Author: Peter Vecsey
Donnie Walsh asked me not to make a big deal of this when I requested permission to break the news . . . so I won’t . . . though, I’m sure we all agree, it is a big deal.
Four days after last June’s draft, the Knicks’ president, 67, entered Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and went under the knife for one hour. An uncontrollable 50-year urge to smoke vanished along with the cancerous part of his tongue.
“My doctor says he got it all,” Walsh said. “Luckily, it was caught quickly before it could spread. Numerous pre- and post-op scans of his head and neck concurred it had been contained.
Physically, Walsh is almost back to normal. His mouth remains a little numb and his speech only betrays him when a conversation becomes lengthy.
“It’s like I have marbles in my mouth. But you can’t really tell there’s something missing unless I stick out my tongue.”
“Spare me,” I promptly replied, “I’ll take your word for it.
“Something tells me your French kissing days may be over.”
Consensual gallows humor between New Yorkers who’ve been friends for almost half their adult lives is not only expected but required. Anything to lighten his psychological load is licensed; Donnie’s stare down with mortality admittedly shook him up like the grade-school nuns who habitually harped on the Hereafter.
Two of Donnie’s closest college buddies died in the past three years. Additionally, an inordinately large percentage of his Fordham Prep graduation class has passed away. When informed he had cancer following a routine exam (he experienced no symptoms) upon joining the Knicks, he figured, “Oh, (bleep), now it’s my turn!”
At that edifying moment in early-to-mid June, Walsh promised himself, “If they have to cut my tongue out I’m going to leave New York without telling anybody, fly home to Indianapolis, go straight to my backyard and never come off the property again.”
For the next two weeks, as a succession of tests was conducted and unchained torment messed with his mind, Walsh somehow conducted business as usual:
Following anguished deliberation, Mike D’Antoni was chosen over Mark Jackson to be head coach; there was a proliferation of trade talk that nearly resulted in the Knicks getting a second first round (No. 5) pick; and a procession of prospects were scrutinized before Danilo Gallinari barely edged West Virginia’s Joe Alexander (“I am the strongest man in the draft and I will be the strongest man in the NBA”) and was selected sixth.
The draft was Thursday, June 26. Walsh presided over a press conference the next day. Seventy-two hours later he was out of surgery (“I had one last cigarette that weekend”) with almost his whole tongue intact. Months afterward very few people know anything about his ordeal.
This comes as no surprise, of course, when you consider Walsh kept his somber secret from his wife – we’re talking two to three weeks – until it was practically tip-off for his operation and she barely had time to pack and get to New York from Indiana.
“Judy and I have been married 45 years and sweethearts for 50. I know how stressed out I was. I just didn’t want to worry her,” he explained.
Meanwhile, despite those positive reports, many of Walsh’s friends are worried his long-distance relationship with his wife is making him miserable. Donnie lives by his lonesome in an uptown high rise whereas. Judy cares for their Indy home and two treasured Bouvier dogs.
Walsh doesn’t disagree. “I’m OK during the day when I’m working, you know, just thinking and talking basketball. But when I get home all I do is watch TV in a big freakin’ room. I’m sick all-right, sick of watching TV.”
There’s no getting away from it; Donnie misses his wife and his dogs terribly. “Every night on my way home I see people walking their small dogs and I’m jealous. My dogs never cared whether my team won or lost. Either way I’d sit on my chair and they’d lick my face.”
Not so long ago, Donnie went back to Indy for a three-day weekend. When Judy and Donnie are in their home together they don’t speak all that much. She does her thing, he does his.
“What’s important is I know you’re there,” Donnie told Judy during that last visit. “I can’t tell you what it feels like when you’re not there.”