There are certain cities and certain sports whose relationship occupies a space somewhere between the fervent and the fanatical. Think football in Pittsburgh, hockey in Montreal, baseball in Boston.
But it’s basketball in New York that may boast the deepest roots of all. From playground legends to the players who made a mecca of Madison Square Garden, “the city game” has struck sparks through streets and boroughs for over a century, its rhythm and pace a perfect reflection of the Big Apple’s frantic grace.
So after the New York Knicks finally captured the hearts and minds of America’s grandest town, first in 1970 and once again three years later, the subsequent yearning for more hardwood heraldry about the hallowed rafters was predictably painful.
Which is why, despite the bevy of challenges the team now faces, the next Knicks title would bring about a city celebration that never sleeps.
Appropriate, then, that the titanic task should befall the shoulders of a man who got his first taste of basketball glory bedecked in blue and orange: Phil Jackson, he of the 13 rings, now entrusted with taking his beloved, long-wayward Bockers back to the promised land.
"We want to build a team," Jackson said during his introductory press conference on March 18. "'Team' doesn’t have an ‘I’ in it. We’ve used that expression a few times as coaches…The idea of developing a culture is an overwrought word in the NBA right now. But that’s the cachet that brought me here, I think."
It’s easy to read into Jackson’s remarks an overabundance of sentimentality—as if duplicating the days of Red Holzman, Willis Reed and Clyde Frazier were simply a matter of willing it so.
Then again, that team, with its pop of personality and team-first ethos, was always going to be Jackson’s philosophical anchor. When you’ve been around the block as much as the Zen Master—69 times this September—it’s only natural that nostalgia would inform whatever tasks lay at hand.
But nor has Jackson been one to shy away from challenges. And in building a contender around the phenomenal-flawed talents of Carmelo Anthony, he faces his most harrowingly high-wire one yet.
Even during his inaugural presser, it was hard to tell whether Jackson’s stated desire to keep Anthony as the franchise cornerstone was one borne out of sincerity or strategic diplomacy. Sure, he’d turned Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant into somewhat willing passers, with 11 pieces of finger flare to show for it.
Never, however, has Jackson had to work with a shoot-first force so set in his ways. At 30 years old, Anthony might well be willing to learn new tricks. It’s the trainer’s twofold-plus age difference that’s more at question.
Hiring longtime triangle disciple Derek Fisher as head coach may be a way for Jackson to enjoy the best of both worlds: The confidence that his legendary system will be implemented earnestly, and the distance to not let the inevitable growing pains sap his spirit.
Back in March, Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck detailed how Jackson intends to keep his a 30,000-foot managerial perspective:
The sharpest basketball minds find a way to channel their genius in whatever role they find. And Jackson is not seeking a traditional daily general manager job.
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.)
Having secured Anthony’s services for the next five seasons, Jackson’s task now becomes filling out a roster that strikes a delicate balance between triangle-inclined talent and the kind of big names capable of compelling the Knicks to ever-higher heights.
The free-agent classes of 2015 and 2016 are sure to be foremost on Jackson’s front-office radar. Marc Gasol, Rajon Rondo, LaMarcus Aldridge, Goran Dragic: These are just some of the names New York will mull as mercenary hands in the months ahead. Sprinkle in some savvy moves along the fringes, and New York has an outside chance of being ready to content sooner than later.
Only the wins will truly prove it, of course. But as happened with every even half-promising team of Knickerbocker past—far too few though they’ve been—you’ll truly know New York’s standings advance by the juice in the Garden stands.
More than any other of New York’s pro sports teams, the Knicks are the harbingers of the city’s summer rites. It’s a time of year when those who weather the heat and the steam and the madness always, it seems, have screams to spare. So while the Yankees and Mets might play the dog days, the Knicks are the only ones whose summer slate means, necessarily, a chance at a championship.
Forty-one years ago, the summer the Knicks last brought back a banner, the NBA was—if more in clout than in years—very much a league in its infancy. As such, for all that Holzman’s boys embodied the game’s most time-tested tenets, the resulting celebration was, by today’s standards, practically subdued.
Win it now, with the NBA a global game and New York’s basketball spirit so many stories stronger? You’d need the Coast Guard commissioned to the Canyon of Heroes to make sure the float didn’t drift to sea on a tide of ticker tape.