Every year at the end of the season, Knicks management conducts its exit interviews with the players. As players clear their lockers, exchange pleasantries with teammates, or likely former-teammates and staff, players by turn visit Donnie Walsh in his smallish office to say their goodbyes. In some cases, Mr. Walsh and Mike D’Antoni give the players suggestions on what they should work on during the off-season; in other cases they simply listen to the players talk about their experience during the past season. This year the interviews were particularly awkward since the Knicks don’t know who is coming back because they don’t know who they will pick up from free agency this summer and how much money they will have to build a team around their core contracts.
The exit interviews were very awkward, but Donnie Walsh always handles them like a pro.
It was early Thursday morning and the building seemed to be recovering from a huge collective sigh of relief. The latest horrible season was now the past and everyone could begin to focus on the promises of the future. It was both a blessing and a curse for Mr. Walsh who sat in his room with Mike D’Antoni leaning against the credenza behind him and a writer for a local blog in a chair to the far left, supposedly, with his symmetrically shaped bald head, trying to blend into the background. The blessing was that there would be no more games with this collection of players Mr. Walsh brought together. The curse was that the time to prove that his plans to rebuild the Knicks would ultimately benefit the team was almost two months away.
He was on the clock. Today his goal was to clear his office faster than he cleared salary cap.
The local blogger sat relaxed in his seat as he played with his pen in anticipation of the first interviewee. Mr. Walsh turns to him and asks,”Tommy you seem a little nervous. Would you like a Coke or something else to drink?”
“No, Mr. Walsh. I’m fine,” responds Tommy, “I am just so grateful to you Mr. Walsh and Mr. D’Antoni for allowing me to sit in on these exit interviews. This is just fabulous and I am a bit excited. I haven’t felt this great since I was player-coach of my first grade team.”
“Our pleasure Tommy. We think you are one of the best writers on the Knicks out there. You are fair, intelligent and you never criticize a thing we do which is important for this type of access. You’re just the absolute smartest fan out there,” said Mr. Walsh
D’Antoni added with snark on his breath and venom in his heart, “I appreciate the fact that you’ve coached before and that you’re closer to being my peer than Frank Assola, Bitch Lawrence and Marc Vermin. You know basketball. You understand how difficult it is to get players to play defense. You understand that players need to shut the hell up when they aren’t playing and be ready when they are called upon. I don’t owe them an explanation for not playing them. Obviously, they don’t play because they suck or some other excellent reason I have. You understand not just the game but the game in the game of the game which is why I agreed to let you in on these meetings.
Pleased with the compliment, Tommy’s smile now shined as brightly as his dome. “Thank you, I keep trying to tell my readers and the beat writers how much smarter and more knowledgeable I am than they are. They just don’t understand how much more I know than them simply because I talk to you guys directly. Still, I love our fans and I want them to feel like they are here with me. I want them to feel like they can grow from my real smart smartness. It is my service to the world,” he said.
Mr Walsh responded, “Well, I think they can learn a lot from you. And for your loyalty, during these exit interviews I am going to give you a sneak preview of plans B through Z. So all you need to do is sit in the corner and take notes.”
A tall black man, oddly dressed in his Knicks uni with dress shoes on, stood in the doorway and knocked on the door jamb.
“Come right in Eddy,” said Mr. Walsh.
“Hey coach,” Curry mumbled, a crumb of some type of pastry flying from his mouth toward Mike D’Antoni.
"Still dressed to depress, huh Eddy," quipped D'Antoni.
“Take a seat Eddie,” said Walsh. “Want some water to chase down that dessert ” he says with a wry grin on his face as Eddie bends into the chair which seems to be smaller and lower than ever, almost like a chair in a kindergarten classroom. Eddie thinks this is a trick to make him feel fat and uncomfortable.
“No thanks, I’m fine,” replies Eddie wriggling his butt trying to find a soft spot on the chair.
“Want a burger,” quips D’Antoni from the corner. Eddie gives a half quizzicle, half “I’m gonna kick your ass" look to D’Antoni. Walsh frowned at his coach for being so overt.
“Eddie, its been a tough year for you but we appreciate the effort you made last summer to be in shape. There’s not really much you could’ve done about the injuries. . . .”
“Mr. Walsh, let’s cut to the chase; am I in the plans for next year,” interrupted Eddie.
