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Players and coaches grab the headlines, but the real power behind the Pacers is President Donnie Walsh.
Editor’s Note, July 3, 2012: IM ran this article in November 2000 on the Indiana Pacers’ then-president, Donnie Walsh, who is returning to the Pacers on the heels of Larry Bird’s departure in late June.
Donnie Walsh looked dour. Certainly he had a right to be. In the three months since the Indiana Pacers’ first NBA Finals appearance, the team president/general manager had lost his first-string point guard, witnessed the departure of his handpicked successor and hired an untested head coach. His starting center was on the verge of retirement. And now, seated at a long table before a Conseco Fieldhouse press conference, Walsh awaited the fall-out from his latest move: trading All-Star forward Dale Davis for Jermaine O’Neal, a precocious but unproven 21-year-old.
Sure enough, an early question provoked an outburst from Walsh. One reporter, citing O’Neal’s ability to play all three front-line positions, asked the 6-foot-11 hoopster, “Do you have a preference?” O’Neal shook his head slowly and replied, “Basketball.” Walsh responded too — but not testily. “Good answer!” he said, laughing delightedly at the kid’s put-me-in-coach attitude. And suddenly it was apparent despite his somber facade, the Pacers’ trademeister was as relax
ed with his decision as if he’d just chosen the Caesar salad over the soup of the day.
That’s how it is with Donnie Walsh: you can watch him for years without really seeing him. To Pacer fans, he’s the guy with the slicked-back hair who sits near the court with folded arms, focused eyes and a game face that reveals about as much emotion as a crash-test dummy. When he speaks, the words flow in deep, deliberate tones tinged with the accent of his native Bronx. It’s the perfect package for a poker pro, but here in the aw-shucks Midwest, it’s as remote as a Himalayan base camp.
“People are intimidated by him — even my friends,” says daughter Shannon, a 31-year-old Indianapolis travel agent. “He sounds mean, but he’s a nice, caring, giving person. When he gets that look in his eyes, it just means he’s thinking.”
Behind that intensity dwells a serene, cerebral man who is widely regarded as the architect of the Pacers’ NBA prosperity. Less known, however, is the personal battle he waged and won nearly two decades ago — and how its outcome has shaped not only Walsh, but the Pacers as well.
Start with the Walsh of today, who has spent nearly 15 years in an NBA front-office job whose average tenure barely exceeds that of a Burger King Whopper flipper. His is a bottom-line business: win and the team laughs with you, lose and you cry alone — often as you’re cleaning out your desk. Walsh, however, is coming off his best year ever, having engineered the personnel moves that helped transport the Pacers to the Eastern Conference summit. Note, too, that the 59-year-old is angling toward retirement, or at least a decreased role with the club (he once envisioned Larry Bird as his successor). Given all that, Walsh might have stood pat this summer, re-signing veterans, adding a couple of butts to the end of the bench and taking another run at the ring. And if it hadn’t worked out, well, who’d have blamed him?
Instead, he saw his team’s nucleus disintegrate into subatomic particles — largely by his own doing. Sure, bombardiers Reggie Miller and Jalen Rose remain, but can the Pacers go as tsar without the steady hand of point guard Mark Jackson (who signed with Toronto) or the ripping rebounds of Davis (traded to Portland)? Can any newcomer spring off the bench and drill three-pointers like Chris Mullin (now with Golden State)? To see Walsh at the press conference was to wonder: why is this man smiling?
Maybe younger brother Jimmy Walsh explains it best: “Donnie’s very analytical; he looks at things about 10 different ways. So, by the time he’s made a decision, he’s already comfortable with it.”
More important, he’s comfortable with himself — which allows him to pull the trigger on risky trades without worrying whether his aim is true. “I have confidence in who I am right now,” Donnie Walsh says. “The only way to approach this job is to try to make the best decisions you can. Some will work and some won’t — basically, the only way to know is if you win. But I don’t look back and say, ‘I told you so,’ and I don’t say, ‘I should have done that differently.’ I just come in here every day and try to make this franchise better.”
