Craig Robinson: “Steve and I met on my recruiting trip to Princeton […] We met on that recruiting trip and struck up a friendship. I end up going to Princeton, so we are basically with each other every day for his last two years, his junior-senior year, my freshman-sophomore year. On the road, off the road. Socializing.
Once Steve graduated, his dad, Ollie Mills offered me a job as my first coaching job to coach at Percy Jackson Youth Center, which he ran. I came up for the summer before my senior year, was able to run the basketball part of the Percy Jackson Youth Center. I not only worked there, but I stayed with Steve at his house. Our relationship goes back doggone near 40 years now.”
Mills said Dolan simply told him to hire who was best for the organization.
“He told me from the beginning that he was going to give me the room, just like he gave Phil the room to build the basketball team,” Mills said. “He was not involved with our day-to-day stuff. Obviously, it’s a big decision we have to make. We’re going to tell him this is what we think we’re doing. This is the financial implications.
“This is how it fits against what we laid out as our plan. He didn’t tell me who to hire. He said hire somebody you feel good about and is going to buy into what you think we need to do as an organization.”
Mills and Perry are not only the lone African-American president of basketball operations and general manager combination in the NBA, they also lead a front office with several African-Americans in prominent positions.
“To be honest with you, it didn’t hit me until I read a story that we are the only two blacks,” said Mills, the team president. “I’m serious. It didn’t even hit me. That wasn’t what this was about. This was about me finding someone I wanted to work with that I thought approached things the same way, not that you have to be lock-step with everything, because you should bring different experiences to the table.”
“We wanted to build a good organization,” Mills said. “This is just how it mapped out as we went out and hired people. At the end of the day, if you end up with a diverse organization, that’s what should happen. It should happen naturally. At least, I feel better about it when it happens naturally.”
Assistant GM Gerald Madkins: “We just hired qualified people, honestly. The fact that we are African-American, that I have 17 years of experience, Craig Robinson is who he is and has worked with Harold before. Steve has a history in this organization. He knows guys that can work well with him and get the job done that he needs to get done to help this team get to where we all hope it ends up getting. As significant as it is that we are black, it’s more significant that we are all qualified.”
According to sources, Ntilikina’s skill as a pure point guard is something Mills and Perry have debated. Mills was part of the Phil Jackson braintrust that drafted Ntilikina eighth — ostensibly as a perfect Euro fit for the triangle offense that has been disbanded.
According to a source, Mills was adamant Ntilkina being untouchable at Feb. 8’s trade deadline. But Perry, concerned about Ntilikina’s penetrating prowess, pushed to add Mudiay.
Say what you will about Knicks owner James Dolan, but he has not shied away from giving African-Americans the keys to his basketball kingdom. Eleven years ago, three African-Americans — Mills, Isiah Thomas and Anucha Browne Sanders — occupied Madison Square Garden’s executive suite. That arrangement ended in disaster. Browne Sanders was fired, then sued Thomas and the Garden for sexual harassment.
Today, Fizdale works with a leadership team in which Mills, the executive president of the Knicks; Perry, the Knicks’ general manager; and Craig Robinson, the vice president of player development and G League operations, are African-American. The subject wasn’t raised Tuesday, but they all know everyone is watching.
Unlike the situation with Phil Jackson, Steve Mills is working in concert with his general manager.
Mills/Perry have become basketball’s Frick and Frack.
“We work very closely together,’’ Mills said. “We work in tandem and I give Scott the flexibility of [doing] what he thinks is right.’’
The Knicks have conducted an international search and it’s been a blessed opportunity for Mills, who wasn’t allowed to embark on an earnest mission of intelligence under Jackson.
Phil Jackson had his eyes set on two coaches: Steve Kerr and Luke Walton, and then settled quickly on his back-ups. Otherwise, he wanted to hire his friend, Kurt Rambis. Current candidate, David Blatt, was the lone Steve Mills’ suggestion that made it to the interview stage.
In those two Zen Master coaching searches, Mills was restricted. After Jackson’s top choice Steve Kerr reneged, Jackson spoke only to Derek Fisher and made the hire.
On his next try, Jackson reached out to an uninterested Luke Walton. After his vision of Kurt Rambis was soundly rebuffed, Jackson interviewed Blatt. The former Cavaliers coach with a stunning European résumé was Mills’ pick.
Jackson also spoke to Frank Vogel, then Jeff Hornacek, whom he had never formally met. After a six-hour interview, Hornacek was the chosen one to run a partial triangle offense despite no triangle experience.