D’Antoni stared at Walsh with a “Hell Naw” look tinged with a silent West Virginian drawl.
“Well Eddie, you are in my plans. As you know I got plan A, plan B, plan C and you are somewhere around plan X to tell you the truth,”
“X as in get that x-tra ass outta here. X as in, X marks the spot where you’ll be buried on the bench. X as in cross you off the rotation, like a perpetual DNP,” thought D’Antoni.
“I knew he had a plan X,” Tommy Dee said to himself. “I must write this on the blog again.”
“Right now what happens depends on how ready you are to play. You are one of our most important asses and it is to our advantage to help you be ready and to get you on the floor to play some ball. We’d like you to work out in Chicago, play some ball and maybe we can get you to play a little in the summer league. Can we do that?”
“You meant assets, right?”
“That’s what I said, asses,” Walsh repeated.
“Well, no, I’m not playing in the summer league. I’ll come to Vegas to work out if my body is not hurting anywhere, but I’m not putting myself down like that to play with rookies. Of course, I’ll work out and everything, but if you’re not going to play me then maybe you should waive me.”
“Will you take a buyout?” asked Walsh.
“What’s that?” smiled Curry.
“ A situation where we release you so that you can play for another team in exchange for giving you a lot less money. We’ll even forgive those loans we gave you and Mr. Dolan will throw in his chauffeur if you take less money.”
‘I got a chauffeur. I don’t need no fuckin’ chauffeur, are you trying to be funny, that wasn’t funny, you fuck.”
Mike chimes in, “I told you he had a fuckin’ chauffeur.”
“Calm down Eddie, Mr. Dolan was only trying to help to ease your transition to another team. Forget the driver. Just think about the buyout,” said Walsh.
“Well, I’m not taking less money and if you want me out of here and if you don’t want to play me, you need to waive me. And don’t try to treat me like you did Stephon. Or chump me like you tried to do Jerome James. I’m not stupid so don’t try to embarrass me in public.”
“Well I can’t make any promises right now Eddie. If you’re not going to take a buyout, I really have nothing to offer you. I’m sure that coach will play the best players in the best shape and we’re counting on you to get it together this summer, OK.“
Eddie stood up. “Look Mr. Dub-U. Everybody has been mistaking my tallness for niceness around here and I’m really tired of it. I’ll work out and I’ll be ready like I was this year, but I’m not taking less money nor any disrespect. You have my number, you can call me.”
Walsh responded, “O.K. Eddie, we’ll do better than that. We’ll be in Chicago to check on you in July. We need to protect our investment. If you need anything just call us.”
“Sure Mr. Walsh. You guys have a nice summer. You know where to find me.”
"Yeah, MickeyD's," thought D'Antoni as Eddy lumbered out the door right by Earl Barron, who was next to meet Mr. Walsh.
* * * * * * *
Eddie turned back around as Earl started into the interview room. He called out to his likely replacement. “Earl, Earl, come here,” he said in a soft tone that was still loud enough to be heard in the interview room.
“Huh, yeah Eddie,” paused Earl.
“Just a second.” Eddie, listed at 7'-0" came close enough to Earl, who seemed a little taller but considerably thinner, so he could really whisper. “Man don’t let them chump you. Make sure you get guaranteed money from them or sign a contract with a team that knows how to teach big men to play. Jordan and Darko were lucky man. D’Antoni doesn’t know what to do with big guys. Jordan and Darkman are going to be in rotations next year. Darko might start. That's buggy man. Other guys know it too. Watch what Camby does. He claimed he wanted to be a Knick, but he lied. He wanted to be wooed by the Knicsk so he can get more money elsewhere. Watch. Coach D will be jerking your seven foot chain all year next year. I know he will. Don’t trust him man, don't trust a flat butt and a smile, brother.”
“Don’t worry Eddie, my agents are on it. This was a great showcase. It’s going to be a great year next year for me. I really hope I end up back in Miami. I love New York fans, but Florida is for me.”
“Cool man, good luck. Just try not to be around here if you can help it.”
“Earl, Earl. Come right in.” Walsh rose to shake Barron’s huge hand before he sat back down. As Earl shook D’Antoni’s hand, the coach said "I hope you aren't taking basketball advice from Eddie Curry. That's like asking Ben Rothlesberger how to make a pass. . . to women."
