hit me when the game started and I was down by the bench, how big we are,” Walsh said afterward, noting how the Pacers had outrebounded the Knicks, 44-30, limited their second-chance opportunities and blocked eight shots to boot.
He especially liked the sight of Lance Stephenson, a 2010 second-round draft pick who played at Brooklyn’s Lincoln High, filling up the stat line with 11 points, 13 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals.
Stephenson said he did not go to the Garden until he was playing in high school championship games. But he and the emerging Paul George are changing the Pacers, the way Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili once transformed San Antonio, from plodding to athletically unpredictable.
Walsh couldn’t take credit for Stephenson because Larry Bird was running the Pacers at the time of that draft. Walsh could actually be blamed by the Knicks for not taking Stephenson; his regime chose Andy Rautins and Landry Fields for the Knicks with the 38th and 39th picks just before Bird stole Stephenson at No. 40.
Too late for that, though. Dolan soured on Walsh when he failed to land LeBron James as a free agent. Walsh went home to Indianapolis two summers ago and stepped back into the Pacers’ front office this season when Bird took a sabbatical or early retirement — the official nature of his decision still unknown.
A native New Yorker, Walsh is sweating none of it. He’s a caretaker in the catbird seat. If the Bird-built Pacers beat the Knicks, he will relive one of the grand highlights of his long career, when those Miller-led Pacers brought the curtain down on the Pat Riley era in New York.
He will exact a measure of revenge on Dolan, even if Walsh, a dedicated high road walker, has never publicly uttered a disparaging word about his time in New York. If the Knicks beat the Pacers, no big deal. After all they are (or were) the favorite, and their clock is ticking, in part because they are built for now, as opposed to the young and still-developing Pacers.
“We have a good young team that’s going to get better,” Walsh said, referring mostly to George, 23; the fourth-year center Roy Hibbert, 26; and Stephenson, 22. Add the injured former All-Star Danny Granger to the mix next season and it’s fair to say the Pacers are a team of the future.
Walsh said he believed the Knicks “got enough right now” to win, and if that should happen, it would also, in the long view, be a good reflection on him for cleaning up the mess made by Isiah Thomas and assembling the assets used to bring Carmelo Anthony in from Denver.
It was widely believed that Dolan forced Walsh’s hand to make the deal, surrendering to Denver’s demands when Walsh was determined to call their bluff and not sacrifice as much as they did in players and draft picks. All ancient history; Walsh is too practical a basketball lifer to worry about such conflict.
To the question of whether he would have preferred not to play the Knicks on this high-stakes stage, he sighed and asked if we thought the Pacers would have been better off playing Miami.
“I got to tell you, as you get older all that” stuff leaves you, “it really does,” he said of the inner conflict but using an unprintable word for stuff.
When he left the Knicks and his luxury apartment on the Upper West Side, Walsh returned to his less pretentious Indiana digs, to his wife (who had continued living there) and this season to his professional family.
He moved back into his old office and acquainted himself with the Pacers’ coach, Frank Vogel, who had never been a head coach anywhere when he was handed the reins by Bird during the 2010-11 season.
That once happened in normally star-struck New York, when Jeff Van Gundy replaced Don Nelson, who had succeeded Riley after Miller and the Pacers broke through in New York.
Two decades later, there are recurring themes all over the place. The names of the players have changed, but on a beautiful afternoon in New York, Donnie Walsh was still sitting pretty, a former Knick and a victorious hick.