Recent Knicks assistant and former head coach for the team Mike Woodson — who just left to coach his college team, the Indiana Hoosiers — takes a timeout to talk all things basketball with Post columnist Steve Serby.
Q: What do you remember about the undefeated 1976 Indiana Hoosiers?
A: I was a senior in high school watching them make that run. It was just fun to watch because they had some close games that year when you thought, “Damn they’re gonna lose a game.” And their experience, their talent, always pulled ’em through, man. You think about that team: In two years, they lost one game. They grew together as a unit, with Scott May and Bobby Wilkerson and Kent Benson and [Tom Abernethy] and Quinn [Buckner], all those guys. They just had a good unit, along with Quinn running the show, and proved they couldn’t lose. And that record still stands today right now.
Q: How would you feel if Gonzaga finished off its undefeated season?
A: Well, I’m not a hater now. At the end of the day, records are meant to be broken, and that ’76 team, you think about it, that’s many, many years ago, man. If Gonzaga breaks it, they’re well-deserving of it. I wouldn’t be nothing but happy for them if they accomplish that.
Q: Have you watched Gonzaga?
A: They have a great team. I like the way they play on both ends of the floor.
Q: Describe the adjustment coaching college kids versus pros.
A: The one experience that I did have was when I coached the Atlanta Hawks. I started out my first year with basically a high school player, Josh Smith, who became a helluva player in our league, and a bunch of 19-, 20-, 21-year-old young men that had to learn the NBA game. So now, the fact that I’m back here at my alma mater, when I have to build a team here with the Indiana Hoosiers, I’m dealing with young players, young talent that I have to develop, get ’em in a system where they can be successful, and hope that you coach ’em up enough to win basketball games, and that’s where I am right now, I’m still trying to feel my way with my players because of this NCAA ruling that we have that the players can enter this portal and go to different universities. I’m trying to figure out how to keep my own players as well as look at other players around the country.
Q: If you were Mike Woodson the high school player, why would you want to play for Mike Woodson, age 63, Indiana coach?
A: Because he’s got NBA affiliation and he’s had major success in his career as a basketball player in the NBA, a college player and as an NBA coach. Because at the end of the day, every player that goes to college today wants to have a crack at playing in the NBA. And I think I can help them get there. But it’s not a one-way street with me. They gotta be willing to put forth the effort that I’m gonna put ’em through to get better as a basketball player and help Indiana University win basketball games, ’cause that’s what it’s all about.
Q: After you meet your recruits, what do you hope they tell their parents or friends or relatives about Mike Woodson?
A: I can’t speak for other coaches, I can only speak for me. They’re gonna play for a guy that’s gonna be passionate … a guy that’s gonna love them and pat them when I need to pat ’em … and is gonna get in their ass when I need to get in their ass from a standpoint of competing on the basketball floor. But I’m a realist. Somebody took a chance on me many years ago and I turned out just fine. And I’m not only interested in a player playing on the basketball floor, I’m interested in the player being a good person off the floor, and helping him with his life when he’s done. This relationship with me. I look at Coach [Bobby] Knight and my relationship — that’s 40-plus years. And I like to think the players that I’ve coached in the NBA, and the players that I will coach in college, our relationship will be the rest of our lives, and that means more to me than anything.
Q: How would you define Indiana University basketball?
A: The best. The greatest. There’s so much tradition here. If you grew up in the state of Indiana, you would know what I’m talking about when it comes to basketball. Everybody wants to be a part of basketball here in the state. These young kids love basketball. And it’s been that way ever since I was a kid. And this university has this history in terms of what it’s done over the history of the program being at Indiana University. It’s not gonna change, I just gotta get it back on top where people are talking about Indiana basketball again. That’s the only reason why I’m here.
Q: What is one Coach Knight anecdote?
A: Coach Knight and I are very close. We’ll always be. And I think the one thing that kind of put our relationship in its proper perspective is when I was playing in the NBA. There’s a great writer down here by the name of Bob Hammel. He covered the Hoosiers all those years. Came over to practice one day and said, “Hey, Coach, let’s go up to Indianapolis and see Mike, he’s playing the Pacers tonight.” And Coach said, “OK, pick me up, I’ll cut practice short and we’ll go up and see him.” And as they’re going up 37 heading into Indianapolis, Bob Hammel turns to Coach Knight and he says, “Man, it’s gonna be nice seeing Michael Jordan play tonight.” And Coach Knight turned to him and said, “You gotta be kidding me. Let me tell you something; when you mention Michael, the only Mike is Mike Woodson.” He went and watched the greatest player play, don’t get me wrong (laugh). But he thought he was coming to see me. I love Bob Knight. He’s a great man.
