Phil Jackson May Hold Knicks' Strings, but Derek Fisher Not His Puppet Coach

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Phil Jackson May Hold Knicks' Strings, but Derek Fisher Not His Puppet Coach
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GREENBURGH, N.Y. — The greatest coach in NBA history took another stroll on the practice court recently, to supervise a workout of college prospects and, in part, to scratch a minor itch.

"I've kind of gotten through a little coaching jag that I've had," Phil Jackson, grinning widely, said Tuesday. "And I realize that it's not my role to be on the court."

Any illusions that Jackson, at age 68, would coach again should be shattered by now, with Jackson firmly entrenched as president of the New York Knicks, and with his hand-selected protégé, Derek Fisher, now installed as head coach.

There was never much of a chance that Jackson would pick himself for the job, although physically he is feeling better than he has in many years. You can also dismiss the theory—floated often, and without much basisthat Jackson will be the Knicks' shadow coach, a puppeteer working through Fisher.

"This is where a young man steps in and has the energy to lead the team forward," Jackson said at Fisher's introductory press conference. "But I'm very willing to share what I have."

The precise details of the Jackson-Fisher apprenticeship have yet to be worked out, but there is so much history and trust between themnine seasons together, and five championships with the Los Angeles Lakersthat it's hard to imagine Jackson would do anything to overshadow his charge.

As a longtime Jackson associate put it, Jackson "will be involved" as a mentor and sounding board, but "not in any way that would subvert the coach."

Jackson might confer with Fisher before and after practice, but he will not likely be seen on the practice court himself. To do so would undermine his prized pupil, the first head coach he's ever hired. And it was abundantly clear Tuesday how eager Jackson is to see Fisher succeed.

This was not the typical introductory press conference. It was more like a coming-of-age ceremony, in which Fisher entered NBA adulthood (coaching) and Jackson played the role of the proud father, beaming from the edge of the stage while Fisher spoke.

 

Seth Wenig/Associated Press/Associated Press
Derek Fisher showed an ease in his introductory news conference with the Knicks that belied his inexperience as a coach.

The mutual admiration between the two men was palpable, with Jackson praising Fisher for his "encyclopedic knowledge of the game," his "ability to speak the truth" during challenging times and his strength of spirit.

To illustrate that last point, Jackson referenced the 2000-01 season, when Fisher missed 62 games while recovering from career-threatening foot surgery. Fisher returned in mid-March, scored 26 points in his first game back and proceeded to hit three-pointers at a scorching rate (39.7 percent) in the final weeks, helping offset an injury to Ron Harper. The Lakers closed the season on an eight-game winning streak, then romped through the playoffs, going 15-1 to clinch their second straight championship, with Fisher hitting one clutch shot after another in the Finals against Philadelphia.

"That impressed me about him," Jackson said.

In his latest book, "Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success," released last year, Jackson called Fisher "a natural leader, with exceptional emotional intelligence and finely tuned management skills."

What should have become clear Tuesday, as Jackson rhapsodized about Fisher, and Fisher rhapsodized about the opportunity before him, is that there is a serious investment being made here, way beyond the generous contract Fisher just received.

(A quick note on that contract: It is not quite as generous as has been widely reported. Although it could be worth $25 million over five years, the deal includes a number of team options, as well as potential bonuses, according to a league source. Fisher's first-year salary is closer to $4 million.)

More than money, Jackson is investing his trust and his reputation in this arrangement, in the belief that Fisher can not only develop into a great coach in his own right, but can carry on the Jackson legacy.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images
Phil Jackson now has three protégés on NBA benches teaching the triangle offense he learned from longtime assistant Tex Winter.

For all of his success in Los Angeles and Chicago, few of his assistants have built great careers of their own. The triangle offense, which Jackson learned from his mentor, Tex Winter, has never been widely adopted (although many teams use aspects of it).

Fisher is Jackson's best hope for a lasting legacy, and Jackson will certainly do everything he can to ensure his success.

Anyone watching Fisher's press conference could see the potential here. Fisher speaks in stanzas, not sound bites, with the earnest delivery of a pastor and the rhetorical flourishes of a politician on the campaign trail. There's a reason Kobe Bryant used to refer to Fisher as "Obama."

Indeed, at times Fisher sounded like he was running for mayor, invoking the hopes and dreams of New York's immigrant population and referring to the city as one big family. When it was time for questions from the media, Fisher referred to the reporter by name ("Honestly, Otis…")

Fisher called New York "an amazing, amazing city, an amazing community," and he pledged to build a team worthy of that city.

"This is not a ceremony," Fisher said. "This is not for PR. This is not for Phil and me to just hang out again as friends. This is to go to work, get our job done, and we want to add more banners to [the rafters] here."

When Fisher was done talking, commentator Al Trautwig, serving as master of ceremonies, turned to Fisher and said simply, "That was awesome, man."

As it happens, Jackson protégés are experiencing a bit of a renaissance. Brian Shaw got his first head-coaching job in Denver last summer. Steve Kerr, who had been offered the Knicks job, was hired last month by Golden State. With Fisher taking charge of the Knicks, that means 10 percent of the NBA's head coaches have ties to Jackson.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images
Derek Fisher's tenacity while playing for the Lakers gave Phil Jackson a deep appreciation for Fisher's dedication to the game of basketball.

 

Another Jackson loyalist, Kurt Rambis, could join the Knicks as Fisher's lead assistant. However, Rambis also remains a favorite for the Lakers' head-coaching position, according to league sources. The Lakers have interviewed at least a half-dozen coaches, but sources say they are focused on three primary candidates: Rambis, Alvin Gentry and Byron Scott.

Rambis is close to Jackson and has a strong relationship with Fisher, making him an ideal assistant in New York, if he's available.

This is all new territory for everyone involved, for Jackson as a first-time executive and Fisher as a first-time coach. They will need all of the trusted voices they can find, whether it's Rambis, Rick Fox, Luke Walton or Bill Cartwright.

Then there are the professional logistics to consider. When will Jackson assert himself? How often? How visible should he be? How much space does Fisher need? How much daily advice will be offered?

"We'll figure that out as we go along," Jackson said. "I see [my] role simply as a guy who's willing and ready to offer support."

There is no blueprint to follow, just a lot of shared history and respect. The details will come later.

 

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

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