Earl offered a strained smile and nodded at the local blogger before Walsh directed him to sit on the leather couch to the side of the desk away from the credenza.
Walsh was a bit excited. He usually doesn’t get excited, but he believed he finally found a big man that his coach would play. “11 points, 11 boards per game. I liked how you played,” he said.
“It was only seven games. It was good but can you do that as a role player?” asked D’Antoni with a hint of incredulity.
“Sure, I can coach, but I’m aiming to be a starter. You know I can play in this league. Now everybody knows I can play in this league,” said Earl his on-court confidence clearly carrying over.
“Well, Earl, we’d like you to reconsider the contract offer we made last week,” pressed Walsh.
“Mr. Walsh I thank you for the opportunity. I greatly appreciated the seven game tryout, but quite frankly like all the other free agents I would like to be in a winning situation and I am going to wait for a guaranteed offer which my agent says is out there for me now that everyone knows I can play in this league.”
“Well as I said before, right now we can’t offer a winning situation or a guaranteed contract because. . ,” started Walsh who’s facial wrinkles seemed to deepen like craters on the planet of big hope, Jupiter, suddenly bombarded by the asteroids of free agent reality.
“I know because you need the cap space and you’re waiting to see what happens on July 1,” Earl said.
D'Antoni chimed in, “Look I don’t want to start begging this early but this is the best place to play in the world. Other people have said it better than I can say it. You can win a lot of places, but there is no place like New York if you are winning. That's what you have to buy into. A lot of responsibility comes with coming to New York. You have to bring your A-game. You gotta be ready to help create a winner like a real man, not have it handed to you. "
“Hold it wait. Yeah, yeah,” said Walsh. “That sounds good. Repeat it Mike so I can write it all down. This is good stuff. We’re going to use it on LeBron. See Earl, you’re already get the best treatment we can offer. You're getting the LeBron pitch. Great, don’t you think?”
“But Mr. Walsh my agent says that the cap number is going to come up higher so you can actually make me a decent offer now. Don’t you think a core of me, Danilo, Wilson and Toney would be enticing to Joe Johnson and Dwyane Wade.”
“Sure, I do son, but we need to wait until LeBron announces his intentions,” Walsh said.
“You really believe that LeBron is going to leave the team he has in Cleveland to come here?”
“Why not?” said Walsh not really wanting an answer.
“Well, Mr. Walsh besides the fact that Tracey McGrady said he wasn’t coming and that Kobe is staying in L.A. to nail down his legacy and that Cleveland has done everything it can for him and besides the fact that the word in the D-League is that he’s not leaving except for Brooklyn, I would say he’s not coming to New York, Mr. Walsh.”
“Tracey McGrady doesn’t know jack,” said the blogger. “He doesn’t even know that his knee hurts when he feels the pain. He thinks that sharp tinge in his knee is new muscle growth and that the image he sees in the mirror in the morning is a picture of Michael Jordan. He don’t know squattola. Opps, sorry, I didn’t mean to speak, I just get upset when people who have no idea what LeBron is thinking say he’s not coming, because I believe he is coming and how I feel is the best available evidence right now.”
“No, no, that’s o’k, Tommy. Look Earl, we’ll talk to your agent. We’d love to see you in camp this summer. We have a position for you and after July 1st we are going to make you an offer you can’t refuse. And don’t worry, once LeBron realizes that you are here and that Gallo is here and that the Statute of Liberty is here and that Donald Trump’s TV show is filmed here and that there is nothing in Cleveland but old used up guitars, he will come. Build the hype and he will come. Just watch, even I came back to New York,” said Walsh.
“If you say so Mr. Walsh,” said Earl.
"Earl don't worry, just work on your footwork, post moves and three point shooting for next season. It will work itself out and you will be a Knick," said D'Antoni. "Thanks for stopping in."
"Should I work on my defense coach?" Earl asked.
"Uh. . .Yeah, sure, absolutely. I think there are some nice drills on the internet. If you can't find them, call me in September and we'll spend a few seconds or less talking about our new defensive schemes."
About five minutes after Earl Barron left, Danilo Gallinari walked in with two bottles of wine.
(The second installment, can be found at Exit, Stage Right, Almost No One Left: Inside the Knicks Exit Interviews 2010, Part Due)