Few Know Phil Jackson as Knicks Prez Like His Longtime Assistants—Here's Why

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Few Know Phil Jackson as Knicks Prez Like His Longtime Assistants—Here's Why
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Within Phil Jackson's tight inner circle, three men have acquired, over a long period of time, the highest level of intelligence on arguably the NBA's greatest coach ever, now the New York Knicks' president. They make up his longtime "Big Three" of assistants: Tex Winter, Jim Cleamons and Frank Hamblen, who worked for him in Chicago and Los Angeles for 20, 20 and 16 years, respectively.

Now that Jackson is back in business after a two-year absence, could there be a reunion in New York, with either Cleamons or Hamblen becoming a future head coach? (Winter, 92, the architect of the triangle offense, has been suffering from dementia and remains home in Manhattan, Kan.)

While Cleamons and Hamblen told Bleacher Report they've had no conversations yet with Jackson about a return to the bench under his watch—and don't know of specific candidates—they were open to providing inside perspective on their former boss and previewing his impact in New York.

Could the triangle make a comeback? Would Carmelo Anthony be able to adjust to it? What is unique about Jackson's personality and practices as a successful leader that will translate well in New York? Find out more about the man who won 11 rings through 11 questions for Cleamons and Hamblen.

 

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1. What was your reaction when you heard Phil would be returning to where it all started for him?

Cleamons: I'm just happy that he's happy. There are people who cross your path in life who have been supportive of you, and you want them to find a space where they can have all the things they want—the choices they embrace, to continue working and the happiness that comes with that. You just wish him the best, man. You just wish him success and peace and happiness.

Hamblen: I thought it was great. He's a great basketball mind, and I think he'll do a terrific job. He didn't take that job to fail, I guarantee you that—and everything he's touched has turned to success. He loves challenges. He's very competitive. I know when him and Jeanie (Buss) play Scrabble, he's trying to beat her badly.

 

2. What was behind him taking the job in New York?

Cleamons: Any coach certainly wants to have the opportunity to have some input over the personnel that he's coaching. That's just inherent with the position that you have. I think that's all any coach and someone who has coached over 20 years, like Phil, wants—the opportunity to help build a team and have a say in who's coaching.

Hamblen: I talked to him three or four days before he was going to accept the job. He's really excited about it. It's just getting back in the game that he loves in a different capacity he's never been in, running an organization, building a team. He's also excited about being in New York, and he wants to build a championship team back where he was part of championship teams in New York. There's no bigger stage than that.

 

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

3. What do you think will be his biggest value as Knicks president?

Cleamons: His life experiences and who he is as a person I think are valuable commodities as to what he brings to the table. It's a people business. Those who are successful in this line of work have got to have the ability to communicate their wishes and desires and figure out a way where they want to compromise. I think that's the job that he has accepted.

That's what he's going to have to do in New York, and as long as you realize that there are wins and losses and there's compromise in between, you're going to be OK. He understands both sides of the role, and when you do, then you try to find common ground to come together. That's a win-win situation.

Hamblen: I just think the atmosphere that he creates in New York within the organization will really be good. People feel a real bond with him. He's very good at player evaluations, in my mind. We'd sit and talk about players a lot. He's very shrewd in evaluating players and how different players would fit a role on the team.

  

4. Do you expect that he'll advocate for the triangle offense in New York?

Cleamons: Will he hire someone to run it? I don't know. But I think that what he will do is try to find someone who has a system. If you go back and you study your basketball genealogy, the teams that have been successful in this league had a system in place. There aren't that many guys out there who know the triangle.

You can read Tex's book all you want, but there are very few people who understand the breakdown drills and how the system is built. See, that's the beauty of the triangle, and I don't know if you could almost run it. I think you either run it or you don't.

Hamblen: Well, they have a good coach now in Mike Woodson. I coached Woody, and he's really a good basketball man and, as far as I'm concerned, he's still the coach of the New York Knicks. But I just know that Phil is a systems guy, and I'd think that he would want somebody who has a system. The triangle offense was about spacing; everybody gets to touch the ball. Phil was great about that; he really believes in that.

