Commentary

Woodson burns to bring ring to NYC

No stranger to adversity, coach will battle to shed interim tag from his title

Updated: April 2, 2012, 11:18 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- Mike Woodson will fight for his New York Knicks job like he would fight for a loose ball in one of Bob Knight's practices at Indiana, and the way he was once discarded as a player and head coach will explain why.

Woodson was a one-and-done first-round pick of the Knicks in 1980, traded to New Jersey after his rookie year without even a keep-your-chin-up call from Red Holzman. The Nets then dealt the 6-5 guard to Kansas City after seven games, leaving Woodson so devastated he'd go years without speaking to the man who ordered the hit, a future mentor named Larry Brown.

[+] EnlargeMike Woodson
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesMike Woodson, who's been discarded as both a player and a coach, is no stranger to adversity.

In his second career, Woodson built his own Atlanta Hawks program from scratch, won 53 games and a playoff series in 2010, and got fired for his trouble. So yes, even with so many injuries conspiring against him and threatening the Knicks' postseason aims, Woodson still plans on being the first coach since Holzman to win an NBA title in New York.

"My whole thing is, there's been a drought here in terms of really winning big, of winning it all," Woodson said Monday. "But somebody's going to do it one day, and I hope like hell it's me.

"That's how I look at it, because it's going to happen eventually. This team is going to turn the corner and win it all, and what better city to do it in than New York. I think about it all the time."

Woodson wasn't supposed to be in position to think such thoughts. When Mike D'Antoni quit, Phil Jackson led the list of high-profile candidates to replace him. The interim guy, Woodson, was given the same long-shot odds handed the faceless Don Nelson assistant, Jeff Van Gundy, in 1996.

But Patrick Ewing made a public stand for Van Gundy, who honored the big man's faith. Woodson? His endorsements come in the form of a 9-2 record, a defensive renaissance, a revived Carmelo Anthony and a loud vote of confidence from the man who developed his game in the Big Ten.

"I think they'd be idiotic if they didn't keep him," Knight, an ESPN analyst, said of the Knicks in a Monday phone interview. "The players have really responded to Mike. The [Jeremy] Lin kid responded to the chance he had under Mike, the team's gone 9-2, and they haven't had anything remotely close to that performance over 11 games.

"You'd have to be an absolute idiot not to see all of that. Not that the NBA is without its absolute idiots."

The Knicks have made their fair share of idiotic choices since Van Gundy's exit, but to date Woodson has made this call an easy one. That can change in a New York minute.

[+] EnlargeMike Woodson
AP PhotoWoodson, a standout at Indiana, got a ringing endorsement from his former coach, Bob Knight.

Lin, Amare Stoudemire and Jared Jeffries are out, and Anthony, Tyson Chandler and Baron Davis are playing in pain. The Knicks are facing road games with the Pacers and Magic, a home-and-home with the Bulls and then a road date with the Bucks, the team they're trying to hold off for the eighth playoff spot in the East. The Celtics and the Heat will arrive in the Garden soon after that.

And there was Woodson in the Knicks' practice facility Monday, bemoaning the lack of available gym time in this absurd 66-game season. "There's just not enough time in the day to teach," he said, "and if you've got injuries that makes it even worse. ... I've got to protect bodies because there's a lot at stake right now in terms of where this team goes. We're doing a lot of things on the fly."

They're mostly winning on the fly, and Woodson concedes that past disappointments fuel his desire to overcome the considerable obstacles in his path. He was the 12th overall pick in the draft who played 12 minutes a game before the Knicks dealt him for the Nets' Mike Newlin, a move relayed to Woodson in a phone call from the GM, Eddie Donovan.

"I was crushed," Woodson said. He wasn't half as angry at Holzman, the coach who didn't call, as he would be with Brown, the coach who shipped him to the Kings after he averaged 12 points off the bench in those seven games.

"I was sitting there like, 'Damn, does anybody want me in this league?'" Woodson recalled. "I went years without speaking to Larry. We played in New Jersey right after I got traded to Kansas City, and I had a big-time game against them, and Larry came into the locker room afterward and said, 'I know you're mad at me, but you're going to do very well here.'

"I never even acknowledged him. All I was interested in at the time was finding a coach who would show me some love."

Cotton Fitzsimmons turned out to be his man, and Woodson established himself as a reliable scorer. Years later, Woodson established himself as a reliable assistant after Brown, of all people, encouraged him to pursue a life on the bench.

Their feud died the day Woodson, a son of Indianapolis, attended a Pacers practice to spend time with his friends on the team, Eddie Johnson and LaSalle Thompson. Brown summoned his former player to the floor and told him to call if he ever wanted to coach. They ultimately worked together in Philadelphia, and won a championship together in Detroit in 2004.

That title landed Woodson the job in Atlanta, where he spent six seasons molding a 13-win team into something of a contender, and where nobody provided a good reason why he was fired after three straight trips to the playoffs.

"I was hurt," Woodson said, "because I didn't get a chance to finish the job."

He was never afraid to shout down the Joe Johnsons and Josh Smiths, a truth that made him the right guy to replace D'Antoni, who preferred going after the scrubs. Way back when, Woodson had caught his own earful from Knight.

He was a 180-pound freshman who kept getting beat on the boards by his taller teammate, Glen Grunwald, now the Knicks' GM and Woodson's immediate boss. Knight forced the freshman to run the gym stairs until his lungs burned and his legs ached.

"So when I got to the pros," Woodson said, "there wasn't a damn thing a coach could say or do to me that could rattle me."

Knight said he didn't recall that episode, or any episodes where Woodson failed him. The Hall of Fame coach did recall the 48 points his player once dropped on Illinois.

"When Mike came out of high school he was a skinny, gangly kid who became a great player," Knight said. "He played hard, worked at it, and had an understanding of what we were trying to do. Mike was a real leader, and that's why when the time came for him to be a really good coach, that's what he's been."

As D'Antoni's successor, Woodson has been a really good coach who's earned a really good chance to stay. Grunwald and another former Indiana teammate, Isiah Thomas, will be in Jim Dolan's ear. Only a total collapse and a ninth-place finish in the East -- not an unrealistic scenario -- would likely cost Woodson his job.

He knows this much for sure: He doesn't want to get cut from New York a second time. "I want this job in the worst way," Woodson said. "I didn't come here to get this job through Mike D'Antoni, but to help him win a title. I had options to go elsewhere, but I thought the talent was here to give this team a legitimate shot.

"I still think the sky's the limit if we're healthy."

The Knicks aren't healthy, but Woodson is shooting for the sky anyway. He enjoyed his parade in Detroit, and he already has his vision for one in New York.

"It would be pandemonium," Woodson said.

A remote possibility, and yet one worth fighting for.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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