Somehow, New York is the underdog. That's a reality that Donnie Walsh takes into today's long-awaited opportunity to sit down with LeBron James, the cream of the NBA's abundant free-agent crop, and begins the final stage of this two-year mission, which he laid out when he was hired in April 2008.
"Am I anxious? Yeah," Walsh said Wednesday. "We've got a lot of work to do here."
Walsh dismissed reports, which he called "hypothetical things," that have been rampant over the last week regarding James' plans. But while the reports have ranged from James leaning toward Chicago, considering a "Dream Team" scenario with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, or simply opting to stay home with Cleveland, the one consistent theme has been that the Knicks are never mentioned as a viable option.
To Walsh, it's a stunning perception, that the richest market in the NBA, the second-highest valued franchise with the most money to spend, could actually be so irrelevant.
The address usually is enough to sell itself and Walsh always believed in that. But this time there is a greater demand. The Knicks can offer plenty off the court, with Manhattan as their greatest asset, but, with a mostly empty roster, there can be no promises on it. James, with Jordanesque leading-man qualities, knows he can be far more marketable than the moody, reclusive Kobe Bryant. But Kobe has more rings and, ultimately, you are judged by winning championships.
The Knicks, who haven't made the playoffs in six years, can't even offer him a postseason right now.
And that is why Mike D'Antoni flew to Los Angeles last night and met with Joe Johnson around 10 p.m. Pacific time. D'Antoni was expected to talk with Amar'e Stoudemire by phone and a brief chat with Mike Miller also was on the schedule.
D'Antoni was hoping to talk Johnson into choosing the Knicks rather than re-signing with Atlanta. D'Antoni did this after the Hawks, reportedly armed with a max contract offer of six years and $119 million, talked to Johnson first. The most the Knicks can offer is five years and $92 million and, as multiple sources have assured, that's what they will offer. They hope Johnson considers giving up $27 million to be either a centerpiece in their rebuild or a very attractive lure for James.
The 69-year-old Walsh will be in a wheelchair for the meeting, something that he isn't sure will be a detriment to the process that involves impressing the young, energetic core that surrounds James. The chair is a precautionary measure after Walsh had surgery to correct an issue in his neck recently and is going through a rehabilitation process. "It's not because I can't walk," he said. "It's just to make sure I don't put myself in jeopardy."
D'Antoni and Allan Houston, who serves as special assistant to Walsh, are expected to do most of the talking. D'Antoni will present the roster as underestimated, with Danilo Gallinari, a player James has praised in the past, as a budding talent who is a perfect complement to James. And the remaining cap space would be used specifically to find players who also complement James' skill set.
Houston will talk about the seemingly unlimited resources that the Garden can promise: the history of bankrolling a payroll well above the luxury tax threshold and portfolio that proves it can be afforded for years to come, which is something no other franchise can guarantee. James wants to win a championship as soon as possible. The Knicks want to offer him the chance at building a dynasty to rival what Bryant has in L.A.
Also, they likely will be quick to remind James that not only do they have cap space this summer to add another significant player to the mix, but also next summer, when Eddy Curry's contract expires. And have you heard that Carmelo Anthony may be a free agent in 2011?
Also prominent in the conversation will be the business opportunity that awaits in New York, which, again, is unmatched by any other market, and how James and his inner circle of friends, who started a marketing and branding company, LRMR Marketing could benefit immensely with a connection to Madison Square Garden Inc.
Walsh is the closer. Amid all the pomp, circumstance and ebullience will be his old school, straightforward approach that has made him one of the most respected executives in the NBA.
"Ultimately," he said, "you're talking basketball with a basketball player."
And you're talking about the fate of two long years of work culminating in one afternoon of conversation.