Q: What is it about him that you loved?
A: Because, he came into the inner city of Indianapolis and took interest in a young kid named Mike Woodson and offered him a scholarship to come and play basketball at Indiana University. I played for a wonderful high school coach in Bill Smith. But once I got here, he taught me how to play the right way, fundamentally. And he taught me how to grow as a person off the court. And I got an education. It all went hand-in-hand. I got nothing but respect and love for Bob Knight in terms of the road that I traveled with him, and my relation still stands strong today with him.
Q: What did he teach you as far as mental toughness?
A: When you play for Bob Knight, you go through tough times and good times. He taught me how to work. It’s been a beautiful carryover in my life, that’s all I know. And, when there was a loose ball on the floor, I guarantee you an Indiana player would come up with it. If you had to be in position to take a charge, that Indiana player would take that charge. If you had to go get a key rebound … he just taught you how to play the game of basketball.
Q: What did it mean to you to be named captain?
A: It meant a lot. For him to turn the team over to you and say, “Hey you’re the captain of the team,” there were a lot of responsibilities that came along with that. It wasn’t because you can just put the ball in the hole. You had to manage other guys, you had to be outspoken, and you had to do things right on and off the court. That’s on any team. Somebody named you a captain, you gotta lead.
Q: What is your favorite single Indiana memory from when you played?
A: My junior year at Indiana [1978-79], I remember Coach coming to a breakfast meeting, we were in Champaign, Illinois, playing University of Illinois. He turned the newspaper on my table in front where I was sitting at breakfast with the team that morning. I never read the paper about just what was going on, I was so in tune to just doing what I needed to do on and off the court with Coach Knight. And I read the paper, and it says, “Mike Woodson, second-team All-Big Ten.” And Coach was upset, ’cause he thought I should have been first-team All-Big Ten. So that night, I went out and the basketball gods shines down on me that night (chuckle). I scored 48 points against Illinois. And after the game, Coach did his postgame interview with the reporters and he said, “It’s a travesty that this young man is not first-team All-Big Ten. And the next day they put me on first-team All-Big Ten. It’s the first time they’ve ever had six players on the first team All-Big Ten in the history of the Big Ten. I didn’t go out after reading the paper saying that I was gonna score 48 points. It just happened that way. My teammates had a lot to do with it by getting me the ball, and I just happened to have a hot night. That was Coach Knight fighting for his player, so I thank him for that.
Q: Your senior year you came back for the last six games?
A: I think I played the first eight games. I played a game too many to be redshirted after I went down with a back injury, so I had to go in and have surgery. And I had major back surgery, a guy by the name of Dr. Henry Feuer saved my career basically. Spoke to him the other day, matter of fact. I was back on the floor in eight weeks. I played my last, I think, six games or so. We ended up winning the Big Ten title that year and I was still fortunate enough to get drafted in the first round to the New York Knicks.
Q: You were determined to come back come hell or high water, right?
A: I had to, I had no choice. Doc Counsilman, he was the swim coach here — he coached Mark Spitz, who won the seven gold medals many years ago in the Olympics — he was one of the guys that got me back, by swimming in the pool there.
Q: What do you recall about Roy Hibbert’s block on Carmelo Anthony in Game 6 of the 2013 Eastern Conference semifinals versus the Pacers when you were coaching the Knicks?
A: It changed the series. It sent us home, basically. What Glen [Grunwald, then Knicks GM] and I and Jim Dolan assembled that year — if you recall we put seven new faces around the core group of Carmelo, Amar’e [Stoudemire] and Tyson Chandler — you don’t see that very often in the NBA, and that team won 54 games and won the division. We had a lot going, and we lose Game 1 to the Pacers, and I truly thought we could go get it back. But we were never able to get it back. Hibbert makes the big block on Melo at the rim. If Melo was able to complete that play, we’d probably be playing Game 7 at home and perhaps a chance to go to the Eastern Conference finals, but it didn’t happen that way. You gotta give Hibbert credit, ’cause he made a helluva block.
Q: What makes current Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau the coach that he is?
A: He’s very organized, and he’s persistent in how he wants to play on both ends of the floor, and defensively, he’s off the charts without a doubt. I couldn’t be more proud working for him when I was there, and I’m rooting big-time for him, because I have a great deal of respect for how he coaches.
Q: When did you first become aware of World Wide Wes?
