CHICAGO – Mike Woodson likes to tell the story of how he first got into NBA coaching, which was something of a symbol for his basketball life.
Woodson had finished up a solid, if unspectacular, playing career with a half dozen teams after being drafted by the New York Knicks in 1980 out of Indiana University, where he played for the noted collegiate disciplinarian Bobby Knight.
Woodson was good, not great, often unnoticed but effective, which could be said about much of his NBA coaching career.
It’s not easy to break in and Woodson, a noted worker, had been trying to learn the trade on his own, even going to NBA summer leagues at his own expense to help coach teams. He heard Chris Ford, a prickly former opponent who mostly played for the Boston Celtics, was going to work for the Milwaukee Bucks.
Woodson approached him at summer league, basically introduced himself even though Ford knew who he was, though not well, and said he would like to work on Ford’s staff.
Ford wasn’t that excited. He said a lot of guys wanted to be on his staff.
Woodson responded that he wasn’t like a lot of guys.
Woodson eventually got the job and became friends with Ford, who Woodson hired as a Knicks consultant when Woodson moved up to Knicks head coach after replacing Mike D’Antoni last year.
Woodson had joined the Knicks staff as an assistant at the beginning of last season, and when D’Antoni and Carmelo Anthony had their inevitable falling out Woodson replaced D’Antoni as interim coach and retained the job.
Since then the Knicks went on to have their best regular season in 16 years in winning the Atlantic Division and are on the verge of winning a playoff series for the first time since the 2000 Eastern Conference finals as they led the Boston Celtics three games to one after the weekend’s action.
Obviously, much is due to the emergence of Anthony as an MVP candidate, though also the revelation of J.R. Smith, the long erratic talented shooting guard to becoming the winner of the NBA’s Sixth Man award. The roster also was loaded with savvy veterans like Jason Kidd and Kurt Thomas.
And all this even without —and perhaps because he was out — Amare Stoudemire.
Which has been one of the strengths of Woodson, a confident mixture of disciplinarian and player’s coach, which often are mutually exclusive terms in coaching.
Can they beat the Miami Heat and get to the Eastern Conference finals if they get that far?
It would seem unlikely, and not only because they don’t seem to have enough talent to match the Heat. Woodson’s teams tends to flame out in theplayoffs as his Atlanta Hawks suffered some of the biggest playoff defeats, especially in a brutal sweep against the Orlando Magic in 2010.
Still, he also got the Hawks to the playoffs for the first time in eight years and saw the team better its record in each of his six seasons.
Woodson is known around coaching for his confident, almost pompous demeanor, something of a remnant of the Knight era. But also as a turnaround expert like Larry Brown, whom he worked under when the Pistons won a title in 2004.
The shaved-headed Woodson also was fondly known by his Atlanta players for a time as Mr. Potato Head as he came into practice one day with his eyebrows gone, apparently shaved off in a mystery that never was fully solved.
Yes, defenses have at times solved his offenses, generally with a lot of isolation play, but they have been effective.
Woodson tends to be a coach who allows his players, especially the most talented ones, to have a lot of playing freedom, which he has turned into regular season success.
Like many pro coaches who have been NBA players, Woodson tends to rely on that individual play, which fit well in Atlanta with Josh Smith and in New York with Anthony, and later Smith as well.
It perhaps was a bit of a blessing, though not for Stoudemire, that the star center was injured as Woodson was struggling with pairing Stoudemire with Anthony.
Woodson’s use of Anthony as a mismatch power forward along with being the first NBA coach to get through to the emotional Smith have been two of his principal achievements enabling the Knicks to emerge as the most serious challenger to Miami in the Eastern Conference.
Woodson has relied upon individually athletically talented players who also will make the pass, or at least can, to spread the court and create a high powered, three-point shooting offensive team, especially in New York.
Given his personal confidence and apprenticeship under the bombastic Knight, he’s been able to combine that with a measure of discipline that isn’t the easiest thing to do with a high maintenance roster like the Knicks’, which many coaches would have struggled with.
Plus, the high level scrutiny and pressure of the New York sports market, which seems to prefer victims to successes.
Like Mike Woodson says, he’s not like a lot of guys.
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”