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BDL Interview: Allan Houston on what it's like to be a free agent

Dan Devine
Ball Don't Lie

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We've heard about what Free Agency 2010: The Quickening might mean to the six teams that LeBron James will play for, the increasingly depressing specter of what we used to call Michael Beasley, the soon-to-be-fan-favorite buddy-cop duo of a busted-down captain named Kirk and a hotshot no-shot rookie named Yi. What we haven't heard, though, is what it means to the players themselves.

What's it like? How do you make your decisions? How does it feel to know that everything about your life - where you live, where you work, who you work for and with, what you're paid, and on, and on -- is about to be different?

I don't know the answers to these questions. So I called Allan Houston(notes).

The sweet-shooting guard and former University of Tennessee standout was part of the epic free agent class of 1996, which featured names like Michael Jordan and Reggie Miller (who both chose to stay at home), Shaquille O'Neal(notes), Charles Barkley, Alonzo Mourning(notes), Dikembe Mutombo(notes) and Kenny Anderson (all of whom switched their strips), and Juwan Howard(notes) (who, no kidding, became the first player in NBA history to sign a $100 million contract). When the music stopped, Houston had signed a seven-year, $56 million contract to become a member of the New York Knicks. Fourteen summers later, he spoke with Ball Don't Lie about how it all came to pass.

Now a member of New York's front office — Houston serves as assistant to President of Basketball Operations Donnie Walsh — the fourth-leading scorer in Knicks' history declined comment on the team's specific free-agent targets. (It's probably a good idea to keep Houston's employment status in mind as you read all of his remarks, in fact.) But he did tell us what it feels like to post yourself on the NBA's version of eBay, how his free-agent experience unfolded, and what it feels like when Madison Square Garden's highest-profile tenant focuses its attention squarely on securing your services.

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Ball Don't Lie: There's a lot of free-agent hype this offseason, and obviously the Knicks have been prominently involved in that. I'm interested in what your experience was like back in 1996, when you hit the block. You'd just finished out your rookie deal with the Detroit Pistons, and you were a pretty hot commodity - you'd averaged 25 a night on the Orlando Magic in the first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs, you're hitting your prime and you're hitting free agency. What was your mindset? What were you looking for?

Allan Houston: Well, you obviously want to go somewhere where you can win. Also, money is a factor, but I think you want to go somewhere where you can win. At that point, I really didn't know New York was seriously in the picture -- you can't talk to the teams right away, so I didn't realize they were in the picture until later. I honestly thought, at the time, that Reggie Miller would have come to New York and I would have had a chance to either go to Indiana or stay in Detroit. I always wanted to stay in Detroit, but I think one of the things that really appealed to me was being able to be in the playoffs and really compete to win championships on a continuing basis.

When I came to New York and visited, I think what attracted me was that they really made me feel and understand that I was a significant part of their future. In my situation, when you're coming off of your rookie contract ... you really want to go where your window is, you know? I was not a building block; I was more a finishing piece to the puzzle. I was young in my career, trying to establish what my value was going to be and who I was going to be as a player in this league. So for me, it was more about [asking myself], "Where are you going to go?" Yes, money is a factor, but a lot of it was, "Where are you going to be able to go and win and really be a significant part of something big, where you can establish yourself in this league?"

A lot of times, you have different classes of free agents. In my case, I wasn't the guy who was going to be the max guy, who was going to come in and try to turn the franchise around. I was more of a guy who, you know, was good enough maybe to make a significant impact. And I was still young, trying to establish myself. So for me, having the opportunity to do that in New York was really invaluable. To win and to be in New York, in that market - and then you add the fact that they had offered more than anyone else - I mean, it was just kind of really a no-brainer for me.

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BDL: I want to pick up on something you mentioned there - not just the fit on the court and the financial element, but what the market offers, being in New York as opposed to other cities. That's gotten a lot of play in stories about the upcoming free-agent boom, the idea of Madison Avenue marketing and the opportunities that come to a player in New York. Some fans might look at that now and see it as a bit overblown ...

AH (interrupting): I completely disagree, because I'm a perfect example of how it wasn't. First of all, if you look at the lifestyle, you don't have to be a part of that Madison Avenue lifestyle, you know? I was a laid-back guy, but when I wanted to come and enjoy the city - whether it was from dining to shows to, you know, all [the rest] - I did. And I think one of the resources that really gets underplayed ... is [that] you have the ability to get to know, on a personal level, the people who run the world, run the market. These are people who run most of the corporations that you can name and have a main office in New York, or an affiliation in New York. And you get to meet these people on a personal level because they're Knicks fans, and they want to be associated with you personally because you are a Knick. Especially if you make an impact on the team.

I went to the Giants parade [after they defeated the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII] to just get a feel for how passionate the heartbeat of New Yorkers is for their teams, and unless you're here and really entrenched in it, you really can't understand how passionate they are, and how that heartbeat really flows. You know, I took my son to the parade, and it's like, "Would you rather have your parade on Broadway or on any other street in the United States?" You know what I mean? Those are the types of things that you can't over-blow enough, to me. And you have to kind of experience it.

For me, a lot of what really does not get talked about is, every player one day has to finish playing, right? And during that time, you're going to have to figure out, "Who am I as a person and player off the court or field?" Where I've been extremely blessed is that I've been able to have people help me have a foundation in terms of my brand off the court. And really, there's no other place that can explode that like New York. You're not going to have everybody make millions of dollars off the court through marketing, but what you do have is more people, more opportunities, to talk about what your foundation is, what's important to you, your impact on young people and on lives off the court.

