The last coach to have a winning season at Madison Square Garden -- heck, the last coach to lose less than 50 games -- was Mike Woodson. It's been six years since Woodson coached the Knicks to 54 wins and an Atlantic Division title. Six years since the Knicks have had a winning product. Woodson says that that season in New York is one of the highlights of his 30-plus years in the NBA.
"There isn't anything like winning in New York; it's just different," Woodson says.
We'll find out in the coming months if this year's Knicks team can recreate that feeling.
But before we look ahead, Woodson took some time to look back on his coaching tenure in New York. He talks with SNY about why he enjoyed coaching Carmelo Anthony and working for James Dolan and his desire to coach again in the NBA:
Q: How do you reflect on your time in New York?
A: Looking back on it all, it was fantastic. And you probably want to know why. It's because I got an opportunity to coach an NBA franchise that drafted me. I experienced New York as a No. 1 draft pick, playing for Red Holzman and was able to circle back and, luckily, fall into an opportunity to coach here. (Woodson took over the Knicks in 2012 after Mike D'Antoni stepped down). (Knicks owner) Jim Dolan gave me an opportunity to coach his franchise and that was like a dream come true. It was a wonderful experience because I was able to do something that a lot coaches hadn't done (in New York). Getting things turned around, getting this team in the playoffs and get them back to playing some pretty good basketball. Knicks fans fell in love with what we were doing.
Q: What are your fondest memories of your tenure?
A: There's not one particular thing that stands out. The fact that Jim Dolan and (then GM) Glen Grunwald were in my corner in terms of letting me coach and do what I do was great. There was some negativity around us at that time. People were saying, 'They haven't won in so long. What's going to be different now?' But we excelled. Those are the best memories. And the players excelled. Tyson (Chandler) getting Defensive Player of the Year and J.R. (Smith) getting Sixth Man of the Year, Melo in the running for MVP -- these were positive things that hadn't happened to those players and hadn't happened to the New York Knicks in a while. But it wasn't really about me. It was about the players and the fans. It was giving the fans something to be excited about, something to watch. That's probably my fondest memory. When we were winning, the fans were like our Sixth Man. There isn't anything like winning in New York because of the fans. It's just different.
Q: What's your involvement in the game now?
A: Well, this is the second time in 33 years that I've been away from the game. I've spent half my life in the NBA. And I've loved it. I still think I have a lot to offer, because I've been on both ends of the spectrum (building a successful team in Atlanta and winning with a veteran group in New York). I'm going to visit some NBA camps next week, which I'm looking forward to. It's going to be a little weird for me because I've never really been in that position. I'm used to running my own camps and people coming in to see how we do things. But I think it's good for me at this stage in my career. I'm always eager to learn and see how other people do things. But, ultimately, I want back into league. I think I belong there. I have a strong track record in this league and I can help a franchise win basketball games and help young players get better. (Heat president Pat Riley invited Woodson to visit Miami's training camp; Kurt Rambis and Frank Vogel invited Woodson to visit the Lakers training camp; Woodson also plans to visit the Hawks' training camp.)
Q: Going back to your Knicks tenure, what was your experience like coaching Carmelo Anthony?
A: It was the best. I think the world of Carmelo. We spent three years together and I was able to coach him and push him and I thought he responded in a big way. That's all a coach can ever ask for. I think Carmelo is misread sometimes. I can't say anything but good things about Carmelo Anthony. When I took over the ballclub, I said in the locker room that he was going to be held accountable along with Tyson (Chandler) and Amar'e (Stoudemire). And they all bought in and they put up with a lot of things I did and said. And I put up with a lot of things that they did and said. And we were able to win basketball games and get the team back to respectability. I have the utmost respect for Carmelo in terms of what he did for me during my tenure in New York. And I wish him nothing but the best.
Q: You said Carmelo Anthony is misunderstood. What about him do you think is misunderstood?
A: I don't know what happened in Denver, I wasn't there. Sometimes the media can take things and spin them and it can help you and sometimes it can hurt you. What the media said about him in Denver, I didn't see that in New York. I can only base my opinion on what I saw, how it unfolded for me. So I can't say anything bad about Carmelo. I just can't.
Q: Do you think he can still contribute to a team?
A: Absolutely. I just think it's gotta be with the right team. If you're going to put him on your team, you've got to utilize him. He has a knack to put the ball in the hole and you've got to utilize the strengths. And if you're not going to do that, why have him?
Q: What was it like coaching J.R. Smith?
A: J.R. was different. I think coaches sometimes get lost in terms of how we perceive players based on what others say about them. When J.R. came to New York, people said, 'Wow, you're not going to be able to coach this guy.' And when you tell me I can't coach a player, I try to prove you wrong. I also think J.R. needed me as much as I needed him at that particular time. I took him under my wing and said, 'Hey, everybody's saying these bad things about J.R., that you can't be coached. Well, I'm gonna coach you. And I'm going to see how you respond.'