A: I’ve known Wes [Knicks exec William Wesley] for many, many years, and we’ve had a wonderful relationship over the years, and I was excited when Jim and Leon [Rose, team president] gave him the opportunity to come on board, because I think he’s a major asset to the Knicks in terms of being able to help build that franchise. I think what they’re doing so far is fantastic. The team I think is headed in the right direction. They just gotta add some more pieces, and keep it going because that’s how you build a team.
Q: Why is Leon Rose the right man to lead the Knicks?
A: Leon’s been in the basketball world in a different capacity [super-agent], and Jim thought enough to turn his team over to him, and Leon has connections in terms of players throughout our league, and he’s been around basketball. That’s a big part of it. If he was a guy that was just an office guy working for a major corporation, no affiliation with basketball, it would be totally different, but he’s been around it all his life, and he’s made major connections through his relationships, so I just think it was a perfect fit obviously for Jim. Based on what they’ve done so far, it’s working, I think.
Q: What are your thoughts on RJ Barrett?
A: I think he’s made a major jump this year in his overall play, and I can’t help but think if he continues to work and put the time in, he’s gonna get even better.
Q: Are there similarities between Knicks fans and Indiana Hoosiers fans?
A: Well, let’s put it this way: Indiana fans know basketball, and Knick fans know basketball.
Q: What did you learn about yourself coaching the Knicks?
A: The fact that I played in New York, I knew the dynamics of how the fans and the media reacts to when you win and lose. We won 50 games my rookie year, and there we were times we would go and lose a couple of games and come home and they would let us know it, you know? Fortunately for me, we won, we were able to turn that team around and flip it in a short period of time, and unfortunately, I wasn’t able to stay there to finish it off after Phil [Jackson] came in. But that’s neither here or there. The bottom line is it was a great run for me, it was a learning experience for me as a coach, and now, I’m here at Indiana University trying to figure it out. My next challenge.
Q: How many college coaches are you pretty familiar with?
A: I’m familiar with a lot of guys. … Through my walk of life in the NBA, I met a lot these guys in basketball clinics, playing golf. That’s what we do as coaches, we try to mingle and try to get information and try to better ourselves as coaches.
Q: What do you think of the job Juwan Howard did at Michigan?
A: He did an excellent job. His background, his pedigree in terms of playing at the highest level, he’s worked under [Erik] Spoelstra, who I think is a helluva coach for the Miami Heat. It was kind of nice to watch and I was rooting for him because I’m a Big Ten guy.
Q: Describe the Indiana high school basketball tournament.
A: Basketball in general in the state of Indiana’s incredible. Back then, and I’m sure it’s still the same today, it was always at an all-time high. And I came out of the inner city of Indianapolis. … All these high schools, they were just loaded with talent. Some of the pickup games were incredible. All the city schools really had to battle it out in the Sectional amongst each other. So it was like you lose a game, you go home, it was just that simple. That’s how tough it was.
Q: How did Broad Ripple High do your senior year?
A: We got put out in the Regionals. Had a fight in the game, a key player got kicked out, and it kind of ended my senior year. We were ranked fourth that year in the state.
Q: I assume you’ve watched the movie “Hoosiers”?
A: I’ve seen that many, many times with Gene Hackman over the years, yes.
Q: Is that something you might someday show to your team in a certain circumstance?
A: Well, if I could ever get ’em to that level, it’d be a good movie to show, because that’s what high school basketball’s all about in the state of Indiana.
Q: What are your thoughts on the George Floyd murder trial?
A: Late at night when I get into bed around 11 o’clock, I’ve watched a little bit, not the trial itself, just the commentating on it. I’m sitting here anxiously waiting to hear the verdict, because to me it’s clear cut, in terms of what I saw on TV. But again, I’m not a lawyer and I’m [not] sitting on the jury. But let’s let it play out and see what happens.
Q: Why will you succeed?
A: Because I’ve always succeeded in life. That depends on how you determine success. I’ve accomplished everything that I’ve set out to do. I’ve been truly blessed over the 40-some years that I’ve been in basketball. I had a good run in high school, I had a great run in college, 11-year career as a pro. I’ve coached 20-some-plus years in the NBA. As an inner-city kid coming out of Indianapolis, getting an opportunity to fulfill all those different areas of my life, I’d say I’m successful, and I don’t mean that in a braggadocious way, because I think people who know me know that I’m not built like that. It’s not ever been about Mike Woodson, it’s been about the system that I’m in, the work that I’m doing at that particular time, that’s what I’m about. So it depends on how you value success. I think I’m gonna be just fine here, I just gotta put people around me that’s gonna work along with me to help me, and we’ll figure it out.