That he has done, though more steadily than dramatically. True, the Pacers have never landed a player with the ability to dominate a game, a la Shaq or Michael, but their baby steps have melded into major strides. Drafting soon-to-be-starters Reggie Miller and Rik Smits in 1987 and ’88, respectively, created the foundation for the new and improved Indiana Pacers. Two years later, Walsh essentially bought a diamond ring at a rummage sale, nabbing key reserve Antonio Davis late in the second round. Other key draftees in the ’90s include Dale Davis, Travis Best and Austin Croshere, who last year blossomed into one of the league’s most improved players.
The team didn’t jell, however, until Walsh installed old pal Larry Brown as head coach in 1993, starting a series of playoff runs that culminated in a trip to the NBA Finals under the direction of ex-superstar Larry Bird. In the words of Ray Compton, former vice president of marketing, “Donnie put the puzzle together.”
First, however, he had to put his own puzzle together, having nearly taken it apart. About 20 years ago, when Walsh was a coach for the Denver Nuggets, he realized he had a problem bigger than he was: alcoholism. It wasn’t as if he hit the bars till 3 a.m. and drove home on the sidewalk; it’s just that whenever he started drinking, he had trouble stopping.
“It was a gradual thing,” says his wife, Judy. “There was very little we knew about alcoholism; we just knew it was getting harder and harder for him to stop drinking or not drink. He’d sit at home and drink beer after beer after beer. He’d be sweet and pleasant, and then he’d fall asleep.” Though the father of five’s behavior was never overtly destructive, his growing alcohol dependency made him AWOL from family life. “He was just gone — mind, body and spirit,” says Judy, “and he’d always been the rock: ‘Daddy’ll take care of things.’”
Fortunately, after a couple of years, Daddy did take care of things –in a way that set the course for the rest of his life. “I never lost anything; I never lost my job, I never lost my wife, just my own self-worth,” Walsh says. “But the tough thing about addictions is that you’re in them before you know there’s a problem. Then the No. 1 symptom is denial.”
Also, as Judy notes, alcoholism was less talked about or understood in those days. Through a friend who worked at a hospital, however, she located a treatment program that accommodated her husband for the next four weeks. Then he hooked up with Alcoholics Anonymous and its famous 12-step program, whose tenets include taking a “searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”
For Walsh, the soul-searching yielded an epiphany that transcended alcoholism. He came to the conclusion that for years he’d been trying to live up to an exaggerated, “more heroic” image instead of being himself. “When you come to realize ‘I’m not that,’ there’s a certain relief in it,” he says. “And I think the way I am today is as a result of that confrontation. It’s much easier for me to be direct and honest. I got the confidence to say, ‘This is the way I’m going to do it.’”
By all accounts, it’s the way he’s done it ever since: shooting straight with everyone from underlings to adversaries. “I’ve found that you can tell the truth,” notes Walsh, who’s not saying he shows every card in his hand. “You can say, ‘I don’t want to talk about that’ or ‘I can’t tell you that’ or ‘I’m not sure.’”
While athletes’ agents often butt heads with the franchises that employ their clients, Arn Tellem — who represents past and present Pacers Miller, O’Neal, Jackson and Jonathan Bender — calls Walsh “one of the best general managers in any sport. And when he gives you his word, his word means something, which is something you can’t say about everyone in this business.”
Walsh’s word meant plenty to Isiah Thomas, a former Indiana University and Detroit Pistons star who succeeded Bird as Pacers coach in July. Thomas, most recently an NBC commentator, also was courted by rival NBA teams New Jersey, Atlanta and Washington, but settled on the Pacers.
What was the difference? “Donnie’s the difference,” says Thomas. “He’s a stand-up guy. And he’s a businessman that understands basketball: not only does he have the ability to look at a player and say, ‘He’s good’; he also has the ability to fill seats.”
Both talents stem from rich experience. A star player at his New York high school, Fordham Prep, Walsh earned a basketball scholarship from the University of North Carolina, where he also attended law school. He was a promising enough player to get drafted by the old Philadelphia Warriors (though he never played in the NBA) and a promising enough lawyer to receive a job offer from the New York firm of Nixon, Madge, Rose and Alexander after graduation. Yes, that Nixon. “In between being vice president and running for governor [of California], he was head of that law firm,” notes Walsh, who recalls the future president as “very cordial, very knowledgeable” during their 10-minute conversation.
