Donnie Walsh opens up on his decision to retire from basketball, working for Herb Simon and what's next (part 1)
After working for the Pacers for more than 30 years, Walsh shares why he no longer "fit" and what retirement looks like for him.
On Wednesday, Dec. 30, Donnie Walsh logged onto a Zoom call to share news with his colleagues at Pacers Sports & Entertainment for the final time. He had great memories with them, an organization for which he once ran the basketball and business operations.
But it was time.
So around noon ET on Dec. 30 — as first reported on Fieldhouse Files — Walsh informed team employees that he was stepping down as a consultant, a role he held since 2013, and was retiring.
This was it.
“I don’t know if it’s a good time or not,” Walsh said during our phone interview, his first extensive interview since retiring, “but I had been thinking about doing it since I got back actually from New York (in 2012). I fought against it because my whole life has been in basketball, but the bottom line was, this year in particular, I just thought I’m getting too old for this. I don’t have the same energy, I don’t have the same body, I guess, that I used to have.
“And I think when you’re in a game like the NBA, it really requires a lot of energy, the ability to travel a lot and that kind of thing, and to get up early and go to work every day, and then to stay long for games. I just didn’t have what it took to do that anymore. So I had to admit it.
“So I called up (owner) Herb Simon and Kevin (Pritchard), and told them I just can’t come back. That’s all. And also, because of my career — I’ve had 60 years in basketball — and as a result, I’ve always been in and out with my family. I just thought I’d like to spend the complete time with different members of my family and have the ability to do that. So that was the real reason I did it.”
One of the toughest things about this past year for Walsh was his lack of involvement. If he’s on the payroll and committed to help out, he intends to follow through. However, because of COVID-19, last season was completed inside a bubble, training camp for this season was cut short, staff members allowed to have Tier-1 access is very limited — and requires daily testing.
Walsh, a candidate for the Class of 2021 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame under the contributor category, was a central figure running the Pacers’ basketball operations for over 20 years. After three years working to repair the New York Knicks, his hometown team, he returned to the Pacers in 2012 and has been here ever since.
He first arrived in 1984 as an assistant coach under George Irvine, and two years later moved into an executive role as general manager. In that position, he made the franchise-changing move to select Reggie Miller 11th overall in the 1987 NBA Draft.
Although the Pacers have never won an NBA Championship, they have been a model of consistency in reaching the postseason 25 times over the last 31 seasons. And because of that success, rarely have they selected inside the top 10.
Walsh may be away, but his legacy lives on. One of the two courts at the team’s $50 million practice facility that opened in Aug. 2017 is named after him. The other is Bobby ‘Slick’ Leonard Court.
Walsh will celebrate his 80th birthday soon on March 1. He and his wife, Judy, have five children.
Last month, Walsh talked with Fieldhouse Files for more than 40 minutes — detailing his retirement decision and what’s next, along with a thorough look back at his career with Indiana.
In part two, to be posted Thursday morning, subscribers will learn about Walsh’s guiding principles, how he started out in basketball as an assistant coach, why he thought Larry Bird would be a good coach and executive, how Miller’s game would thrive in today’s game and much more.
So it sounds like this is it for you. If another opportunity presented itself, you’re good and this it is? Is that right?
Yeah, I’m gonna be 80 in March and I think there’s a point at which you gotta say ‘I think I’m getting too old’ and that’s it for me. (Laughs)
What impressed me was when we were at practice or whenever we could be around the practice facility, at 10 a.m. every morning — like clockwork — you were there. You were there almost every single time we were there. So even though you were in a consultant role, you clearly took this job very seriously and were there every weekday.
I was. When I first started with the Pacers and I was the general manager, I basically made it a rule to myself that I was gonna go in every day and get on time — and most of the time, in the beginning, I was early.
That job requires you to know the whole league, all the players in the league. You have to begin a relationship with all the other people in the same position you’re in, so I just got used to doing it.
I was very enthusiastic and I wanted to do a good job. I got in the office very early and stayed there pretty late. And I did that for the whole period when I first got there. And I kind of continued the same thing, not as strictly as I did my first couple of years, because it was my dream job and I wanted to do it the best way I could do it. After doing it for about two years, where I spent that kind of time there, I thought it was important for me to (continue to) do that.