You can't really measure that, because you got 9 million people just in the [New York] metropolitan area who are going to watch you every night, [plus] Connecticut, New Jersey, the East Coast - I've gone overseas and people have chased me down just because of me being a Knick. I don't want to name other cities or teams, but I don't think that would have happened the same way [if I'd played elsewhere]. Because it's New York. In Tokyo and other places you go, people are either from New York or they know New York. You become a global entity automatically. You can kind of say it's overblown, but it's not a perception; it's a fact. Especially when you're winning.

The biggest thing, too, is that at the end of the day, you're playing on the biggest stage there is. I mean, I remember coming when I was maybe just 10 years old, and my parents drove from Louisville, Ky., up to New York to see a play. We saw "Dreamgirls." And I remember watching that play. It was cemented in my mind. And one of the things I thought about when I signed with the Knicks was, "You know what? That's going to be me on that stage every night, now." It gave me the chills, thinking about how millions of people come here from all over the world - I mean, people come from Hollywood to be on Broadway, you know? (laughs) So now, I'm going to be on that stage every single night. And there's only one stage when it comes to basketball - you can go down 46th Street and there's 10, 12 stages. To me, those types of things ... you don't really feel it until you've experienced it.

There are some [negative] things about it, too. The risk-reward is greater. There's a risk that people are going to be maybe a little critical. But my thing is, as an athlete, if you're that great, you don't want to take the easy way out.

BDL: Obviously, there's that July 1 starting date - the Finals end, and a couple of weeks later, you're into free agency. You officially signed your deal with the Knicks on July 14, two weeks from the beginning of the signing period. You said you weren't really aware that the Knicks were in the picture at first - how did they enter it, and what was their approach to you like?

AH: Well, again, there are different levels of free agency. For me, they knew that I'd never been recruited before - I played for my father [Wade at the University of Tennessee]. The management team, Dave Checketts, Ernie Grunfeld ... they made me feel like I was the missing piece. They made me feel like they needed me to get to the next level. And honestly, they made me feel like that when they put the proposal in front of me. That was like actions speaking louder than words. They already had me convinced, they already helped me understand why I was a big piece, along with other pieces.

So the biggest thing for me ... was I just felt like - maybe because in Detroit there was a little of that familiarity, so I didn't get this sense as much from Detroit - in New York, I felt like, "They really, really want me and need me to be a part of this." And you know, listen: In Detroit, we'd just gotten swept in the playoffs, while New York was battling the Bulls and the Heat and the Pacers to get to the Finals every year. You know, there was a difference there, too. So I was like, "I've got a chance to be a part of that, and they think that I can really help them get there."

One thing that really struck me was the class. Just the class of the organization. The details in everything that they saw, that they said. I didn't expect people driving me around to houses in Greenwich, [Conn.] Yeah, it can be fluffed up, but at the end of the day, when anyone is coming into a new situation, those little details can make a big difference.

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BDL: That's an interesting point, as far as how these teams actually make their pitches. Do you remember the specifics of any of those details? The kind of things that caught your eye and made you say, "OK, this is serious"?

AH: Well, honestly, New York was not a hard sell. So it's not like if you go to another city - you put someone in a hotel on Park Avenue and say, "Look at this view," and that's not a hard sell, especially for someone like me. So I think there are going to be different levels of expectations. But for me, it wasn't so much that they played a video of all these stars saying they need you - [though] that was very, very big - but I think when I looked at the class of the people, the class of the organization and just how things were run ... just all the little details, I could tell that this was a first-class organization.

It just seemed from looking at the management team that they had their stuff together. It seemed like everything was tight. It was like the difference in going to a Four Seasons or a Ritz, then going to a different hotel. It seemed that everything was first-class. And honestly, what I found was, that remained - and one of the things that I like about Donnie is that we are definitely back to that again, I feel, not to go off on that - but that was a big thing to me. It meant a lot to me. I was already kind of excited, but when I saw that, it was like seeing a girl who's really pretty, but when you get to know her, she's actually really nice and funny, too. It kind of seals the deal, you know what I mean?

BDL (laughs): I do know what you mean, although you don't always hear that about New York. You hear a lot of, "She's pretty, and then she's mean."

AH: Well, we're talking about the city, and the organization, and the representation. And the people ... there's a difference. You're not going to have the nice and pretty people as fans in the stands every single night. You don't have that in Boston, Philly, a lot of places. You're not going to be with them every night. Those aren't going to be the people who are with you every day.

BDL: One of the dangers for a lot of teams looking to be big in free agency is that they haven't had a whole lot of success in their recent past, and obviously the Knicks fall into that category. Over the course of your nearly 15-year affiliation with the franchise, there's been a lot of change - in the front office, in the coaching staff, in personnel. When there isn't that stability in place or a recent track record of winning, how much does that impact a free agent's decision-making?

AH: I think that's what makes this year such an intriguing year, and more intriguing than our year [1996]. You have a level of class of free agents - I mean, I wasn't on that level that these guys are. But I think the difference is that when you look at what Boston did, when they had Paul Pierce(notes), added Ray [Allen] and [Kevin Garnett(notes)] was able to come over, you saw an immediate shift in identity. Doc [Rivers] was the same coach, but you automatically saw a shift in identity, leadership and just a winning culture.

And so, to me, the reason why it's so significant that we have the room to not only have one person come in and change things by himself, but you have the opportunity to have two - and, depending on what happens, maybe three - people do that, that's really what it comes down to. My dad was a coach, and I learned this at an early age: You have to have great players and great leaders to win and change a culture. It doesn't just come by one man saying, "You know what, now I'm running a team, and things are going to change." That helps, but ultimately, it's going to be those guys who have to change that. It's a combination. And I think for the level of free agents that we're talking about, they'll have an opportunity to do that and not just wait until the culture changes.

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