Walsh accepted a position with Nixon’s firm, but changed his mind before he left the building. “Coming down the elevator, I thought, ‘I don’t want to do this,’” he says. “So I wrote them a letter and said I’d decided not to take the job.”
Walsh’s heart was in basketball, a sport he took up when he was about 12. “We lived right next to a school yard where there was a basketball goal,” he says. “The minute I started playing, I loved it. The school yard was always filled, so I would wait till everybody left. Then I’d stay there till it was dark.”
Basketball wasn’t the only life-changing discovery Joseph Donald Walsh Jr. would make in his youth. A cute neighbor girl named Judy McNamara caught his eye when he was a high school sophomore and she was an eighth-grader. Walsh, the oldest of five children born to a dentist and a nurse-turned-homemaker, lived across the street from Judy; their sisters were friends; and their families attended the same church. But for years the two Irish Catholic kids never met, partly because Judy lived in a multiunit apartment building.
Then one evening, something almost supernatural occurred. While attending an Irish-oriented program at the local grammar school — Walsh compares it to “Riverdance” — he was instantly smitten. “I walked into this place and 20 girls were on stage, but my eyes went right to her,” he recalls. “I said to someone, ‘Who is that girl?’”
Soon afterward, he crashed her grammar school graduation dance, even though he was a high schooler. “I went right to her and asked her to dance,” says Walsh, who left after one dance. Thus began an enduring companionship for the two kids, who would grow up together in a Bronx neighborhood that could never have earned the designation “Fort Apache.” Its name said it all: Riverdale, like the mythical high school attended by Archie, Betty, Veronica and the rest of that wholesome comic-book cast.
By their own description, Donnie and Judy would have fit comfortably into either world. Their ’50s summers encompassed afternoons at the local swimming pool, Saturday nights at the movies and Sunday mornings at Mass, with sodas afterward. “The chapel was on a hill,” says Judy, “and at the foot of the hill was a candy store where we would go for an English muffin and an egg cream [a fountain drink made with milk, chocolate syrup and seltzer water].” To their own amusement, their young lives paralleled a Tony Bennett hit of that era, “From the Candy Store on the Corner to the Chapel on the Hill.”
Walsh remained hoops-happy, however — so much so that on prom night, instead of spending time with Judy afterward, he took her home, returned to his own place, went to bed and rose the next morning to practice basketball. At least his efforts weren’t wasted: the 6-foot guard became the leading scorer in school history and earned a spot in an all-star game at Madison Square Garden, where he won MVP honors. Legendary coach Frank McGuire took notice, offering him a scholarship to the University of North Carolina, where he started for two years alongside Brown.
Another coaching giant took charge during Walsh’s senior year — Dean Smith, who stepped in when McGuire moved to the NBA’s Philadelphia Warriors. Both mentors liked what they’d seen in Walsh: McGuire selected him in the third round of the NBA draft (though Walsh declined to report), while Smith offered him a job as a graduate assistant coach when Walsh returned to North Carolina for law school. “I knew I wasn’t good enough for the NBA,” he says of his decision. “There were only eight teams in the league, and the guards were big.”
Two years later, he went from Chapel Hill, N.C., back to the chapel on the hill, this time to exchange vows with Judy. They tackled parenthood in a big way, with five children (three girls, two boys) in seven years. Meanwhile, after turning down a chance to work for Richard Milhous in 1965, Walsh returned briefly as Smith’s assistant coach before accepting a similar assignment with McGuire, who’d become head coach at the University of South Carolina. Walsh would remain for a dozen years before finally concluding he wasn’t cut out for coaching. He passed the South Carolina bar exam, but basketball wasn’t finished with him.
Former teammate Brown, then head coach of the Denver Nuggets, called Walsh to offer him a job as an assistant coach in the NBA. “I told him I wanted to be a general manager, not a coach,” says Walsh, who reluctantly decided that the Nuggets job might afford him the opportunity to learn the business side of the league.
