Knicks GM Grunwald, former HS star Cross and what could've been

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Knicks GM Grunwald, former HS star Cross and what could've been

When Glen Grunwald was named vice-president and legal counsel of the Denver Nuggets, I called to congratulate him. We go back a long way, to the time he broke in as a freshman sensation for Norm Goodman's basketball team at East Leyden.

When he returned my call, he began: "I finally made it to the NBA."

Now he's back again. After serving as interim general manager for the New York Knicks since last July, he has promoted to executive vice-president and general manager on a permanent basis. No more interim. He has a hearty endorsement from Knicks owner James Dolan.

"Glen has done a terrific job this season," said Dolan, the chairman of Madison Square Garden. "He is an intelligent, seasoned executive and we look forward to him continuing in the role of general manager for many years to come."

Grunwald was just as upbeat when he returned my congratulatory call the other day. "It's a new job. We have a great fan base. Hopefully we can keep moving forward. I never knew where life would take me," he said.

After serving as general manager of the Toronto Raptors from 1994 to 2004, he became president and CEO of the Toronto Board of Trade, the largest business organization in Canada, before joining old friend and college teammate Isiah Thomas as senior vice-president of basketball operations of the New York Knicks in 2006. He was promoted to interim general manager in 2011.

Now he is preparing for the NBA playoffs and the upcoming NBA draft. He is excited about working with another college teammate, Mike Woodson, the Knicks' new head coach, and is proud of the development of former Oak Park star Iman Shumpert, who moved into the Knicks' starting lineup, then suffered a season-ending ACL tear last Saturday at the same time that the Bulls' Derrick Rose was sidelined with the same injury.

Shumpert was the Knicks' first-round draft choice last year, the No. 17 pick out of Georgia Tech. "He has played so well for us. Unlike most rookies, he knows how to play hard and compete. He has great physical gifts. He is athletic and has a great NBA body," Grunwald said.

Of all of the outstanding high school basketball players I observed as a student and fan and covered as a sportswriter for four daily newspapers over a period of 50 years, two who stand out are Grunwald and Russell Cross.

I'll always wonder how good they could have been, if they could have achieved the Hall of Fame stature of George Mikan or Harry Gallatin or Andy Phillip or Isiah Thomas or Dan Issel or Cazzie Russell or Jerry Sloan or Don Nelson or, upon his retirement, Kevin Garnett.

They never had a chance.

Grunwald, the only four-time All-State selection in Illinois history, was recruited out of East Leyden by Indiana coach Bob Knight. He chose Indiana over North Carolina and Kentucky. But he suffered a severe knee injury during the summer prior to his freshman year and never was able to fulfill his enormous potential.

"Sure, I'll always wonder how good I could have been," he once told me. "It was tough not to succeed in basketball after high school. But I was part of a good college program and happy to be part of its success, however small. When you are injured, you feel you can get better. But the gradual realization is that it won't be the same."

He was co-captain of Indiana's 1981 NCAA championship team that was led by Isiah Thomas. He was drafted by the Boston Celtics in the fifth round of the NBA draft but never played in the NBA. Instead, he focused on his education, earning a law degree, an MBA and an Honours business degree in marketing. He was a successful corporate attorney for major law firms, including Winston & Strawn in Chicago, before joining the Denver Nuggets.

Cross was the Bill Russell and Anthony Davis of his time, a 6-foot-10 center with great athleticism and the wingspan of a 747 jumbo jet. A two-time All-Stater, he had a feared reputation as a rebounder and shot-blocker and led Manley to the state championship in 1980.

Under the guidance of coach Gene Keady at Purdue, Cross was Big Ten Rookie of the Year and a two-time All-Big Ten selection. He led Purdue to the NIT finals as a freshman and sophomore. As a junior, his team lost to Arkansas in the third round of the NCAA tournament. Afterward, he declared for the NBA draft. He was selected by Golden State as the No. 6 pick in 1983.

But his professional career never took off. He was slowed by a knee injury that he suffered during his senior year at Manley, when a Simeon player charged off the bench and tackled him to prevent him from scoring. The injury was never completely repaired and his knee got progressively worse, despite surgery during his sophomore year at Purdue.

He was traded to Denver but was released. He played in the CBA, then went overseas and played in Italy and Spain for seven years. He retired in 1991 after doctors told him that he couldn't play another year on his damaged knee.

"From a physical standpoint, I never played well in the NBA. I never played up to expectations and my potential," Cross said. "My skill level wasn't quite the same. I wasn't able to run as fast or jump as well, things that were part of my game that helped me to dominate."

But Cross, a very religious man, has no regrets over his experience. "I am appreciative of what I got done in high school and college. There was some disappointment but no regrets for not playing in the NBA," he said.

"It was a blessing in disguise that I was able to play overseas and see other countries and learn new languages."