It wasn't pretty a lot of times with J.R. and Mike Woodson. But the beauty of that relationship and that run that we had with J.R., his parents were fantastic. His mom and dad said, 'You've got to do whatever you can do make my son a better player. And you've got to push him and coach him.' He fought me some nights. And it was a heavyweight blow. He'd throw a punch and I'd throw a punch back (laughs). And that's okay when you're coaching players. But at the end of the day, I was in J.R.'s corner and he knew it and he allowed me to coach. There were some nights when I looked at him and I was like, 'What are you doing?' But for the most part I think J.R. became a better player, a more of a complete player (in New York)….
We just tried to put him in the best position possible. And sometimes it didn't look pretty, but at the end of the day, he got better as a player. The league rewarded him for it (with a Sixth Man of the Year Award). And he helped us win our division, win 54 games. He was a big part of that.
Q: What was your experience like with Jim Dolan?
A: Listen, I've worked for a lot of owners as an assistant coach and then two times as a head coach. When I got my head gig in Atlanta, we had three different ownership groups and we had some problems within our ownership group. It didn't affect me in terms of allowing me and my staff to do our job. They gave us a budget, we stuck with it and we won. But they (ownership) were somewhat dysfunctional. Though they stayed out of my way and allowed me to do my job, which is all you can ask for. And then when I came to New York, Jim gave me an opportunity to coach the team. And he gave me everything I needed from a coaching standpoint. He allowed Glen Grunwald and I to put a team together after my interim season. That next year we brought seven, eight new players in. And Jim gave us the freedom to do that. And Glen did a fantastic job with constructing that roster.
We caught a lot of hell at the beginning of the season because a lot of those guys were older guys... But ultimately, we won and I've got to thank Jim Dolan for allowing Glen and I to do things the way we wanted. (Dolan) could have easily said, 'no that's not going to happen,' but he didn't do that. He allowed me to coach and do what I thought was best for the team, which is all I could ask for. I don't care about what people are saying in the media, I can only base my opinion on how Jim treated me. And he's treated me well. He really has. I could always talk to Jim and Jim could talk to me. And it was always a great conversation.
Q: It's worth revisiting that there were some changes going into 2013-14, starting with Grunwald getting fired before training camp.
A: Yeah, we were kind of surprised by that. We really didn't see that coming. I don't know exactly what happened but maybe Jim got some bad advice from someone when Glen was let go. It was a major surprise to all of us.
Q: The roster also changed a lot that summer. Steve Mills took over as president and GM and, later Phil Jackson was hired as president. What are your reflections on that?
A: When you're working in these franchises, things happen that you can't control. We got off to a bad start (that season) and made a big run at the end after getting healthy, and got back to playing like we were capable of (at the end of the season). (But) we fell short in terms of making the playoffs and Phil and Steve decided to go in another direction at the end of the year. I wished them well before I left and I moved on.
Q: The Knicks have struggled on the court since then and dealt with on- and off-court drama during some of those seasons. What have you made of all of that from afar?
A: I'd rather not comment on that.
Q: Dave Hopla, an assistant on your staff, said recently that he thought the McKinsey & Company consulting firm hurt the team in 2013-14. Did you feel that way?
A: I think each coach and player and front-office person have their own way of viewing things and that's what he thought. I look at it a little bit differently. Analytics now plays a major role in our league. I thought there were some positive things that came from the McKinsey group. They helped us look at the numbers behind our lineups. When you can look at those numbers and see, 'This group works well together in so many minutes on the floor.' Or you see that your shooting well from a certain side of the floor with one group - that's helpful. But at the end of the day, you still have to be able to coach and put players in position to be successful to win basketball games. That's what it's all about. And it doesn't hurt if you have talent (laughs).
Q: What's it like coaching in New York?
A: I have coached in a lot of markets and the New York market is by far the toughest. The fact that I played in New York as a rookie helped prepare me for the market in terms of being able to deal with the media. I thought for the most part, the media was great for me. It really was. it might not have been great for my two daughters and my wife when we hit tough times in the third season. Coming into the arena, you hear the fans booing and things of that nature. And you don't want your kids or your wife to experience that. But it's part of the sport. You would think your home crowd would not boo, but, hey, that's what they do at the Garden. They did it when I was a rookie and we won 50 games (laughs). But I understood the media in New York and maybe that's why I didn't affect me or let it get under my skin. Some coaches or front office people may have struggled with the media in New York. But I didn't let it affect my job. If I let the media effect what I do as a coach, then I can't coach. And I never would allow the media to do that.