- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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NEW YORK -- Mike Woodson doesn't deserve to be fired -- not now, not after the shorthanded roster he's been dealt following the 54-win season he hung up a year ago. But Woodson has also been in the NBA and around the dysfunctional Knicks organization he works for long enough to know cool reason doesn't always prevail. And so, for the first time since he was pushed out to the edge of the gangplank a week ago and began hearing his job was in jeopardy before he supposedly got a temporary reprieve with a win over Brooklyn, the embattled Knicks head coach finally pushed back.
He was asked before Wednesday's game against the Chicago Bulls if he felt a need to "convince" his bosses he should stay.
And everything Woodson said made sense.
You just wonder if his bosses at the Garden have the sense to listen to him.
"I'm not trying to convince anybody of anything," Woodson said in that Midwest drawl, with his face calm and tone even.
But he was making the case for keeping his job, all right.
Finally, even he acknowledged it, saying: "This is the first time that I actually said this."
Woodson admitted the Knicks -- who later that evening were still only 6-15 after blowing a 23-point, third-quarter lead but hung on for an 83-78 win over the Bulls -- "have had our struggles. I mean, we have."
Sunday's 41-point loss to Boston was a nightmare. After the Knicks lost for the 11th time in 13 games Tuesday to Cleveland and watched Kyrie Irving torch them for 37 points and 11 assists, Woodson sat slumped on the bench after the final buzzer, until longtime Knicks assistant Herb Williams urged him to get up, get up already. Don't let folks see you like this.
By Wednesday, Woodson had pulled himself together again.
He reminded everyone how he righted the Knicks after taking over as interim coach two seasons ago for Mike D'Antoni and finishing on a roll.
He harked back to how he guided last season's rise to the Knicks' first Atlantic Division title and first playoff-series win in years as "a major step."
Then he went through the litany of what this season has brought: The broken leg that's kept center Tyson Chandler out for weeks. Point guard Raymond Felton's on-and-off struggles with a bad hamstring and other maladies. The need to manage Amar'e Stoudemire's and Kenyon Martin's playing time because of their brittleness and advancing age.
"That's the frustrating part," Woodson admitted. "We've had restrictions on certain players, you know, we went through that phase. We're kinda starting to grow out of that. Guys couldn't play back-to-backs. Now, here's Amar'e being able to play back to back. ... [So] we've got to get our core guys back, No. 1. We've got to get Tyson back and see what our team is really about. [Because] I don't know. We've had so many injuries, coming out of camp, I don't know what this team is about if we had a full deck and everyone was playing. ... I don't know.
"I've never got to experience that [this season]."
Woodson came perilously close to speaking in the past tense right then.
And the feeling didn't leave when he went on to add, "I've always thought as a coach I can take any team and win. That's just how I feel. And sometimes that's not realistic."
The "sometimes that's not realistic" line could cause more blowback for Woodson because of the whiff of frustration it suggests. It's also hard to fault him. Because the losing-fed rumors that he's been just a hair away from getting fired by unpredictable Knicks owner James Dolan just don't quit. Even Stoudemire, who had a terrific night off the bench with 14 points and nine rebounds, called this a "desperation game" for the Knicks.
A week ago the rumor du jour was GM-in-training Allan Houston might come down from the front office to coach the team, though he doesn't have a lick of experience in the job.
Down the hall Wednesday, not 20 minutes after Woodson was making the case for himself, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau was asked directly about rumors that he would consider coming back to the Knicks after this season. This though they didn't have the sense to hire him after he was a valued assistant here. Thibodeau called the rumors "bull" and added, "I love my team."
Earlier Wednesday, there was also a little brush fire of speculation that perhaps ex-Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy (who quit on Dolan 19 games into the 2001-02 season before Dolan could ever cashier him) was switched off ESPN's broadcast of the game because the Knicks were wooing him. But Van Gundy uncategorically denied it on "The Michael Kay Show" on ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
So where does that leave the Knicks?
They are just 21 games into this season, which is a small sample size, and the Eastern Conference has been so bad the Knicks are nowhere near out of the playoff race. No one currently on their bench would be a better coach for them than Woodson has already been over the longer term. And George Karl isn't the only former NBA coach who looked at the franchise recently and called it an awful place to work.
Hell, the rumors never stop that even Carmelo Anthony has already decided he's gone when he hits free agency this summer, rather than stay mired in this mess.
But Woodson -- who hasn't been shy about his feeling that he didn't get a fair reckoning of his coaching ability when he was fired by Atlanta -- does want to keep this job.
He also sounds as if he's prepared for any eventuality.
So if Woodson does get fired by New Year's or so, remember everything he said Wednesday night. It should be recycled as the epitaph. His stay with the Knicks would deserve to be summed up in three words: Short and bittersweet.