Like a cartoon character in quicksand, however, Walsh found that every attempt to extricate himself from coaching merely got him more deeply involved. Fifty-three games into the 1978-’79 NBA season, Brown resigned as Nuggets head coach, leaving the job in the hands of — yep.
Had the team crashed and burned, Walsh likely would have been replaced as head coach the following season. Instead, Coach Walsh’s Nuggets captured 19 of 29 games and nearly the Midwest Division crown as well, finishing a game out of first place and making the playoffs. Thus, the man who hated coaching had established himself as the leading candidate for the full-time job. “I did not want that to happen in the worst way,” Walsh says. “But at that point it was a lot of money, and I had five children.”
Besides providing for them financially, Walsh — a B student in college made it clear that his kids were to follow his example. “His expectations of us were very high,” says daughter Marcy Walsh, 29, now general manager of a public relations firm in Los Angeles. “There was a pressure to get good grades and to achieve.”
Sister Shannon, however, laughingly admits that she fell short of those goals. “I was the wild child,” she says, noting that she first sipped alcohol at 15. One night she pushed the limit too far, staying at a party after her girlfriends decided to leave. But instead of going home, they went to the Walshes’ house, where as friends of Shannon they felt comfortable letting themselves in to spend the night. Even at 2 a.m., however, all was not quiet on the western front.
Papa Donnie sat waiting for them, demanding to know where his daughter was. “She’s at the movies,” the girls insisted, setting off Walsh’s BS-ometer. “You show me what movie is open at 2 a.m.,” he replied, leading them to the car. The truth came out, and father and daughter were soon en route home. Leveling his blue-green eyes at her, he declared, “Those kind of people are gonna screw ya,” and said nothing more. As Shannon observes today, “He never gets angry at me — he just gets the last word.”
Meanwhile, Walsh’s plan to springboard from the Nuggets bench to its front office fell short. Denver went 3052 in 1979-’80 and 11-20 the following season before the accidental coach asked to be relieved of duty. Yet he returned the following season as an assistant coach.
Walsh spent the next year out of coaching, although he did handle some NBA scouting assignments. During the same time, he got the upper hand on alcoholism. “It was a good year,” says Judy. “We devoted it to healing. And at the end of it, George Irvine called.” As it happened, Walsh’s ambitions of going into management via Denver came to fruition in a roundabout way: Irvine and Walsh had met when both were assistants under Brown, then Irvine took an assistant coaching job with the Pacers in 1980. Four years later, when Irvine was named Indiana’s head coach, he sought out Walsh as one of his own assistants. Again, it wasn’t the job Walsh wanted but it was a job in basketball.
His timing was perfect: local shopping center magnates Melvin and Herb Simon had purchased the Pacers the previous year, stabilizing a shaky franchise that had once threatened to move. In 1986, the Simons began casting about for a new general manager and decided the best choice was already on their payroll. Why they entrusted the job to Walsh, a man with no prior experience in management, is a question even Herb Simon can’t answer with specificity. “I think it was his integrity and his basketball knowledge,” says Simon, chairman of the Indiana Pacers and co-chairman of Simon Property Group. “I think he just grew on me.”
Voila, Walsh had his dream job. But a jarring awakening was in store. The Pacers were coming off the most miserable slump in the history of the franchise. In each of their four previous seasons, they’d won only 20 to 26 games out of 82 — and no one this side of a comedy club uttered the word “playoff.” Average home attendance in 1982-’83 had dipped to a paltry 4,814: about 12,000 fans shy of a sellout, and a worse total than during the Pacers’ first ABA year in the cozy State Fairgrounds Coliseum. One 1983 game drew a grand total of 2,745 masochists.
Perhaps that explains the surliness that greeted the new general manager. In those days the club would invite fans to a free Market Square Arena draft party, where they would hear Walsh’s announcement of which collegian had become the newest Pacer. But the throng never seemed to like his picks, starting with Chuck Person in ’86. “He would get booed at those draft parties as loudly as the Knicks get booed today,” says former Indianapolis Star sportswriter David Benner, now the Pacers’ director of media relations.
