By Mike Grenier
---- — BOSTON – Former Salem State basketball coach Jim Todd has accumulated some strange adventures in his 14 years in the NBA, including nearly half a season as the interim head coach of the L.A. Clippers back in 2000.
For pure career craziness, however, probably nothing will ever top what Todd went through last season, when he was on the bench as an assistant for the Sacramento Kings one night and then suddenly found himself in the same position with the New York Knicks just 24 hours later.
How did something so seemingly bizarre happen to Todd?
Well, it was complicated, of course.
First, the Knicks had to fire head coach Mike D’Antoni and replace him with Mike Woodson in the midst of a tumultuous season. Check.
Next, the Knicks had to get permission from the Kings to talk to Todd about leaving Sacramento. Check.
Next, Todd had to make a quick decision about the Knicks’ offer and inform Sacramento head coach Keith Smart, who wanted Todd to remain with the team. Check.
Finally, Todd had to give his all to the Sacramento Kings in a game against the Celtics, knowing his heart and mind would be with the New York Knicks as soon as the game ended.
“Yeah, that was a little (crazy),” Todd said at the TD Garden Tuesday, recalling his career change last March. “The Celtics were in Sacramento when it all happened. We beat them and then I was on a plane to Indianapolis. We pull in at 5 p.m. the next day and at 7 p.m. they’re throwing the ball up for the Knicks-Pacers game and I’m sitting next to Mike Woodson, the new coach of the Knicks. Oh, and we beat the Pacers, too.”
The past 12 months couldn’t have worked out any better for Todd. He’s with a hot team in the Knicks, who had the second best record (43-26) in the Eastern Conference after thrashing the slumping Celtics, 100-85, Tuesday night, and who have high expectations in the playoffs. He’s reunited with one of his best friends, Woodson, who had Todd on his staff with the Atlanta Hawks from 2008-2010. He’s also closer to Salem, where he still has ties (Salem High boys basketball coach Tom Doyle still stays in touch with him) and to Cape Cod, where he’s had a home for many years.
“There was nothing wrong with Sacramento,” said Todd, 60, who is in the Salem State Hall of Fame and the Fitchburg State Hall of Fame. “They gave me a chance to get back in the league after I’d been out for a little while, but I wanted to go and roll the dice a little bit and see what would happen. New York is just a lot closer to home.
“Mike Woodson and I started our coaching careers together. We were rookies under Chris Ford in Milwaukee (in 1996). We’d be together almost 24/7 for 10 months during the season, scouting and learning the NBA game. We just developed a strong bond over time. I just felt so fortunate last year when Mike got the Knicks job and he asked me to come aboard.”
Given his deep background in the league, Todd knew precisely what he was getting into when he accepted a job with the Knicks. There’s immense pressure to win in New York and to do it immediately. The fans bang out Madison Square Garden, which is described nationally in hyperbolic terms as the “The World’s Most Famous Arena,” and they expect excellence in every game.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with those expectations, said Todd. As the head man, Woodson demands accountability and commitment from his players and coaches. Todd gladly signed on because doing his part to make the Knicks an elite team is one of the greatest challenges of his career.
“We understand each other from being around each other for so long,” Todd said of Woodson. “I always have a pretty good idea of what he’s thinking. If he asks me, I’m definitely going to give him my opinion. I’m not going to yes him to death – that’s not why I’m there. At the same time, whatever Mike decides, we’re all going to be on the same page as a coaching staff.
“This is the most coachable team I’ve ever been around, whether you’re talking Carmelo (Anthony), Jason (Kidd), J.R. (Smith) or the rest of them. I work with everybody. At 60, I still like running around with these guys and messing with them. And playing at Madison Square Garden, every game is a rush. Everybody tries to bring their ‘A’ game against us. The home games are just electrifying.”
With Marcus Camby (39), Kurt Thomas (39), Rasheed Wallace (38) and Kidd (just turned 40) on the roster earlier this season, the Knicks were officially recognized as the oldest team in NBA history. They don’t mind that reputation in the least and the players clearly gave the impression in Boston that they love having their veteran assistant, Todd, in the mix for various reasons.
“He’s just a great basketball mind,” forward Steve Novak, the Knicks’ superb three-point shooter, said of Todd. “I mean, he’s a smart guy. He has a great demeanor about him and I think guys appreciate that. It’s a long season and we feel he’s always someone we can talk to.
“When someone is talented and good at what they do, that person rises to the top,” added Novak. “Whether you’re at a Division 1 or a Division 3 school, people who are the best at what they do find their way to the top. I think that was definitely the case with J.T. and with Tom Thibodeau (the Chicago Bulls head coach, who also coached at Salem State) as well. I think their work speaks for itself.”
Knicks starting center Tyson Chandler says Todd “keeps the locker room loose” with his sense of humor. The verbal sparring goes both ways, he noted, with the players never tiring of tearing into Todd for his obvious Boston accent in TV interviews.
“He’s constantly giving us a hard time, and we give it back,” said Chandler. “His J.R. comes out as J. ‘Are’ and it’s hilarious. We kill him for that stuff. Kill him.
“But you know, we also like him as a coach. He brings experience to this team and he pulls guys aside and gives his input about what he’s seeing out there. He has a lot of knowledge that he shares with the players and the good thing about him is that he picks his spots. He knows when players are ready for that knowledge to be shared.”
When Todd was just 24, he coached at the college and high school level simultaneously and won a state championship in the process. He was a teacher in Billerica during the day and then he would head off to Fitchburg, where he was the head coach at Notre Dame High School and an assistant at Fitchburg State College. He would hold practice for his high school team in the afternoon and help out with the college team at night. Notre Dame High captured the Class C state title for 1976-77 with a 26-2 record.
“The money was peanuts in those days, but you didn’t do it for the money,” said Todd. “You did it to gain experience. I was very young and it helped.”
By the time Todd got to Salem State in 1987, he was more than ready to take it up a notch. He led the Vikings to a 192-57 record and eight NCAA Division 3 tourney appearances in nine years.
He was content at Salem State. He thought he’d be there for life, but when ex-Celtic Chris Ford gave him a chance to break into the NBA as an assistant with the Milwaukee Bucks, how could he resist?
“I thought I was going to retire at Salem State,” said Todd, who has also coached in China and Turkey (for the Canadian men’s national team at the World Championships) in recent years. “I was coaching basketball and golf. We had done well for years. I was home and I was happy.
“But it’s tough to say no when the NBA is calling. It’s the best league in the world.”