Phil Jackson, NBA's Lord of the Rings, Faces Ultimate Test: Saving the Knicks

Use your ← → (arrow) keys to browse more stories
Phil Jackson, NBA's Lord of the Rings, Faces Ultimate Test: Saving the Knicks
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

For 1,042 days, from 2011 to 2014, Phil Jackson was an unemployed basketball legend, living by the beach in Playa del Rey, California. With no players to coach, and no championships to chase, he channeled his energy into other interests.

"I would come home from work, and he'd be reading cookbooks," Jeanie Buss, the Los Angeles Lakers president, said of Jackson, her fiance. "He became fascinated with the chemical [reaction], like how food plays off each other and the different ways that you prepared food, whether it's in the oven or over a fire."

The so-called Lord of the Rings, owing to his 11 titles, had become the King of the Cuisinart.

"I think he even made beef jerky," Buss said.

Jackson studied, explored, experimented, investing fully in every dish, as if he were preparing for Game 1 of the NBA Finals.

"I'd take pictures of them," Buss said. "The presentation was as good as the food."

This was Phil Jackson in retirement: curious, creative, antsy.

To stay active, he worked out with a trainer. He indulged his competitive urges playing "Words With Friends." He watched the NBA, and hockey and tennis and soccer, too.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Occasionally, he would wake up in the middle of the night, grab a notepad and start jotting down X's and O's. Jackson had stepped away from basketball, for the longest period of his adult life, but basketball had not left his system.

These new passions, like cooking, helped pass the time. They did not fill the void. As it happens, Buss said, Jackson is a very good cook. But he never made the same dish twice.

"He has to be stimulated and trying new things and challenging himself," Buss said, and there were times she thought, "He's going to drive me crazy."


It is May 2015, and Jackson has been back in the NBA for just over a year, trying to solve the enigma that is the New York Knicks. We are chatting over lunch at an upscale Chicago hotel, where Jackson has been interviewing draft prospects at the annual NBA combine. I have come to ask him the question that has vexed me most since he accepted the job as Knicks president last year: Why?

Why do this? Why try to fix the Knicks, a quixotic mission that has broken countless souls before him? Why subject yourself to the acidic politics of Madison Square Garden, the backbiting of the New York media? Why risk your reputation, your sanity?

Yes, Jackson is reportedly earning $12 million a year. But he doesn't need the money, having made in excess of $100 million in coaching and endorsement deals. He doesn't need the spotlight. He's in the Hall of Fame. At age 69, he has nothing left to prove.

In California, Jackson had grandchildren to dote upon, a fiance to cook for and a home by the sea. Yet he left it all behind, to work for the NBA's most dysfunctional franchise and its most meddlesome owner, James Dolan.

The team Jackson inherited last year had no first-round pick, no salary-cap room and a flimsy roster heading toward a 37-45 finish. First Jackson tried reshuffling the pieces, to make a playoff push; when that failed, he tore down the roster entirelyall along taking arrows from a grumpy Gotham press corps.

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images
A member of the last Knicks title team, Phil Jackson took over the franchise in hopes of rekindling the bond between the city and the organization.

As these points are laid out, and the "whys" accumulate, Jackson's smile widens and his eyes wrinkle. He chuckles. With Jackson, who studied psychology, religion and philosophy in college, these things are never so simple.

"I don't want to say that I had a life that wasn't with purposeI thought I had a life that was purposeful," Jackson said, "But…"

But Jackson was searching for something else, a sensation he'd felt in Chicago, while presiding over the Bulls dynasty in the 1990s, and again in L.A., while guiding the Lakers to five titles.

"I saw a change in the society that follows winning teams," Jackson said. "Something happens to the community that enlivens a lot of the relations that people have with each other, simply because they have a common denominator which they can enjoy. And the inspiration that a team provides them is sometimes remarkable.

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

"I saw it happen in Chicago, and it happened in L.A.," he continued. "And New York has had such a doleful period of time, that's lasted for so long, that the challenge came out here, and it was"he pauses to find the right words"something that I thought was more than just purpose. It was more like there's a doctrine of belief that goes along with this."

