The hiring of Phil Jackson by the New York Knicks represents many things to many people: an act of contrition on the part of owner James Dolan, the next in a long line of lazy cures, an intentional distraction from disaster—any or all of the above, depending on your perspective.
At its most blindly optimistic, however, New York's long-suffering fanbase hopes only for a return to the glories of yore and the championship banners Jackson himself helped author.
But if Jackson is indeed determined to mend his old franchise’s fences and bridge the generational gaps, he’d be wise to cull from another, equally storied era in Knicks history: the 1990s.
One of that epoch's most memorable characters has already gone on the record to voice his approval with New York’s latest headline-grabbing gambit, per the New York Daily News’ Frank Isola.
The one and only Charles Oakley told me that he thinks Phil Jackson "would be great for New York."— Frank Isola (@FisolaNYDN) March 13, 2014
You’d be hard-pressed to posit any one player that better defined those brutishly beautiful Knicks than the Oak Man, the churlish, chiseled power forward known as much for his rebounding and mid-range jump shot as the heads he rolled and bodies he bruised.
Charles Oakley’s clout remains a special one, despite a distance of decades and Dolan’s reluctance to pay due homage.
But nor has he been alone in his estrangement: Patrick Ewing, too, has had to make do with the occasional sideline spotlight and token accolade.
If Jackson’s financial stipulations are anywhere near what’s being reported, and Dolan is actually willing to meet them lock, stock and barrel, how much resistance would the latter really offer to his golden calf’s demands for detente?
Having already parted with tens of millions of dollars and unprecedented front-office control, would Dolan really make a Waterloo of wounds he made fester?
Even if the positions themselves were largely ceremonial, the simple act of the gesture itself could help bring back fold-ward perhaps the fanbase’s most jaded subclass: The Gen Y-ers and Milllennials who grew up with the infectious bombast of Pat Riley’s Knicks.
What possible beef would anyone have with Charles Oakley heading a new community outreach program, or Anthony Mason spearheading a local youth basketball initiative, or Latrell Sprewell taking on spot broadcasting duties?
Even Chris Dudley, the overachieving, slightly oafish center who stood in for Ewing during many an injury-rattled playoff stretch, could be employed merely to lure Kevin Love, whom he mentored in high school.
Yes, Allan Houston made it all the way to assistant general manager, where he’ll likely remain after Jackson is brought aboard, while John Starks—the Rudy-esque rascal of those halcyon teams—now serves as the team’s “alumni advisor.”
Surely Jackson, ever the creative force, can find it in his authority to carve out a few new posts for some old reliables.
On Tuesday, Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck penned an eloquent primer on the shape a Jacksonian tenure might take:
The role Jackson covets is best described as ‘philosopher-in-chief.’ He wants to set the agenda, to establish a culture and a values system, to identify the type of players and coaches a team should pursue, the offensive and defensive philosophies it should adopt. That could even extend to shaping the team’s training regimen and its use of analytics—an area that fascinates Jackson, and one he would surely seek to bolster. (The Knicks lag far behind many teams in this area.)
What better way to “establish a culture” than by appealing to the better angels of your team’s past?
What better “values system” than the canon of tough—written in blood and bound by brawn—that defined perhaps the franchise’s most quintessentially New York squad?
Those Knicks never won a championship, but you wouldn’t know it by the reverential, almost religious terms and tones by which they’re discussed.
Tell a fan of the Orange and Blue they’ll never live to see another banner, and all they’d ask in return is for a team that embodies something about their city—sweet or sinister, as long as it’s sincere.
No one is naïve enough to believe Jackson’s presence, however he chooses to wield it, will bring about a basketball Valhalla overnight.
Note the gleam and glitz of Madison Square Garden’s $1 billion dollar renovations: They’ve covered the crumbling walls cracked by Oakley's yawps, the foul-smelling charm for good.
Scoring a cheap-seat ticket with the wad of cash in your pocket? Not unless you want to see the Nets.
The Knicks, like their 29-strong NBA brethren, are a business. Phil Jackson’s Godfather deal doesn’t change that. If anything, it only crystalizes that very phenomenon.
But by bringing New York back into its own historical fold, Jackson wouldn’t merely be running interference on his team’s blunders, as much as acknowledging that—for a team so often seen trending in the wrong direction—there were times when all felt right.