Heaven knows which draftee the crowd preferred in ’86, but Walsh wasn’t prepared for the hostility. “The first time, it shocked me,” he says. “It blew me off the stage.” Actually, that next season didn’t go badly: with veteran coach Jack Ramsay at the helm and Person capturing NBA Rookie of the Year honors, the team finished 41-41 and earned its first playoff berth in six years.
But none of that mattered in 1987, when Walsh faced his second draft. That year, as Indiana University alums know, the Cream and Crimson won the NCAA championship. Its brightest star, Steve Alford, was an all-American boy in more ways than one, captivating the Hoosier faithful with a sweet shot, good looks and a straight-arrow lifestyle that would make any mom proud. Thus, draft day at MSA brought another cast of thousands who hoped Walsh would do the right thing.
Of course, he didn’t. A spindly marksman from UCLA had risen on the forefront — and his name wasn’t Steve. “I knew I was going to take Reggie Miller,” he says. “And I had people tell me, ‘They’re gonna shoot you.’” Walsh didn’t believe it, but when the Pacers’ turn came, he advanced to the microphone; blurted out, “Reggiemiller,” in mid-stride; and continued walking till he was out of view. Predictably, boos thundered down from the rafters — a chilly, silly reception for the player who would one day lead the Pacers to the NBA Finals. But who knew? As one local scribe scoffed afterward, “We’ll see how many tickets Reggie Miller sells.”
For the next two seasons the Pacers lost more games than they won, giving Walsh’s detractors even more ammunition to fire at the New Yorker who thought he understood Indiana’s game. “There was a big clamor to get rid of him,” recalls chairman Herb Simon. Why, then, didn’t Simon send Walsh packing? Because, he says, he never lost faith in Walsh. “You have to compliment the Simons for that,” says Irvine, now head coach of the Detroit Pistons. “They understood how hard it was to build a team up.”
In staying the course, Walsh wound up giving the fans exactly what they wanted, whether they knew it or not, says Bob Whitsitt, president and general manager of the Portland Trail Blazers. Had Walsh selected Alford, “Donnie might have become governor of Indiana for one term, but he probably wouldn’t have worked in the NBA again,” says Whitsitt. “There are people who buckle under media pressure or fan pressure. But what fans really want is a solid team.”
Walsh has his own antidote for pressure: a home life that’s as far removed from basketball as the next galaxy. It centers on wife Judy, who makes a point of staying detached from the day-to-day fortunes of her husband’s team. “From the time I was little, I was just never interested in anything that was competitive,” she says, noting that she saw only a couple of Walsh’s games in high school and college. Not only does Judy avoid going to, listening to or watching Pacers games (other than to check on how they did), she’s never even seen them play in Conseco Fieldhouse. “I’ve been through Conseco, and it’s wonderful,” she says. “I just couldn’t sit through a whole game.”
Family members regard it as an amusing, endearing trait. “Nobody ever thinks Dad’s married, and he’s been married 37 years,” says Shannon Walsh. “Some of the employees have never seen my mom. When they opened the arena, she didn’t go — I did.” Jimmy Walsh recalls that when the Pacers made the playoffs last season, Judy remarked to her husband, “Oh, you have another game?”
For Walsh, it’s all part of the plan. Instead of wallowing in Pacer stress 24 hours a day, he heads home to the emotional equivalent of a cabin in the woods. “We can have a tough game here and lose,” he says, “but then I go home and it’s ‘Hi, dear.’ It’s a great, safe harbor.”
Walsh’s stress remedy is to simply “cut my brain off” from all thoughts of work. Holed up in their tri-level home in Ivy Hills, an elegant but hardly exclusive neighborhood near 79th Street and Allisonville Road, he finds ample escape in a TV room equipped with three sets two with satellite service, the other with cable. Among his favorite fare are movies (Braveheart gets his thumbs-up), educational shows (such as the History Channel’s offerings) and, of course, sporting events, which he sometimes watches till the wee hours. “He’ll come in the next morning and say, ‘Did you see that Seattle-Portland game late last night?’” says Benner. “I’ll say, ‘Uh, no,’ and he’ll say, ‘That was a hell of a game.’”