Critics say Jackson is chasing the money. That's too cynical an explanation for a man of Jackson's complex personality, and it isn't particularly convincing. He is, after all, engaged to Buss, whose family owns a Lakers franchise worth in excess of $2 billion.

"It's not about the money," Buss said in a separate interview. "He probably could have found something more lucrative to do, that wouldn't have had to make him leave L.A."

Others contend Jackson is on a quest to revive the triangle offense, the equal-opportunity system he coached throughout his Hall of Fame career. The Knicks, under Jackson protege Derek Fisher, ran the triangle (or attempted to) this season, while going 17-65 with a rag-tag lineup.

There's no question the triangle, taught to Jackson by his mentor Tex Winter, matters a great deal to him. He speaks of its virtues with an almost religious fervor, making the system, and himself, easy targets for satire. Yet in our one-hour interview, Jackson said the word "triangle" only twiceboth times in reference to how critics view it.

Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

What Jackson did talk about at length was his belief in "a structure" or "a format" that involves all five players and emphasizes ball and player movement, whether it's the triangle or another system. He cited the Spurs and Warriors and Hawks as teams that exemplified the ideal.

But he disdains much of what he sees: an endless series of pick-and-roll plays, one setting up the next, until someone gets a layup or a three-pointer.

"The game actually has some beauty to it, and we've kind of taken some of that out of it to make it individualized," Jackson said. "It's a lot of who we are as a country, individualized stuff."

Indeed, Jackson seems much less concerned with validating the triangle than with the state of the game itself.

"When I watch some of these playoff games, and I look at what's being run out there, as what people call an offense, it's really quite remarkable to see how far our game has fallen from a team game," Jackson said. "Four guys stand around watching one guy dribble a basketball."

The lack of structure extends even to the basic tenets of the game, Jackson said.

"I watch LeBron James, for example," he said. "He might [travel] every other time he catches the basketball if he's off the ball. He catches the ball, moves both his feet. You see it happen all the time. There's no structure, there's no discipline, there's no 'How do we play this game' type of attitude. And it goes all the way through the game. To the point where now guys don't screenthey push guys off with their hands."

Tony Dejak/Associated Press
Jackson believes LeBron James doesn't play with the sense of fluidity he feels best serves the NBA.

He concluded: "It struck me: How can we get so far away from the real truth of what we're trying to do? And if you give people structure, just like a jazz musicianhe's gotta learn melody, and he's gotta learn the basic parts of musicand then he can learn how to improvise. And that's basically what team play is all about."

The agitation in Jackson's voice is evident. Yes, he is on something of a quest in this presumably final chapter of his NBA career, but it goes beyond the triangle, beyond restoring Knicks glory and beyond New York. It sounds as if Jackson is fighting for the soul of the game, or at least the game as he learned it as a Knicks forward in the 1960s and '70s, under the legendary Red Holzman.

Holzman's Knicks won championships in 1970 and 1973, the only two in franchise history. They exemplified the egalitarian ideal, all crisp passing and teamwork, with stars who sacrificed personal glory for the greater good. They remain the standard for generations of Knicks fans.

For Jackson, too. As he lays out his vision for a rebuilt Knicks team, he repeatedly invokes the Holzman era as the modelfar more than he references any of his Bulls or Lakers teams.

Jackson said his goal is to have "five interchangeable players" who can dribble, pass and shoot, and make plays for others, "so it's a real fluid thing."

"I think that's the most remarkable [thing], thinking about that [1970s] Knick team, is that Jerry Lucas could push the ball up the court, Dave DeBusschere could push the ball. [Bill] Bradley, [Dick] Barnett, [Earl] Monroe, [Walt] Frazier."

"I think that's a very important part of basketball that has to be emphasized," Jackson said, "is that we want everybody to be able to make plays for other people on your team, and that they can play interpositional or interchangeable positions on the floor. It just kind of breaks the mold, and it gives you kind of a liberty, a license."