Bulls beat lifeless Pistons

Bulls beat lifeless Pistons

The Pistons looked to the worst possible matchup on the worst night of the season for the Bulls, as they were light at the center position and facing Andre Drummond, a man who has given the Bulls the business during their better days.

But the Pistons seemed to be the best opponent on the second night of a back-to-back, as they seemed dispirited and dead-legged, with the Bulls taking full advantage in their 117-95 win at the United Center Wednesday night.

The win ties the two rivals with 34-38 records, looking on the outside in at the Eastern Conference playoff race with 10 games left.

Both came into the game smarting from road losses the night before, with the Pistons falling to the lowly Brooklyn Nets at the buzzer in Brooklyn and the Bulls losing a 15-point fourth quarter lead to the Raptors, dropping the contest in overtime.

There would be no such suspense on this night, as the Pistons offered little resistance and seemed to be a bit lifeless for most of the evening, despite the prodding from coach Stan Van Gundy.

With Robin Lopez out with a suspension stemming from Tuesday's swing-and-miss exercise with Serge Ibaka and Cristiano Felicio being out with a lower back injury, Drummond was expected to dominate, already having three 20-20 games against the Bulls on his ledger.

He grabbed 17 rebounds but only scored eight points as the Pistons shot 44 percent from the field. The Pistons' only signs of life came from Stanley Johnson (12 points) and Jon Leuer (13 points), who came off the bench in the late first quarter and early second to bring the game to a two-point margin before the half at 55-53.

But the Bulls took the fight from the Pistons early in the second half and made their separation in the third quarter with a decisive 32-20 run, as Nikola Mirotic scored 12 of his season-high 28 points in the period, hitting 12 of 15 shots from the field.

Mirotic, if it carries over, could point to this game as the one that turned his season around at the right time. He was aggressive against Tobias Harris and hit four triples as the Bulls were nine of 20 from long range, proving they didn't have a hangover from their heartbreaker the night before.

Even without their lane cloggers, the Bulls lived in the paint, taking a 21-point lead due to scoring 48 points in the paint and moving the ball to the tune of 28 assists on their first 37 field goals.

Unlike the fourth quarter against the Raptors, the Bulls didn't have to worry about a late surge as the Pistons rested their regulars relatively early, waiving the white flag as the Bulls shot close to 60 percent.

Jimmy Butler was perfect from the field in 34 easy minutes, going six-for-six with 16 points, 12 assists and five rebounds. Rajon Rondo added nine assists of his own as he was the only starter who didn't reach double figures in scoring.

He didn't need to, as the game served as a confidence-builder for Mirotic, Bobby Portis and Joffrey Lauvergne, the man who started in Lopez's stead.

Although giving up plenty in size and skill to Drummond, he pulled him to the perimeter and even found gold inside to score 17 with seven rebounds in his best performance as a Bull since being involved in the trade involving Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott at the deadline.

If the Bulls play like this every night before April 12, they could find their way to the postseason, but if they played like this before tonight, a playoff spot would've already been assured.

David DeJesus Q&A: New CSN Cubs analyst on retirement, Anthony Rizzo and Joe Maddon

David DeJesus Q&A: New CSN Cubs analyst on retirement, Anthony Rizzo and Joe Maddon

MESA, Ariz. — David DeJesus felt a sense of calm on Wednesday when he hit send on his Twitter account, announcing his retirement as a professional baseball player and promoting his new gig as a Cubs analyst for CSN Chicago.

DeJesus will appear across multiple platforms, bringing the perspective of someone who got in on the ground floor of the Wrigleyville rebuild, mentored Anthony Rizzo during the 101- and 96-loss seasons and appreciated Joe Maddon's laissez-faire style with Tampa Bay.

After being a go-to guy for reporters on some intentionally bad teams in 2012 and 2013, DeJesus talked about how his TV deal came together, the jarring nature of this business and his overall impressions of the Cubs:

Q: All along, were you planning to pivot and move into the media?

A: "Three years ago, I would tell you there would be no chance. But in late December, Kap (CSN's David Kaplan) gave me a call. I was still getting ready for spring training. My hip injury was healing, so I was really focused on that. Todd (Hollandsworth) just left (for Fox Sports Florida). There's a spot open right now. (Kaplan) asked: 'Do you mind me throwing your name in the mix?'

"I really didn't think anything was going to come of it, because I wasn't really pursuing it at all. Like two days later, I (interviewed with CSN). It was a waiting game and next thing you know — boom! — all right, you're our guy.

"So now it came to the point where I had to make a decision: Am I going to keep following a baseball career where I'm coming off an injury at 37 years old? Or do I turn the page and start a new chapter in my life?"

Q: Was not playing last year specifically a physical issue or more about the mental grind?

A: "At the end of the 2015 season, I went to the Angels and I did terrible there. After the season, I went to the doc and I had a 50 percent torn labrum in my left hip and there was a cyst in there. So any time I tried to sit on my back leg ... I just couldn't do anything.