I think you need to have a system for everyone to be a consistent player. You can't run it half-ass; you have to commit to it. You have your principles and you get to your spots, and the pass dictates basically what you're going to run.

I think that one of the things that's really important about system basketball is rebound/defensive balance patterns. You have your rebounders—your three bigs attacking the basket for putbacks or throwing the ball back out to reload—and then you have your guards getting back on defense.

 

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images
Jackson with Tex Winter

5. Why is the triangle, which produced 11 rings, an offensive system not being run anymore in the NBA?

Cleamons: You need time to develop it. This is an industry where you've got to win right now, and the players are getting younger yearly because most of them are one-and-done. To run any system, you've got to grow your personnel and your players have to have a certain skill set.

In the NBA, they just go bananas over athletic talent and think they can train it. They're not really worried about the learning process. And then the teams put the franchise tag on these young players a year out of college. The young players are going to worse teams; it's not like the good players go to the best teams. And the owners of the worst teams want a return on their investment immediately. It's a crazy business, man.

Hamblen: There are so many speedy point guards that everybody wants to run a one-man front now—the triangle is basically a two-guard spot—and they want the ball in one guy's hands, to let him make the decisions in high pick-and-rolls and spread people out. I see elements of the triangle on occasion. I saw Indiana set up in a triangle, and they ran what we called a "third-cutter situation."

Overall, you see a lot of two-man games on the weak side. There are a lot of teams that run a variation of the Princeton (offense)—kind of the high-post, elbow-action-type thing. But what's key is sharing the basketball, player movement and ball movement.

 

6. Thinking about how Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant adjusted to team-system basketball with Phil, can Carmelo Anthony do it?

Cleamons: Like Michael and Kobe, Carmelo can win, but he's got to realize he doesn't have to carry the whole ball of wax all 48 minutes. Michael and Kobe were willing to share. Is Carmelo a willing sharer? I don't know him that well. But can he play in the triangle? If his heart will allow him to.

Go back and look at successful teams. If you look at the Boston Celtics in the '80s when they had (Robert) Parish, (Larry) Bird and (Kevin) McHale, they had players who understood how to play together.

We all have plays, but you have to have players who fit into a certain identity. You've got the role players and you've got your stars who understand that they are the go-to guy at certain times, but they're all willing to share the basketball to continue to function. That's the beauty of the sport.

Hamblen: Absolutely. With Carmelo, for his career, he needs a person like Phil around. He needs to go to the next level. He needs to win a championship, and there couldn't be a better person for him to be around.

I thought this was the greatest selling job that Phil did: In his first job with the great Michael Jordan, he convinced him that he could share the basketball with his teammates and still lead the league in scoring. The great ones figure out what spots to get to and how they're going to score and pass.

 

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

7. What was the "Phil effect" that motivated you to stay by his side for so many years?

Cleamons: You're in this business to win, and Phil had a wonderful staff. Just the atmosphere—while you're in a work situation where the work is results-oriented, you're around a group of people who understand what it is that they're trying to do, and you appreciate each other's company and you work together.

The only competition is to see how well you can do it and get your message across. Also, Tex was like a mentor to all of us on the coaching staff—his wisdom, his knowledge, and he's just a genuine, down-to-earth, good guy, man.

Hamblen: Being with Phil and being with those championship teams, it was unbelievable. It made my career. I never even thought about being a head coach after I was with him because, for one, my window closed I think when I took over in Milwaukee for Del Harris (in 1991). We weren't a very good team.

But that's OK though. I was in the NBA for 42 years, and I was a part of seven teams that won championships. So I guess I was a better assistant coach. I would rather have been an assistant coach on championships teams than a head coach and not won anything.

 

8. As your longtime boss, what stood out about his leadership?

Cleamons: He doesn't micromanage. When you're looking for an opportunity, you know that you're going to have support in the position that you're hired for with P.J. And over our time together, he gives you an opportunity to do your job, and with that type of latitude, I think it's the most independent, most positive thing.

