New Phil Jackson Era Already a Stunner for Jaded, Weary Knicks Fans

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New Phil Jackson Era Already a Stunner for Jaded, Weary Knicks Fans
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NEW YORK — If a New York Knicks fan had passed out in Madison Square Garden's shimmering Seventh Avenue entry two weeks ago, then awoken in a stupor Tuesday morning, he would have had trouble separating delusion from reality.

Indeed, he might have wondered if he were still dreaming. Or hallucinating.

There was Phil Jackson—the NBA's Lord of the Rings, a native Knicks son steeped in the teachings of Red Holzman—trading quips and chuckles with James L. Dolan, the graceless Garden chairman.

In the audience was Irving Azoff, the entertainment mogul. Nearby, Glenn Frey of the Eagles. Across the room, Spike Lee, director and superfan.

The fantasy would grow stranger still.

Richard Drew/Associated Press

The notoriously meddlesome Dolan would say he was ceding authority—"willingly and gratefully"—to Jackson on all basketball matters.

Jackson would affirm he'd been given absolute assurance on this point, "because Jim knew that I wasn't going to come if this didn't happen."

But this did happen, all of it. The press conference to announce Jackson's appointment as team president. The verbal guarantees by Dolan to loosen his grip. The apparent dawning of a new Knicks era, in which basketball experts make basketball decisions, and the greatest coach in NBA history is calling the shots.

"Phil will be in charge of all basketball decisions," Dolan said, emphasizing the "all" for clarity.

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He called it a historic day—a nod to Jackson's deep Knick roots—but nothing was more historic than Dolan's apparent decision to relinquish control, after years of suffocating autocracy.

If Jackson has truly been granted full authority, and assuming Dolan does not renege on his pledge, then the Knicks might finally break their depressing cycle of futility and dysfunction.

Many sharp basketball minds have passed through the Garden corridors over the last 15 years, from Jeff Van Gundy to Larry Brown, Donnie Walsh to Glen Grunwald, along with sharp business executives like Scott O'Neil. Dolan made the place inhospitable to all.

The Knicks are undermined by a warped Garden culture that caters to superstars and cronies, that rewards yes men and punishes dissent. Before Jackson can repair the roster, he will have to fix the Knicks' ethos.

And while there are legitimate questions about how Jackson will fare as a rookie executive, there is no doubting his ability to foster a sense of community, of shared values and goals, or his ability to create harmony amid chaos. (And the Garden knows chaos.)

It was no coincidence that Jackson spent more time talking about the Holzman-era Knicks of the 1960s and '70s—the teams Jackson played for—than he did assessing the bumbling squad of the present.

"This is a franchise that developed a team back in the '60s that was consistently playing team basketball for seven, eight years," Jackson said. "The idea of developing a culture is an overwrought word in the NBA right now, but that's the cachet I think that brought me here."

Those old Knicks teams embodied all that Jackson holds dear, the principles he still espouses today, about selflessness and teamwork, about ball and player movement, about hitting the open man, about serving a greater cause.

"These are things that are important to me," he said.

JEFF ROBERSON/Associated Press

These are the values that propelled the Knicks to championships in 1970 and 1973, the values that shaped Jackson's coaching career, that framed his 11 championships, that carried him to the Hall of Fame. These are the values he imparted to Michael and Scottie, to Kobe and Shaq, and now will attempt to impart to Carmelo Anthony, assuming Anthony re-signs this summer.

Jackson is fond of quoting the poet Rudyard Kipling, who wrote, "The strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack"—an apt metaphor for any sound organization.

As a coach, Jackson was unconventional, passing out books, burning incense, leading his players in meditation, promoting breathing exercises, mixing Native American lore and Eastern philosophy with Xs and Os. As an executive, he will need to be even more creative, and more cunning.

Jackson will need to extricate the Knicks from the influence of Creative Artists Agency, which represents Anthony and several team executives. He will have to break the quick-fix impulses that have ruled the franchise for years, costing the Knicks draft picks and sustainability. He will have to battle with Garden officials who still cling to Kremlin-esque policies that dictate who may speak, and when.

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No one tells Jackson, an iconoclast to his core, how to conduct himself, whom he can speak with or what to say. Jackson pledged candor and accountability, noting, "I hate prevarication." The Garden has turned prevarication into an art form.

Eventually, Jackson will have to hire a new coach, one who believes, as he does, in "system basketball," not the isolation-heavy, star-centric schemes that Mike Woodson has long favored.

The roster cannot be fixed until July of 2015, when the Knicks will finally have salary-cap room, enough to sign at least one marquee star and possibly two. Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rajon Rondo and Marc Gasol will be on the market. In 2016, Kevin Durant could be available.

When the moment arrives, the Knicks will have Jackson, armed with all of those sparkly rings and incense, as their chief recruiter, backed by the largesse of Dolan.

This quirky marriage became possible because of the involvement of Azoff, a Hollywood fixture who is close to both Jackson and Dolan, and who effectively brokered the deal. They all met at Azoff's home in December, and the discussions proceeded from there.

It was in January that Jackson laid out his terms: full autonomy, no conditions. "Otherwise," Jackson said Tuesday, "I wouldn't be here."

It remains to be seen whether Dolan can stick to his word, having previously reneged on promises of autonomy to Walsh. But it seemed promising when he flatly acknowledged, "I am by no means an expert in basketball," even as he attempted to rationalize his past interference by saying it was necessary at the time.

"It wasn't necessarily something that I wanted to do," he said.

Mark Lennihan/Associated Press

The Knicks made the day a celebration of both past and present. Images of Jackson from his playing days, dressed in his No. 18 Knicks jersey, were everywhere. Posters proclaimed "NY Made" and "Welcome home, Phil." T-shirts with "Jackson" and "18" on the back were already for sale in the adjacent team store.

Asked how he felt about being marketed so brazenly, Jackson deftly pivoted back to themes of teamwork and community and the relationship with fans.

The Knicks are well-versed in these warm-and-fuzzy welcome-home celebrations, having staged similar affairs for Brown (Brooklyn) and for Walsh (Manhattan), for Stephon Marbury (Brooklyn) and for Anthony (Brooklyn). They do it well. The poetry is the easy part.

Sometime in the last few months, Jackson shared with Dolan his "seven principles of a sound offense," which covers concepts like spacing, and ball and player movement. In the spirit of another Jackson tradition, perhaps he will also given Dolan a book. May we suggest, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, with a highlighter swipe over Habit No. 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood.

 

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck. 

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