And then later, when I became the president of the whole franchise, I continued that for two reasons. One, I thought I had even more to learn and be in charge of then. And I also wanted everybody in the franchise to see me there when they came in and set an example. I never held them to my hours, but I held them to what the office hours were to the franchise.
What was it like in the weeks approaching this moment? Were you looking back fondly on your time, were you questioning whether you really want to do this and what you’ll miss out on?
I had been thinking about it while I was doing it since I left the Knicks. I sincerely was looking at should I still be doing this.
So this was almost a decade-long thought then about retirement?
Well, once get over 70, you start figuring ‘Well, when am I gonna (be done)?’ It wasn’t as immediate as it was the last couple of years because I really truly felt like, ‘Well, wait a minute. Now it’s getting time to really consider this.’ But I thought about it a lot.
To answer your first question, which was did you look back on your career? I had been doing that for a while. I was very, very pleased. It was my dream job to become a general manager in the NBA. The Simon family gave me that opportunity with the Pacers, and so I took it really seriously, and I wanted to do the best job I could and I wanted to make sure that I lived up to their expectations. That’s the way I started and it just kept going on that way for a long period of time so when I got to my 70s, now all of a sudden I’m starting to say, ‘Well, how long do I think I should stay in this job?’ And basically, I started thinking about that after my 70s.
I still felt like I was doing the same things — and probably more efficiently than I did before — but it was getting more real as I went on that I thought it was time for me to leave. I basically made the call to Herb Simon and Kevin Pritchard and told them I couldn’t go back. I just thought it was time for me to end, I wanted to spend a little more time with my family and I thanked them for the opportunity.
In Kevin’s case, I told him ‘I loved what you’ve done since you’ve been general manager. And I’ve particularly liked what you have now’ — which is basically younger people in (GM) Chad Buchanan, a younger coach in Nate Bjorkgren, and a younger staff. And the players are younger. To me, I didn’t fit anymore. I just didn’t feel like I fit, even as a consultant.
And what was Herb’s reaction?
At first he said ‘Are you sure you don’t want to reconsider it? I said, “No, I definitely don’t.’ And then he said, ‘Well, I want to thank you for what you’ve done. You were terrific.’ And we had a more intimate conversation then.
He’s not one who’s around on a daily basis and doesn’t do many interviews. What don’t we know enough about Herb Simon and what it’s like to work for him?
Well, I don’t know what you don’t know, but I do know what I know. I told Kevin, I told Larry Bird when they became general manager and president of basketball operations: You cannot work for a better owner than Herb Simon. And back when Mel was alive, I said Herb and Mel. And now I would say Herb and Stevie — the Simon Family.
They’re very interested, so it’s not like they’re not around. They call all the time or you call them all the time, and you keep them up to date. They come in every now and then — and it’s more now than then — and spend a day and want to be briefed on what’s going on. The NBA moves at a day-to-day period, particularly at certain times like the draft and trade (deadline).
Once the team starts playing, they start coming to the games and they come into Indianapolis very regularly. … And they’re very great to work with. That doesn’t mean everything you say, they say, ‘Yeah, you can do it.’ But the way they treat you is with profound respect and give you dignity. I’ve never had any kind of a blow up or something with Herb myself.
And what’s special about this group is the respect everyone has for ownership, for yourself and previously for Larry Bird. It was a lot of like-minded individuals that just want to work hard and have a successful franchise for sports fans here in Indianapolis.
Well, to be honest with you, that’s the way I perceived Indiana and I fit right into that. I think most people in Indiana are very hard working, very conscientious, they give a lot of respect to people and they have the qualities that Herb and Mel have. That’s what I saw when I first got here and so I feel very comfortable with that.
Have you thought about what retirement looks like for you in normal times? Do you want to travel, do you want to move to Florida like Larry? I’ve heard you’re a big movie fan and spend lots of time with your dog too.
I used to think about when I retired that I’d end up going somewhere with a beach or sunshine. But the older I’ve gotten, the better I like it right here. I like it here (in Indianapolis) and as you said, I have things that I do here with my wife — we love to go to dinner, we love to go to the movies, we do have dogs so I take great interest in them. We have a rather simple life, but it’s fulfilling. And we have children in the area, and then I have children that live in Denver and Virginia, and they come to visit two or three times a year. And they bring their children, which is a whole other ballgame for me.