NBA Photos/Getty Images
Jackson (No. 18) prized his time with the 1970s Knicks for their ability to play unselfishly and with interchangeable skills.

It seems it is the principles of a good offense that Jackson values most—and not the triangle offense per se ("That's right," he agreed)—which suggests that he may, in fact, be more open to change than had been assumed.

What Jackson wants is a recognizable, definable team character, much as the Spurs have cultivated, so that when people watch the game, they can say, "That's the way the New York Knicks play basketball."

Systems and cultures and philosophies ring hollow without talent, however, which brings us to Jackson's most pressing challenge. The Knicks had little talent when he arrived, and less now, thanks in part to his trades of Tyson Chandler, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert—solid players who were deemed to be poor long-term fits.

The Knicks got little in return, aside from payroll flexibility and a chance to hit the reset button this summer. Fans winced as Chandler revived his career in Dallas, while Smith and Shumpert helped get the Cavs to the Finals. But Jackson said he is pleased to see their success.

Jason Miller/Getty Images

"We sent J.R., who may not have been the best person for the kind of organization and structure that I'm talking about, to a place where he could survive and be well, do well," Jackson said. "And we're happy for him. Tyson went back to a place that he has some history with, and he could play well. And we're happy for him."

Chandler and Shumpert are free agents this summer, and Smith can opt out of his deal. Jackson had no intention of re-signing any of the three.

"This is a time for us to rebuild," he said. "And you want to have a reputation with people, that these people [the Knicks] are looking out after their players. They're not just using and dumping players."

The benefits of those deals will arrive soon. The Knicks have the fourth pick in the June 25 draft and about $26 million in cap room to spend in July, providing Jackson his first real chance to remake the roster to his specifications.

For all of the talk about the triangle, Jackson listed defense as his first priority.

"Defense is the biggest remarkable change that you can make in a basketball team, from one year to the next," he said. "This game has to be really started from the thought that"and here Jackson slaps the table for emphasis"we're going to be a defensive-minded team."

As ever, New York is expecting instant resultsa marquee name, or two, or three. Jackson vowed not to fall into the quick-fix trap that doomed so many of his predecessors, and he is taking the long view.

"We're not looking for the instant gratification of trying to put together some piecemeal thing that may just work accidentally for one year, because we have something special coming in that just raptures our season," Jackson said. "My charge is to build an organization that develops basketball players and survives beyond my [tenure]. That's what Dolan asked me to do. So it survives beyond the coaching and the administration."

To date, Dolan has generally steered clear of basketball matters, as he promised he would, Jackson said. And yet…

Last month, Dolan hired Isiah Thomas, the former Knicks president, to run the WNBA's Liberty, placing Thomasa consummate politicianback in the Garden offices, arousing suspicion that he would soon be undermining, or even supplanting, Jackson.

Seth Wenig/Associated Press

Jackson waved off such concerns with a disarming smile.

"I'm not concerned at all," he said. "I feel the slight anxiety that might have been created around it. I applaud Jim for his loyalty and whatever. But Isiah and I have a relationship, and I think he's perfectly willing to let me dohe respects who I am. I know that implicitly. We've had a number of conversations over the years, and I know where he's coming from."

Jackson is a veteran of countless internecine battles, and his unique stature affords him a certain sense of security. Still, the Thomas hiring is a poignant reminder that when you work for the Knicks, it's never just about basketball.


The truth is, as worldly and intellectually curious as he is, Jackson never could get basketball out of his system. His interests range from religion and philosophy to politics, literature, music and art. Late in his playing career, he began working on a PhD in psychology, always envisioning a life beyond the hardwood.

The 22-year-old Phil Jackson would be stunned to learn that the 69-year-old Phil Jackson is still in the game. "Very much so," Jackson said.

"It was a stopping point," Jackson said. "You were going to move through this basketball jones you had and move into the adult world eventually when you were done playing this boys' game."

Yet here he is, all these years later, still roaming the gym, a basketball lifer in the best sense of the term.

