Anti-guru: The secret of Mike Woodson’s success with the Knicks is there isn’t one

Woodson, when he coached Atlanta. (Chris Nelson.)
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Mike Woodson had only been coach of the New York Knicks for exactly five games. But the team that couldn’t win in the waning days of his predecessor, Mike D’Antoni, suddenly couldn’t lose.

They had stopped playing defense under D’Antoni, but under Woodson they were now stifling opponents. The offense, a collection of talented but seemingly mismatched parts that finally caused D’Antoni to throw up his hands and walk away, had finally found cohesion.

What was Woodson’s secret?

“We’re not doing anything differently than anyone else in the league,” he told reporters, wearily.

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Sure, he said, there was a wrinkle here and a tweak there. But really, all the Knicks were doing was playing hard and executing well. As he has stressed many times since becoming the Knicks’ interim coach two weeks ago, this isn’t rocket science. It’s just basketball.

Thrust into a sports-media environment that runs on dramatic narratives, Woodson hasn’t played along. Bombarded every day by reporters’ questions, his response is usually along the lines of: Seriously, fellas, what do you want me to say?

He’s essentially an anti-guru: a competent pro who knows what he’s doing, and nothing more. Two of his favorite go-to phrases in explaining his technique to reporters are “keep pushing them in that direction” and “keep grinding.” To be a good coach is mostly to keep working, and to ensure that the players do the same.

In this way, Woodson stands in contrast to his more celebrated predecessors. When the Knicks wooed D’Antoni to New York with $6 million a year after a highly successful stint in Phoenix, he was hailed as a transformative basketball figure who brought a freewheeling, European style of play to the defense-minded, predictable N.B.A.

D’Antoni’s predecessor as Knicks coach, Isiah Thomas, was one of the best players ever to play the sport. It’s Thomas who is credited with the koan featured in Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball: “The secret of basketball is that it’s not about basketball.”

Then there’s the guy the New York tabloids have long clamored for: Phil Jackson, the 10-time N.B.A. champion nicknamed the “Zen Master,” and the author of several books including Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior.

D’Antoni and Thomas didn’t work out, and the Jackson rumors can wait until after the season. From now until then, however long that lasts, Woodson will have to do.

WOODSON’S APPARENT DETERMINATION NOT TO ALLOW THE NEW YORK media to draw a bead on him might stem from his acrimonious relationship with the Atlanta press during his one and only head coaching stint, from 2004 to 2010, with the Hawks.

Sekou Smith, who covered the Hawks for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and now considers Woodson a friend, said tensions began during Woodson’s first season, when the Hawks stumbled to an N.B.A.-worst 13-69 record. The writers were hard on him, and Woodson never forgot.

“He had bad teams for those first three years, so you get pounded,” Smith said. “He carried that on longer than he should have.”

“It was very difficult for him to get over an initial slight. If he has this feeling that you’re out to get me or that you’re tagging me unfairly, he has a hard time turning in another direction. Outside of myself, he generally battled the media every day he was here.”

As the young team’s players matured under Woodson, the Hawks’ record improved every year. During his final two years, they won their first-round playoff series both times, thus bettering the accomplishments of any Knicks team in the past decade.

His coaching style was like his personality: no-nonsense and old-school, influenced by his own college coach at the University of Indiana, Bobby Knight. He clashed with some players, like talented young forward Josh Smith (although most observers insist their relationship was never as bad as portrayed). But overall, he acquitted himself well in his five years.

Still, Woodson’s relationship with the press remained hostile. His interactions were particularly bad with Journal-Constitution columnist Jeff Schultz, who says Woodson was under the impression that he was trying to get him fired.

“He literally screamed obscenities at me and shouted, ‘I know you’re on a campaign to get me fired, and now I’m on a campaign to get you fired,’” Schultz told me. “And I have no idea what sparked it.”

“All I can say is for a tough guy who played for a tough coach, he’s one of the most thin-skinned, insecure people I’ve ever met,” he said.

It got to a point where Woodson wouldn’t answer Schultz’s questions, forcing Hawks P.R. man Arthur Triche to intercede with Woodson.

“He needed to be reminded what N.B.A. protocol was all about,” Triche said. “We had to go back forth several times. I said, ‘Woody, the organization isn’t picking up a fine because you want to be stubborn. You either have to stop reading the newspaper, or you can’t take things as personal.’”

But both Smith and Triche painted a portrait of two Mike Woodsons: The one you got if you were on his bad side, and the one you got if you weren’t.

The second guy is generous, confident, decent and gracious. He’s the guy who would take ten employees out for dinner at a time and cover the tab. He’s the guy who made inroads with Atlanta politicians and was highly active with local charities. He’s the guy who would come down to the hotel bar on road trips and schmooze or smoke a cigar with anybody.

Woodson is a highly successful businessman in construction and real estate. This, said Smith, explains why Woodson was a well-rounded man who was comfortable in many different circles, as opposed to the cloistered workaholics many modern-day coaches are.

“That explained his confidence at all times,” said Smith. “That first season, when you’re losing like that, you’d expect the coach to be hiding. But Woody was always out and about. He’s a very different dude in that respect.”

And while he was tough on his players, he was faithful to them, said Triche.

“Woody’s a loyal guy,” he said. “He knows what he’s doing, he is prepared, and he works hard at the job. And he’s a fierce defender of his players. He was always willing to take lumps to avoid them getting criticized.”

Still, after a largely successful five-year run, there was a sense in Atlanta that the Hawks had plateaued under Woodson. In 2010, the Orlando Magic swept them out of the playoffs with an average margin of victory of 25.3 points, the largest in N.B.A. history. While Woodson maintained his reputation as an excellent defensive coach, he was criticized for running a dull offense centered around star guard Joe Johnson—“Iso Joe,” it was dubbed, derisively. After the 2009-2010 season, the Hawks declined to renew Woodson’s contract.

Woodson’s reputation for running his offense around star players could lead to changes in New York, where people thought D’Antoni’s strict adherence to his system marginalized the one-on-one brilliance, in particular, of Carmelo Anthony.

But however it shakes out on the court, both Smith and Triche are convinced Woodson will have an easier time with the press in New York than he did in Atlanta.

“Woody has a better grasp of that now,” Smith said. “He’s clearly learned a few lessons about how to deal with people in the media that he didn’t know before.

“I think he’s ready for 100-percent scrutiny. He understands, wisely, that as quick as he’s the toast of the town, if they lose three in a row, every headline’s gonna be about Phil Jackson.”