P.J. was my immediate superior and he had the right to say, "Nah, I don't think that's going to work," but at least you've got the freedom to make suggestions, put forth your ideas and prepare presentations. It's a wonderful environment to work. P.J. gave me artistic freedom to do my job, and that makes it worthwhile to go to work.

Hamblen: He creates such a great environment in which to work, bringing people together. He would probably say this, too: His biggest strength was Red Holzman when he played on the great New York Knicks teams. They shared the ball unbelievably. I think that's when it started for Phil, and the year that he was injured (in 1969-70), he spent a lot of time with Red Holzman talking basketball. I think that really got him going in that direction.

Phil was just unbelievable—with his spirituality, bringing guys together and creating an atmosphere in which it was really fun to work.

 

Seth Wenig

9. Take me inside some of his unique tactics that involved the mind, body and spirit.

Cleamons: He had patience in situations where a lot of people probably would be trailing away and losing their composure. He always has a calming and soothing effect. He also has the ability to understand his team and what's not happening and make good decisions on what should happen. A lot of people have knowledge, but they don't have the wisdom of when to apply that knowledge, and he always picks his spots to make his voice heard to the group.

Another thing is he gave the players books in areas that he thought could stimulate their thinking and their personal growth among the team. He knew that we spent more time as a group together than we do basically with our loved ones, and he wanted the team to be able to get along, tolerate and understand each other. We were actually a basketball family that worked together with different thoughts and different ideas and perspectives based on life.

Hamblen: He was cutting-edge at the time. He would do different things. He gave you different books—just things to get you thinking about something, and he made the players write a one-page book report on them. He gave me a book about a baseball player because he knew I loved baseball. One year when we came back to Los Angeles, we all did tai chi. And then one year when we came back to Chicago, we all did yoga. All the coaches and all the players had to do it.

He was about "what can I do now to build chemistry?" One time when we were with the Lakers playing Sacramento—a big playoff situation—we all went to a comedy club the night before the big game, which was really cool. All the players really enjoyed that. I remember other times everybody would get in the bus and we'd go to a movie. Sometimes he'd put on a movie, cut to game film and then go back to the movie. He always kept your mind focused and thinking.

 

10. What's one quality about him that you think still gets overlooked?

Cleamons: He brought in a sports psychologist. His name was George Mumford, and we had him in Chicago and Los Angeles. He knew P.J. because he meditates. We called our meditation period "mindfulness," and what that does is try to keep you centered. There's so much pressure on the modern ballplayer from outside forces and from within.

People want something from these guys almost 24 hours a day. The agent wants something; the family members want something; the wives, the girlfriends, the significant others want something. And we want something from them. So a lot of these players haven't learned to quiet their mind; they're dealing with the struggle of being who they are and who are they perceived to be. They have to carve out managing who they are in reality.

Hamblen: I think a lot of people perceived Phil as being aloof. I really think he's just kind of shy about being around people and being with big groups and all that. I think it's a misconception on a lot of people's part. But when you get to know him, he's really a funny, friendly guy. He has a great sense of humor and he's really loyal when you get into his inner circle.

 

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

11. Tell me a great story about Phil from your time with him off the court.

Cleamons: One thing stands out, and I think about it a lot when I go into New York. I forget what playoff series it was (against the Knicks), but we went over to the Statue of Liberty. We took the ferry over there; we walked around and that was our practice that day. When we got back on the ferry, we talked a little bit about what we needed to do to win the series, and lo and behold, that's what happened.

He has a certain intuitiveness as to when he gives you a day off—when to not worry about basketball. He lets you focus on some other things and then he goes back to basketball. He understands that basketball is not who we are; basketball is what we do for a living, and sometimes you have to be able to step away and regroup your mind, your energy and your thoughts as to what's really important. You step back, take a deep breath and then you can get refocused on the job at hand.

Hamblen: We both played college baseball, and the playoffs in college baseball would be during our playoff time, so we'd get together normally in his (hotel) suite and we'd watch the playoff games. This would get us away from basketball for a while. When both of us retired, we said that we would some day go to the College World Series. That's on our bucket list.

 

Jared Zwerling covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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