Friendship can be a fluid concept in the insular, high-risk world of NBA coaching. Alliances are forged and broken and forged again as a matter of convenience, often leaving personal relationships in intricate knots. At times, a Hunger Games survival-of-the-fittest mentality prevails as only a finite number of assistant coaches and former players ever get a crack at one of the coveted 30 head-coaching jobs.
It's been less than two years since Woodson lost his own head-coaching job to an assistant in Atlanta. And those who know Woodson well say this experience -- the experience of surviving six seasons with one of the more dysfunctional organizations in the NBA, only to be replaced by Larry Drew, a former NBA teammate whom he had hired to join him on the Hawks' staff -- has helped make Woodson a perfect candidate to flourish in the high-pressure coaching world of New York.
"He is a resilient person," says Don Casey, who coached Woodson when he played for the Clippers and helped Woodson get his first job as an assistant with the Bucks. "He knows how to put a sad or bad experience behind him. I think New York is a good place for him. New York won't bother him. He won't get caught up in it. He doesn't take things personally. He is a guy who can block things out and just coach."
Larry Brown, a long-time mentor of Woodson's who had some struggles of his own when he was in New York, thinks Woodson has the perfect attitude to succeed with the Knicks.
"I think he did a great job in Atlanta. They got better and better every year, and when he left, they went a minus-nine," Brown said, referring to the drop from 53 victories under Woodson to 44 under Drew. "I hated to see Mike [D'Antoni] get fired, but Woody is as good as anybody I've been around. Players want to be taught. I think they realize in New York that he wants to make them better. He's a heck of a coach."
Woodson, 53, has less than five weeks left in the regular season to prove that he is a heck of a coach, to prove he can do a job that has frustrated a number of big-name coaches during the past decade, including Lenny Wilkens, Isiah Thomas, Brown and D'Antoni. Yet Woodson might be more equipped than any of them to handle the triple pressures of a large media corps, demanding ownership and challenging superstars, simply because he won't get caught up in the drama of it all.
"He has thick skin," Hawks forward Josh Smith said Friday after a shoot-around in Atlanta. "He is a tough guy. He really doesn't worry about things like [the media]. His main focus is winning basketball games, and he's gotten the Knicks off to a great start."
The Knicks won their first five games under Woodson before losing in Toronto Friday night. They rebounded to beat the Pistons Saturday night, and although they're only 11/2 games ahead of the ninth-place Bucks, they are being mentioned as a dangerous playoff team.
One of the first things Woodson did after taking over was to announce that he would hold his players "accountable." He's visibly done that during games. Against the 76ers on Wednesday, he reprimanded J.R. Smith for turning over the ball when he had an easy layup and displayed his disapproval to Carmelo Anthony when he was late on a defensive rotation.
Still, after the game, it was clear how much affection Woodson has for his players. "Our guys are not going to buckle," he said. "I honestly believe they think they can win every game when they step on the floor now."
Knicks guard Mike Bibby, who played for Woodson with the Hawks, said he makes players feel that way.
"I've seen a lot of coaches in my day, and certain people make an impact on you," he said. "His holding everybody accountable makes you want to make sure everybody plays hard. You want to do it for yourself, but you want to do it for him."
If there were ever a testament to what kind of coach Woodson is, it's that his former players -- including Josh Smith, with whom he consistently butted heads -- say that accountability made them better players. Smith said he called and texted Woodson to congratulate him the day he got the Knicks' job.
"He's a great coach . . . I know that he's policing those guys and not taking any mess from them,'' Smith said. "I know that those guys respect him, and as long as you have your players' respect, the sky is definitely the limit."
Joe Johnson, who was nicknamed Iso-Joe during Woodson's tenure in Atlanta because of the coach's reliance on him in key situations, said he believes Woodson can get the Knicks to compete for a title.
"They have a great team and I think he's trying to maximize the talent they have over there, and so far he's doing a great job," Johnson said. "He's a great players' coach. I have nothing negative to say about him. I thought he did a terrific job here. His chance and opportunity have come again, and I'm sure he's going to try to make the best of it.
"I knew he'd get another chance, I just didn't know where or when. The fact that it's come about now, I think it's a perfect and prime opportunity for him in New York with the talent they have. They can compete for a title."
It wasn't his players' support that was Woodson's problem in Atlanta. Rather, it was a lack of support from management after the Hawks were swept by the Cavaliers and Magic in two consecutive Eastern Conference semifinals. A source familiar with the situation said Drew was doing some "jockeying behind the scenes" as it became evident that Woodson was vulnerable.
Drew was measured in his praise of Woodson this past week. When asked if he thinks Woodson is a good fit for the Knicks, he said, "I don't see why not. When you look at that team, they've got veteran guys, guys who are All-Star-caliber guys . . . When there is a change in coaches, it usually rejuvenates a team."
Woodson returns to Atlanta with his new team on Friday. The Hawks, who are 29-20 and in a virtual tie for fifth place in the conference, are playing well. But then, so are the Knicks.
Those who know Woodson well say he won't be looking for some kind of revenge.
Said Casey: "He's not a vengeful guy. I think he learned from what happened down there and moved on. He's moved on to the Knicks and he knows he has a very good team. I think his only concern is doing the job he has now. Woody's job is to get these guys back to just playing basketball and feeling good. I think you can see he's doing that."
With Neil Best