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Catching Up With Allan Houston

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They all want to talk about “The Shot,” or at least it seems that way to Allan Houston. He doesn’t go two days without hearing someone remind him of the most famous moment of his career. The one that altered careers, salvaged reputations and ultimately earned Houston the richest contract in New York Knicks history.

“I always get people coming up to me and saying, ‘Man, I’ll never forget that shot,’” Houston says. “They remember it like it was yesterday. It’s part of the history of the Knicks, and that’s the cool thing about it. I’m a part of Knicks history.”

“The Shot,” of course, came in the final seconds of Game 5 of the Knicks’ first-round series with the Miami Heat in the 1999 NBA Playoffs. It eliminated Pat Riley’s Heat and sparked the Knicks to an improbable run all the way to the NBA Finals.

It was a defining moment for Houston, whose scoring average almost always increased during the postseason. He had a knack for being a clutch performer, and although a debilitating knee injury eventually ended his career prematurely, his place in franchise history is secure.

And now, in the second phase of his basketball career, Houston is looking to forge a new place in franchise history by helping the Knicks build a championship team.

Houston is the Knicks’ assistant GM and is serving under team president Donnie Walsh, one of the NBA’s most respected executives. He’s also working alongside John Gabriel and Glen Grunwald, who once ran the Orlando Magic and Toronto Raptors, respectively.
Houston, who turns 40 in April, maintains a close relationship with the team’s eccentric owner, Madison Square Garden Chairman James Dolan, and is generally assumed to be in position to run the day-to-day operations of the Knicks within the next five years.

“It’s funny, the pastor in my church always used to say that he’s praying for me to win a championship,” Houston said. “Once I got into this I started thinking that it doesn’t mean I have to be playing to win a championship.

“My goal is for our owner and this franchise to be the best, period. If I can play any role in doing that, it can be part of my history as well.”

Houston has been around big-time basketball his entire life. His father, Wade, was a long-time assistant coach at Louisville under the legendary Denny Crum. Wade eventually was hired as the head coach of Tennessee. His first big recruit was his son. Houston averaged over 20 points in each of his four seasons in Knoxville and is the school’s all-time leading scorer. He will have his No. 20 jersey retired on March 6, when the Vols host Kentucky.

When Houston was 8, he rode the bus with the Louisville Cardinals from Kentucky to Indianapolis for the 1980 Final Four. He also learned about performing under pressure at a young age. One day at practice, Crum threatened his players with wind sprints if the young Houston couldn’t make at least seven of 10 free throws. He made eight.

He was around greatness from a young age. Or, to be more precise, “The Greatest.”
Houston’s mother was raised on Grand Avenue in Louisville’s West End section. Her neighbor was none other than Muhammad Ali. When Houston turned two, he didn’t have a clown or magician show up at his birthday party. Instead, his special guest was Ali.
“Not many kids can say Ali came to their house on their birthday,” Houston said. Years later, Ali would show up at the Garden to watch a Knicks game. When Houston approached the boxing great, he wasn’t sure if Ali would remember him — yet the first thing Ali said to Houston was, “How are your parents?”

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Houston became a two-time All-Star with the Knicks, and his performance in the 1999 NBA Playoffs cemented his reputation as a premier shooting guard. In the summer of 2001, the Knicks rewarded Houston with a six-year, $100 million contract, and the plan was for Houston and Latrell Sprewell to lead the franchise for the decade.

But that plan never got off the ground. Sprewell had a famous falling out with Dolan, while Houston’s career took a dramatic turn after he had microfracture knee surgery. Houston never fully recovered physically, and although he was in and out of the lineup for the next three years, he was ultimately forced to retire.

“And then you start thinking, what do I do now?” Houston said.

He found an answer off the court, establishing the Allan Houston Legacy Foundation, which according to Houston “tries to restore families. Society is lost because of the breakdowns in family.”

He takes fatherhood and family seriously. He and his wife, Tamara, have five daughters and one son ranging in ages from 11 to a newborn who arrived last October. Managing his own household has prepared him in some ways for his new vocation.

“This job is all about managing people, and each person is different,” Houston said. “It really is just like a family.”

Walsh hired Houston in November 2008 to serve as an apprentice and promoted him to his current position in December 2010. Houston helped the club in its recruitment of free agent Amar’e Stoudemire. He was also part of the team that traveled to Cleveland last July to meet with LeBron James. In his current role, Houston is responsible for scouting both college and professional players.

He attends most practices and clearly connects well with the current Knicks, who are well aware of his playing career. But Houston also understands that in his role in management, he will have to make tough decisions that will impact those same players.

As someone who prided himself on having a strong work ethic and being prepared as a player, Houston brings those same traits to the front office. It’s the only way he knows how to work.

“Being a player and being in this job are both challenging,” he said. “I just haven’t experienced the full challenge of this just yet, but I will.

“As a player, it is physically demanding, but it’s even more of a mental struggle because you have to play at a high level every night. Being an executive is about stability and patience. It’s about being able to manage. And from what I see from Donnie, it’s about building something and trusting in what you’re doing.”

It’s also about making the right decisions at a moment’s notice. That’s what Houston did back in 1999 with the Knicks’ season on the line. “The Shot” is part of Houston’s history, but he wants more. One day, he wants fans to approach him to talk about where they were when the Knicks won their first title since 1973.

“That’s what we’re trying to do,” he said. “It will be great when it happens.”