INDIANAPOLIS — It took more than 40 years of smoking filtered Winstons for Donnie Walsh to find himself in a doctor’s office being read ultimatums. It took a straightforward assessment of survival percentages to get him to stop.
Welcome to the improved — though not necessarily newer — version of Walsh, who again finds himself occupying the president’s chair inside Bankers Life Fieldhouse, home of the Indiana Pacers.
The native New Yorker knows the setup, having served the franchise in various capacities from 1984-2008, the final 20 seasons as president. During those two decades, Indiana qualified for the postseason 16 times, along the way achieving its highest highs as an NBA franchise.
Unknown at this point is whether Walsh, 71, is a one-year bandage, should former Pacers president Larry Bird elect to return for the 2013-14 season or a longer-term solution.
We don’t know because Walsh himself doesn’t.
“I didn’t expect this to happen. It was more surprising than anything else,” said Walsh, who was president of the New York Knicks from 2008-11 and had figured this past NBA season would wind up being the first of many retirement years.
“It all happened very fast,” Walsh added. “One day I wasn’t doing anything, and the next day I’m here talking to Larry about the draft.”
There’s an old adage in life that often trickles into athletics: Go with what you know.
The Pacers know Walsh, and vice versa. Acclaimed as one of the sport’s elite evaluators of talent, the same Donnie Walsh who was 60-82 as head coach for the Denver Nuggets (1978-81) found his niche as an executive.
Walsh to this day receives credit for taking a big-mouthed UCLA beanpole with the 11th overall pick over home-state darling Steve Alford in 1987, an unbelievably courageous move at the time given the mean-spirited backlash that ultimately ensued.
Reggie Miller lived near water. Alford, not yet three full months removed from leading Indiana University to a national title, walked on it.
Walsh was just getting started. The following season he plucked Rik Smits, then an unknown 7-foot-4 post player out of just-as-anonymous Marist College, and proceeded to add new puzzle pieces in 1990 (Antonio Davis), 1991 (Dale Davis) and 1997 (Austin Croshere).
These players, along with the acquisitions of center LaSalle Thompson (1989) and forwards Derrick McKey (1993), Chris Mullin (1997) and Sam Perkins (1998), were the foundation of some of the franchise’s most breathtaking moments.
Also playing major roles were guards Sam Mitchell (1992), Haywoode Workman (1993), Byron Scott (1993), Mark Jackson (1994) and Jalen Rose (1996).
Walsh had a voice in all of it. He also was part of the decision-making process in 2005 when the Pacers selected Danny Granger with the 17th overall pick. Though not the highlight-reel superstar some hoped he would be, the 6-8 Granger in his seven seasons has been a model of quiet efficiency, with career averages of 18.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.0 assists and a free-throw percentage of .847.
But while all of Walsh’s maneuvering during his preceding stint in Indianapolis may some day land him in the Hall of Fame, it’s how his latest and future decisions pan out that will ultimately pen the final pages of this book.
Concerns regarding Walsh’s health are defensible. In the past four years alone he’s undergone surgeries to have a cancerous ulcer removed from his tongue, to repair bone spurs from his neck and to install a new right hip.
The first, the result of having smoked cigarettes since he was in his 20s, awakened Walsh to the point where he finally quit. Eschewing gum products manufactured to take away one’s craving to smoke, Walsh instead keeps a small roll of lozenges within reach on his office desk.
“My health lately has been good. When I got to New York a few years ago I thought I was healthy,” said Walsh, who makes no bones about wanting to step into a more permanent brand of retirement following the 2012-13 season. “It’s basically what (Pacers owner) Herbie (Simon) wants me to do, but I’d like Larry to come back.”
On Aug. 25, 2013, Walsh and his wife, Judy, observe 50 years of marriage. Together they have five children and 13 grandchildren, a brood that provides the couple all sorts of travel options when the president’s chair inside Bankers Life starts being warmed by someone else.
When that day will be is anyone’s guess. In the meantime, Donnie Walsh has an NBA franchise to help run.
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