Donnie Walsh left the Knicks on his own terms when, people close to the situation said, he realized he wouldn't be able to stay under his own terms.
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Walsh and the Knicks on Friday announced a stunning mutual agreement to terminate his role as team president and general manager when his contract expires at the end of this month.
In a conference call with reporters, Walsh pointed to his age (70), his health (he's had three major surgeries in two years) and the demands of the job as his reasons for departing.
"I don't know if I'm going to be up to that, I don't know if I can commit to that, because I'm getting older,'' said Walsh, who turned 70 on March 1. "I do this job only one way, and that is full forward ahead. It's 24-7 with me, and I think that's what it takes, to be honest. I really did look into my soul and I can't do this job at less than 100 percent. And I really don't know I can commit to doing this job for two years at less than 100 percent.''
Madison Square Garden executive chairman James Dolan had been negotiating a contract extension with Walsh the last few weeks. According to a source, an offer was made to Walsh last week and he sent a counterproposal. According to several sources, Walsh wanted specific language in the agreement to outline his control over the franchise, while Dolan had other stipulations, which included a transition to a successor as Walsh headed into retirement.
Two sources said the deal offered to Walsh, a two-year contract with an option for a third, included a $2-million salary reduction. A person close to Walsh said money was not an issue in his decision. But a source indicated that Walsh did want assurances that former team president Isiah Thomas -- who has maintained a personal relationship with Dolan and, as a result, has been an influential presence behind the scenes -- cannot be involved in basketball decisions.
Thomas made overtures to LeBron James' representation when the Knicks tried to recruit the two-time MVP last summer and Walsh publicly thanked Thomas for his assistance in signing Amar'e Stoudemire.
Walsh said Thomas "has nothing to do with'' his decision to step down but admitted "the attention [Thomas] drew did annoy me at certain points.''
Walsh, a native of New York City, was hired in April 2008 to replace Thomas. In two seasons, he got the franchise under the salary cap for the first time since 1996, and in three seasons, the team earned a playoff berth for the first time in seven years.
One critical task he did not accomplish was landing James. Still, Walsh signed Stoudemire and negotiated a trade for Anthony. Despite reports that said Walsh was against making the roster-shaking 13-player deal, Walsh insisted that Dolan gave him final say. "I made the decision to do the trade,'' he said.
In a statement announcing the decision, Dolan praised Walsh for making "a tremendous impact, which will be felt for many years to come.'' Walsh returned the sentiments to Dolan, saying, "I want to state right now that I loved working here. I basically had a good relationship with Jim. He treated me very well.''
Walsh will remain for the rest of his contract, which expires June 30, and then serve as a consultant for the 2011-12 season. He is expected to oversee the upcoming NBA draft June 23. Senior vice president of basketball operations Glen Grunwald was named interim general manager.
Walsh said he will be involved in the decision to hire his successor. A few likely candidates include former Portland Trail Blazers GM Kevin Pritchard, former New Orleans Hornets GM Jeff Bower and former Denver Nuggets GM Mark Warkentien, who is on the Knicks' staff as director of pro player personnel.
Walsh's departure is not expected to have an immediate impact on coach Mike D'Antoni, who is heading into the final year of his contract.
Meanwhile, Thomas, who is coaching at Florida International University, said he has "no desire'' to return for a second run in New York. "I'm not a candidate to replace Donnie,'' he told ESPNNewYork.com. "I like the job I have right now, and the toll that the [Knicks] job took on me, my wife and my kids, I don't want to go through that again.''
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