Knicks Turn to Wilkens to Replace Chaney

New York Knicks president Isiah Thomas gestures as he explains to reporters his decision to fire Knicks head coach Don Chaney and two assistants before the start of their game against the Orlando Magic on Wednesday.

The Associated Press
Published: Thursday, January 15, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 15, 2004 at 1:13 a.m.

NEW YORK -- When Don Chaney showed up for work Wednesday morning at the Knicks' practice facility, it was under the cloud of a published report that he was about to be replaced as coach of the Knicks by television commentator and former NBA coach Mike Fratello. By the time he arrived at Madison Square Garden last night, the names had changed, but the news still was bad for Chaney.

When serious talks with Fratello broke down Wednesday morning, new Knicks President Isiah Thomas turned to 66-year-old Hall of Fame coach Lenny Wilkens as the replacement for Chaney. Thomas delivered the news to Chaney about three hours before the Knicks played Orlando, and unlike his appearance on "The Late Show With David Letterman" on Tuesday night, Thomas wasn't laughing about it.

Sounding almost relieved when he greeted his wife, Jackie, after the meeting with Thomas, Chaney said, "I'm not coaching tonight." Thus ended a bizarre day in which he conducted the morning shootaround and planned to coach last night's game until the decision finally was made.

"What can you do?" said Chaney, who had a 72-112 record after succeeding Jeff Van Gundy following his resignation on Dec. 8, 2001. "It's done. I'd have liked a chance to work with these guys some more, but didn't think it was productive. Obviously I disagree."

Thomas reached his decision to fire Chaney barely three weeks after replacing Scott Layden as president of the team and proceeding to turn the organization upside down with two trades, including the eight-player blockbuster with Phoenix on Jan. 6 that landed Brooklyn playground icon Stephon Marbury as the Knicks' point guard.

It was with Marbury in mind that Thomas said he made the decision to go with Wilkens, a former guard who is the only NBA coach also to make the Hall of Fame as a player. "We have an opportunity to have the winningest coach in basketball," said Thomas, referring to Wilkens' 1,292-1,114 record that also gives him the most losses in NBA history. "I think he's a perfect fit for Stephon Marbury. ... He's from New York. I think he will be very good for this team."

Thomas also fired Chaney's top assistants, Brendan Malone and Lon Kruger. Assistant Herb Williams coached the Knicks (16-24) to Wednesday night's 120-110 win over Orlando, but Wilkens, who will be introduced at a news conference today, will bring in his own assistants and is expected to promote Thomas crony Mark Aguirre from developmental coach to the bench.

The Knicks lost five of the six games that preceded Chaney's firing, and the Garden crowd called for the coach's job in a 32-point home loss to Houston in Van Gundy's return to the Garden as the Rockets' coach last Thursday and again in an overtime loss to Dallas on Monday.

When Chaney met with reporters after the morning shootaround, he was upset with the manner in which Thomas handled the whole affair. "Without hearing anything one way or another is a sign of disrespect to a degree," Chaney said. "If that's the case (that he was about to be replaced), I think management should at least communicate to me that that's the case."

Asked if he felt he was living hour by hour, Chaney said, "It seems like it. But we're not talking about life and death. We're talking about a job I enjoy and a job I put my heart into, but it's not the end of the world."

As the day wore on, it became apparent that Fratello had lost his hold on the job. He issued a statement through TNT saying he had not accepted a new job "at this time." As late as 2 p.m., he was leaving the door open for the Knicks, but by then, Thomas had turned away from a coach renowned as a defensive specialist in order to bring back Wilkens, who was fired after last season with Toronto. In 30 seasons as an NBA coach, Wilkens won one title, in 1979 with Seattle.

Thomas could have opted for a smoother transition had he named Ma'lone, who was Thomas' top assistant the past three seasons when he was Indiana's coach, to finish the season on an interim basis. Instead, he decided to give Wilkens a multiyear deal that is believed to go through next season.

Thomas said he considered younger NBA assistants but said Fratello and Wilkens were his top choices. "In choosing between Lenny Wilkens and Mike Fratello, both are capable of doing the job," Thomas said. "At the end of the day, I thought Lenny was a better fit.

"I think the tempo we want to play at and his relationship with Marbury will be a very important one in terms of his maturity and his continued growth in the league. Having that type of intellectual knowledge around our team at this point in time is very important, especially for a guy such as Stephon."

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