Family members are frequent guests at Walsh’s sanctuary (daughters Shannon and Kerri share a house only three blocks away). Having grown up as the oldest of five siblings, he’s still surrounded by fives: five children, five grandchildren and even five dogs including his favorite, Jake, a 110-pound herding dog known as a Bouvier des Flandres. “We call ourselves the Eggshell Family,” daughter Marcy says of their proclivity for cocooning. “Most days [when the family reunites], we’ll stay in our pajamas. And when someone rings the doorbell, we all look at each other and say, ‘Who can that be? Don’t answer it!’”
When the workweek resumes, a typical Walsh day begins with a copious combination of coffee and cigarettes (but never breakfast), and a newspaper in front of him. After getting dressed, he and Judy will talk for a while, then — as he does twice a day — Walsh meditates. “It works,” he says. “You shut off your thinking for five minutes and focus yourself.
Actually, had the summer proceeded according to script, Walsh would be spending more time in pajamas. Originally, head coach larry Bird was to replace him as general manager, and Walsh planned to step out of the day-today operations, either retaining his title of president or becoming a consultant. Instead, Bird left basketball entirely (for reasons Walsh professes not to know).
With the team facing the daunting assignment of hiring a new coach and trying to sign six free agents, Walsh opted to stay in the thick of it. True to form, instead of playing it safe, he rolled the dice more than once, replacing Bird with Thomas (like his predecessor, a respected player with no coaching experience) and trading Davis for O’Neal.
If the move goes sour, it won’t be the first time: in the 1989 draft, for instance, the Pacers used their seventh overall pick to claim George McCloud, who played four uneventful seasons before moving on. (Better choices who went later in the first round included Mookie Blaylock, Tim Hardaway, Shawn Kemp and Vlade Divac.) If the Pacers miss the playoffs this year, the state’s abundant armchair experts will turn their righteous wrath on Walsh.
Yet Walsh believes the party was already over. “Right around the time Mark (Jackson) took the offer in Toronto, I was dealing with Dale (Davis), talking to Rik (Smits, who retired),” he says, “and my general feeling was, it wasn’t going to work. That this team had given us everything they could, and if we brought them all back, it just wasn’t going to be the same.”
No matter what the coming year brings, including the end of Walsh’s tenure as G.M., even his staunchest critics will have difficulty sullying his career. The would-be lawyer has made quite a case for himself, particularly in 1993-’94 — “the defining moment of this franchise,” in his words — when his hiring of Brown turned a mediocre club into a surprise contender. Today, with an acclaimed year-old arena; a streak of 41 straight regular-season sellouts; five conference finals berths in seven years; and an Eastern Conference championship, the Pacers stand among the league’s elite.
Even if the Pacers fall from grace this year, who’s to say whether short-term pain will bring long-term gain? “Donnie always plans so far in the future that I wonder if he’ll still be there when it comes to fruition,” says Walsh’s brother Jimmy. “Jermaine O’Neal is 21 years old, but he might not hit his stride till he’s 28.” And if youngsters Jonathan Bender and Al Harrington prove equally stellar, Pacer fans will be lauding the deals (and the deal maker) that brought them here.
“You’re always going to leave unsatisfied if you don’t win a championship,” Walsh says of his career. “But I feel good about where this franchise was when I took over and where it is today. I wanted it to be a part of the mix of Indiana basketball, like high school and college [hoops], and it had stopped being that.”
Considering the team’s blood rivalry with the New York Knicks, it’s ironic that a guy from the Bronx played the biggest part in restoring Pacer pride. Then again, after a decade and a half in town, maybe Walsh has transcended immigrant status. “He’s become a pretty good Hoosier for a guy from New York,” concludes Compton, now with the Indianapolis Colts. “He fits in pretty well here in the cornfields.”
Photos by Tony Valainis
This article originally ran in the November 2000 issue.