Donnie Walsh and The Evolution of Basketball
by Ian Hansen
Donnie Walsh has experienced every level of basketball from playing college basketball to being General Manager and the President of Basketball Operations of both the New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers. The 77-year-old Walsh still has the role of an adviser for the Indiana Pacers.
Born in Manhattan, New York City, Walsh had aspirations outside of basketball of becoming a lawyer. He studied law and received a degree at the University of North Carolina. He was also the senior team captain of the Tar Heels.
The thought of continuing basketball was far-fetched for Walsh as he would have trouble sustaining success with the San Francisco Warriors who drafted him in the 11th round of the 1962 NBA draft. He never got the opportunity to play.
“I went to law school because I was really interested and I didn’t really think I would stay in basketball and by the time I was getting ready to graduate I had been through interviews for law jobs and got two of them offered to me,” Walsh said.
While studying law he came to a realization that basketball was his passion and did not want to pursue law anymore.
“I was leaving and had to go through a law library and that was my confrontation day. I walked through and everyone my age was sitting at desks with books to the ceiling and I looked at that and didn’t think I was going to do this,” Walsh said.
In Walsh’s first three years playing at UNC, Frank McGuire was his head coach. McGuire was forced out leading Dean Smith to take over head coaching duties.
“I left there and went back to Chapel Hill to talk to Dean Smith. I told him I wanted to get back into basketball so he hired me as an assistant coach. About a month later, I got a call from my first coach Frank Maguire who lost his top assistant so I went to Dean and Frank and ended up going to South Carolina and spent 12 years there coaching,” Walsh said.
Later in his tenure as a coach, he realized a front office position was an environment he would thrive in rather than coaching.
“By the end of that, I didn’t think my talents were in coaching and I’m glad now that I did it, but at that time I thought guys that are good coaches are guys that only see one way of doing it and can get players who can do it that one way.”
“I thought my strength was knowing a lot of ways of doing things,” Walsh said. “Being under Dean and under Frank along with having a law degree, I thought I would have a chance to get in administration.”
While he did not believe coaching was his strongest area, he could not pass up an opportunity to coach in the NBA alongside head coach Larry Brown.
“Larry Brown called me up and asked me if I would be his assistant and I told him straight up I did not want to keep coaching, but would like to see what the NBA is all about so I went with him but later on he left,” Walsh said
After Brown left, the head coaching spot was wide open for Walsh who took over for a year and a half finally being replaced by Doug Moe.
General Manager – Indiana Pacers
Walsh was out of basketball for a year as a coach because he did not want to do it anymore and had no clue on how to get a front office role, so he became a scout under George Irvin, who eventually became the general manager.
“He got to be GM and then decided he wanted to be a coach so the Simons were looking for a General Manager. Irvin gave him my name and I went to an interview with him. Then the following year they were not successful and they finally came to me and I ended up getting the GM job,” Walsh said.
Walsh found success at the General Manager position making the controversial decision at the time of selecting Reggie Miller over Steve Alford.
“Its a good feeling picking a guy and having him turn out to be a great player, but on a year by year basis you are happy if a guy turns out to be a good NBA player, because I had picked other guys on that team who turned out to be really good. Rick Smits, Persons, who I later traded and I had the trade where I got Detlef Schrempf, as well,” Walsh said.
He made other moves for players which have been a major part of Pacers’ history.
“I traded Schrempf and I also got Dale and Antonio Davis and another guy I got who I always tell people is the best player I have added to the Pacers is, Derrick McKey, who was great defensively and could do everything and could help you win a game without shooting the ball, Walsh said.”
The way he evaluated the decision on picking Miller was the ceiling Miller had compared to Alford and his size was a large factor in the pick.
“I thought Steve Alford was a really good player, but in his case, there is always a transition of going to college basketball to pro basketball and with him, he would have to go from shooting guard and play other shooting guards and he just wasn’t big enough,” Walsh said.
That era of Pacers’ basketball ended abruptly thanks to the infamous brawl known as “The Malice at the Palace.” Walsh was not in attendance during the fight.
“I was not there because I was at a wedding in New York and during dinner I stepped outside and dialed up Rick Carlisle and asked how we did and told me we won by 15 and thought, ‘holy cow, we just blew out Detroit on the road, but then he told me we had a little problem,” Walsh said.
“Ronnie and Stephen Jackson kind of got into something,” Carlisle said. “They went into the stands.”
“I went right back to my hotel and watched the replay and thought this could be bad, but the TV stations were acting like we were the victims because really, Ben went after Artest and the fans went down and participated. We were still wrong because we went in the stands,” Walsh said.
Walsh made an attempt to bring the team back to potentially contend the next season, which turned out to be unrealistic.
“It took a long time because those players came back the next year and it took us a while to realize this would not work, so I traded Artest and started rebuilding our team,” Walsh said.
A philosophy which still stands in the Pacers organization is to not completely fall to the bottom of the standings and give up seasons.
“Some teams go all the way down, and we never did that. And that meant we don’t get a top draft choice but I don’t believe in just losing to get a draft choice,” Walsh said.
There were parallels between the retooling of the Pacers in 2005 to the one in the summer of 2016, when Paul George decided to leave Indiana. Luck and good fortune helped the Pacers when they drafted Danny Granger as well as acquiring Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis.
“You have to be fortunate, and some things you do that you aren’t sure of turn out great. I think the trade for Sabonis and Oladipo was a tremendous trade, and I can’t even quantify because everyone in the league thought we would get killed the next year,” Walsh said.