"My guess is he probably felt that he could find something different, because he does have a lot of different interests," said Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who played for Jackson in Chicago and remains close to him. "But I think this life is addictive. If you're competitiveand Phil is unbelievably competitive—then it's hard to walk away from the NBA when you have a chance to compete."

When Jackson left the Bulls in 1998, he talked about leaving the game for good. When he left the Lakers in 2004, it appeared that might be the end. His 2011 departure was even more definitive. Jackson had been battling a variety of health issues. He seemed worn.

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Yet he nearly took the Lakers' head coaching job for a third time, in 2012, before the front office instead hired Mike D'Antoni. When that opportunity passed, Jackson closed the door on coaching for good, in deference to his age and the rigors of travel.

But the opportunities kept coming.

In his three-year semi-retirement, Jackson flirted with the Brooklyn Nets, advised new Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores and consulted with the investment group that tried to buy the Sacramento Kings and move them to Seattle. Had that deal been consummated, Jackson would likely be in Washington right now, managing the reincarnated SuperSonics, instead of trying to resuscitate the moribund Knicks.

"He loves the game so much," Kobe Bryant told Bleacher Report. "He loves teaching the game. So that part of him is always there."

What do you do when the thing you do best is no longer an option? Strip away the fame, the wealth, the rings, the Zen, the mythology, and Phil Jackson is at his core a teacher, with strong convictions about his field of expertise. His body will no longer let him coach an 82-game season, but the impulse to instruct, to influence—to evangelize, even, about the way to play the gamehas never waned.

"What he sees is that he wants players put in the right positions to be successful," Buss said. "I know everybody's like, 'Oh, Phil just wants to resurrect the triangle and it's like ancient and old hat, and Phil's just a grumpy old man.' And that's not fair as to what Phil's about."

Buss added, "He really believes players have to know where they fit in. They have to be in the right place. That's where you find fulfillment, is when you're asked to be part of something, and the role that you're to play is the right one for you."

The losing has been torturous, a new experience for Jackson in his post-playing career. The inability to get on the court, to call a timeout, to instruct, to correct, has been an adjustment (though Jackson will send detailed notes to Fisher). Yet what animates Jackson now is the same impulse that has driven his Hall of Fame career.

Richard Drew/Associated Press

"It's about having a team," Buss said, "and doing things that build you as a team, which builds you as a person, which then makes community strong. Those are his strong, core beliefs."

"He still coaches me," Buss said. "He can't help himself. That's just who he is. A coach is a coach."

So Jackson will subject himself to the losing, the scrutiny and the snarling criticism, until he either gets this right or doesn't. He wouldn't be the first to fail under the Garden circus tent. Since 2008, Dolan has cycled through Thomas (fired), Donnie Walsh (driven away), Glen Grunwald (fired) and Steve Mills (demoted, now working under Jackson).

Jackson has four years left on his contract and speaks openly about this being a short-term exercise. He wants to put the franchise on solid footing, then turn it over to the next guyideally before a potential labor stoppage in 2017.

You can say that Jackson's basketball jones drove him to return. You can chalk it up to boredom, restlessness, ambition, money, even nostalgia. New York is, after all, where his career began all those years ago. Jackson harrumphs at any suggestion of sentimentality, but Buss knows better.

"It's in his heart," she said of the Knicks. "It means a lot to him to see the team do well."

The dresser drawers in Playa del Rey have been purged of everything purple and gold, Buss reports—all of the T-shirts, shorts and jackets packed away.

"Everything's Knicks now," she said. "Everything."

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is a co-host of NBA Sunday Tip, 9-11 a.m. ET on SiriusXM Bleacher Report Radio. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.

Follow Philadelphia 76ers from B/R on Facebook

Follow Philadelphia 76ers from B/R on Facebook and get the latest updates straight to your newsfeed!

Philadelphia 76ers

Subscribe Now

By signing up for our newsletter, you agree to our Terms and Privacy Policy.

Thanks for signing up.