"(I figured): Let me give myself some time away from baseball, hang out with my son, be a dad for a little bit. But in the back of my mind, I'm going to still try for spring training this year.

"The reality was: All right, no one's calling. You're getting older. Injuries have crept into my career and you missed the whole season.

"And then this job popped. It was a godsend, because I was praying about what's next. Every baseball player has the what's-next moment. I'm fortunate enough that mine wasn't that long."

Q: Could you explain how weird or abrupt that feeling is after playing 13 years in the big leagues and being so structured?

A: "It's crazy, because you expect a team to call. You expect a team to just give you an invite. When your agent stops calling you, your phone stops ringing, it's a real humbling moment. I needed to have that time to really mentally and physically separate myself from the game.

"I needed to dig into: Who am I? I had to answer those questions. Am I just a baseball player? Or am I someone who can still stay in the game somehow?

"This job fell into my lap where I can still be a part of a team and still be in baseball, but on the other side of the camera."

Q: Where were you when the Cubs won the World Series?

A: "My wife doesn't watch too much baseball, but once that postseason comes along, that's when you start seeing some tweets about the Cubs.

"We moved out to California, and over there sports really get lost. You can go to the beach. There's just so much to do. We were just living life. But then the World Series came, and that's still a team that's in both of our hearts. That was my first big-market team — and what I feel is the classiest organization in MLB. We both have ties there. We still have our house there.

"Seeing them win it, I was like a (proud) older brother. I was there when teams were just stomping all over us, just beating us down badly. And to see them winning the World Series five years later, it's like: 'Yes!'"

Q: We used to see Rizzo following you around like a puppy dog during spring training: What did you try to teach him?

A: "I wanted him to have a routine. Get yourself something that you can rely on each and every day to get your body ready for the game, mentally and physically, because we knew he had the talent. He just needed to find his place.

"He struggled in San Diego and I think he needed confidence, that daily confidence to know: 'OK, I've prepared myself for the game and now I'm just going to go out there and play it. Let my skills shine.'"

Q: As one of the first guys signed by the Theo Epstein regime, what do you remember from that free-agent process and the recruiting pitch?

A: "(In Boston, they) were trying to (acquire) me a few years earlier, before I injured my thumb in 2010 with the Kansas City Royals. So they knew the type of player I was. They wanted to change the atmosphere inside the clubhouse, bringing in guys that are team-oriented and can play the game as well. I think that's what they saw in me — a veteran leader that can show guys the right way and be a truthful and honest person inside and outside the clubhouse."

Q: What made Maddon such a good fit for this Cubs team?

A: "The looseness. Joe gives the reins to the players. He lets the players patrol themselves. He doesn't get into all the little things, all the rules. He had two rules: Run the ball out and be sexy.

"Play sexy? As a player, how do you not like that? It's unbelievable that he gets away with that. When you're on other teams playing against Joe Maddon teams, you're always like: 'Dude, why are these guys enjoying themselves (so much)?'

"That's what you saw last year. These guys were having fun. The players made the clubhouse. That's the special thing about Joe. He (gives) the players the freedom to be who they are."

Q: Looking back on your time with Tampa Bay, what would your 'best' and 'worst' lists look like in terms of Maddon's stunts?

A: "I liked his Miami all-white dress-up (trip). You feel like you're in 'Miami Vice' walking off the plane. The other one I remember (was when) we were struggling with our bats, so he brought in this like Native American rain man, thinking the water sprinkled in our dugout would wake up our bats. But the only thing it did was it poured nonstop for three days outside the stadium. So it did bring rain, but it didn't do anything for our bats at all."

Q: Were you surprised at the backlash over how Maddon managed during the World Series?

A: "It comes with the territory, man. Being a manager, you have to make tough moves at times. Not everyone's going to be behind you. In any job, in any leadership role, there is going to be backlash. There is going to be people that love you. And there is going to be people that hate you.

"Joe handles it the right way: 'Hey, man, we won the championship.' That's the ultimate goal — to win the championship. In my opinion, there were some things there. Come on, (Aroldis) Chapman? I think we all saw it.

"But at the end of the day, they have the World Series trophy back in Chicago. Come on, we're looking too hard to find stuff sometimes."

Q: In this job, have you prepared yourself for the times where you might have to criticize people you've worked with before?

A: "That's the question that everyone's asked. It's a very good question, because that, in my opinion, is going to be the toughest part, when that first moment comes. But I've talked to Todd and other guys who've just started in (the business). It's part of the game. But I'm going to wrap it in love.

"I'm going to (say): 'You shouldn't have done this.' But let's try to make it a teaching moment for the fans. It's not about calling guys out as a human being, as a person. We're just calling out what we saw on the baseball field. That's it."