“I think that trade will go down as one of the greatest in league history, not just Pacers history.”
While Oladipo and Miller have different play styles, Walsh believes they both share similar traits in clutch situations to make them big time players.
“Oladipo is a much different player than Reggie because he is way more athletic and he’s got a game that is different from Reggie. Oladipo has the same drive and ability to hit big shots like Reggie and for him, the sky is the limit,” Walsh said.
“Reggie needed screens and someone to get him the ball where Victor does not need that and he can create by himself. Reggie could do that but not like Oladipo,” Walsh said.
It took a while after the brawl to bring back the positive culture of Indiana Pacers’ basketball and truly excite the fans, but this core has brought back that excitement.
“When we got them here last year, at some point, I said they are the nicest guys. They are courteous, they like each other, they play as hard as they can, and they want to win,” Walsh said.
President of Basketball Operations – NY Knicks
After the 2007-2008 season, Walsh announced he would take the job as President of Basketball Operations with the New York Knicks.
“To a degree, I was kind of worn out and in any case, I would leave. I got a call from New York and had to rethink it because I grew up there and my family is there and the Knicks were bad and I wanted a challenge,” Walsh said.
“I went there for three years and enjoyed every minute of it and I knew I was only going to do it for three years,” Walsh said.
One of those challenges he faced was the team having a high payroll, so he had to trade guys such as Jamal Crawford, Al Harrington and Zach Randolph. In 2010, Walsh made his first major acquisition, picking up Amar’e Stoudemire.
The difference between being in the front office in a small market such as Indiana and the biggest market of New York is instrumental.
“The press is far more than here so you get home and they are calling you all of the time and I enjoyed it while I did it, but knew I couldn’t keep doing it,” Walsh said.
Advisor – Indiana Pacers
Free agents are also a lot more difficult to lure into smaller markets and that has always been the case in Walsh’s time as a General Manager. Now as an adviser, he has noticed a difference.
“I think the league has changed a lot because of the influx of money so it kind of puts teams on an equal basis and also expands the cap way up,” Walsh said. “Back when I got started you would have a real tough time signing a free agent because we didn’t have the market and the per capita income.”
Having a set culture which revolves around positivity and winning basketball should boost the Pacers chances of acquiring higher level players. Younger players have also evolved and have realized more about what it takes to win and develop.
“I think this franchise will be able to appeal to different players and these younger players that are coming into this league are far more aware of what it takes to be successful in a career like this,” Walsh said.
The history of basketball and the amount of pride the state of Indiana has in the game of basketball should also be a contributing factor to luring free agents.
“We emphasize basketball here in Indiana and will do everything it takes to make you a better basketball player. The community and both the state and the city all love basketball so it’s a great place to have that,” Walsh said.
Walsh has been involved in basketball since the 1960s and has witnessed a game which has evolved into a reliance on three-point shooting.
“I can’t say it is a bad thing because it is making for a lot of exciting games but I think what happened was, you had a team like Golden State who accumulated a lot of really good perimeter players and because of their size, that was the only way they were going to win and they were so good at it, they were beating everyone and now everyone is doing it because in order to beat them you have to do that,” Walsh said.
While centers shoot the ball way more than they used to, he envisions the league going back to a half court style of play.
“From what I have seen, the league changes and if you look around and see the young centers, I see it going back to the way it was before because while they can shoot the three, you would not expect to see them run down the court and do it, especially back then.
This year’s Indiana Pacers have been criticized for having an ancient style of play and not running down the court as often causing them to play at a really slow pace, much different from last season.
“You are bringing three new players on the team and last year we did not necessarily emphasize running the court but we still did it and the more we played, Nate wanted us to run,” Walsh said.
“This here he started out wanting them to run and with our new guys, it takes a while to really run. People who haven’t done it or haven’t seen it don’t realize how hard it is. The team last year was at their best when they got down fast and immediately moved the ball,” Walsh said
It takes an adjustment to fit into a set system based on getting everyone involved and moving the ball and some of the new players have had to make that adjustment.
“There is a tendency when a guy is a good one on one player he tries to bring the ball down the court and beat his man and if you do that, you give the defense the chance to get back and the running does not benefit you as well,” Walsh said.
Tyreke Evans is one of those new players trying to adjust to moving the ball up the court and start a flow of adequate ball movement.
“Tyreke is still trying to figure it out in this system and figure out the team so he is not playing instinctively but he will,” Walsh said. “Just learning how to run takes about 20 games or more.”
This team could very well be on the verge of another historic piece of Pacers history. The problem keeping Indiana from winning a championship is they have dealt with bumps and teams simply better than them.
“We have gotten really close to it in prior years but we just were not good enough and ran into teams such as the Lakers with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, Magic with Hardaway and Shaq, Bulls with Michael Jordan, and the Heat with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade,” Walsh said.
Another reason Walsh does not like rebuilding is to give the core a chance to compete in the playoffs and figure out the issues of the team in the postseason while giving them that valuable experience.
“They have the talent those other teams had, but they have not been together long enough and as you go on, the core of your team will get better and once you get deep into the playoffs you start to realize the pieces you are missing,” Walsh said.
Walsh and the rest of the front office have seen a lot and has done so much to guide the Indiana Pacers to the coveted title, but this core could be the one to ride over that hump and bring Walsh, the team and the fans that long-awaited championship back to Indiana.