'A Strange Bird': Only One Knicks Exec Can Talk Sense into Phil Jackson

Yaron Weitzman@YaronWeitzmanFeatured ColumnistJune 22, 2017

CHICAGO, IL - MAY 12:  Phil Jackson of the New York Knicks looks on during the NBA Draft Combine Day 2 at the Quest Multisport Center on May 12, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images)
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It's Day 1 of the 2017 NBA Draft Combine and over 100 scouts, executives and coaches are packed into Chicago's Quest Multisport Complex to examine the dozens of prospects running up and down the court. Not New York Knicks team president Phil Jackson, though. He's back in the hotel. He's sent general manager Steve Mills, assistant general manager Allan Houston, head coach Jeff Hornacek and, most importantly, Clarence Gaines Jr., the teams vice president of player personnel, in his stead. 

Gaines, 59, looks more like an accountant than NBA scout. He has a long face and his graying hair is receding. He's also wearing large-rimmed glasses and a brown polo shirt. He bounds past the New York reporters waiting for him at the gym's entrance and makes his way straight to the bleachers' top row, where he spots a solitary space and takes a seat.

"There's always an open spot next to Clarence," jokes a colleague.

Twenty-four hours later, on Day 2 of the combine, Gaines is back. This time he's accompanying Jackson, who on this day has decided to check out the prospects with his own eyes. The Knicks will select No. 8 overall in the upcoming NBA draft (which takes place Thursday night), and twice in the second round.

Later on in the day, Jackson addresses the media.

"It's always interesting to meet these young men and have an opportunity to get to know them," he says of his draft combine experience. "They have pretty much a set story they've been taught. But we hope to knock them off base a little bit and see what their personalities are."

Jackson is asked if he was successful.

"Usually we're pretty good," he replies. He then reveals why he's so confident in his team's ability to navigate the entire pre-draft process. "I have a master interviewer in Clarence Gaines." He pauses and turns toward the bleachers, where he easily locates his right-hand man seated among a sea of men in sweats and tucked-in shirts. Gaines has decided to trade in the polo shirt for a brown, yellow and blue patterned African tunic.

Jackson can't help but smile before finishing his thought.

"He even has his dashiki on."


Clarence Gaines, via Facebook.

Thirty-eight months ago, Phil Jackson sat on a stool inside Madison Square Garden between MSG chairman James Dolan and Mills and spoke about his goals and visions for the Knicks. The team had just announced that it was tabbing Jackson as president, and the Hall of Fame coach was explaining how he planned on transforming the franchise into something it hadn't been since he wore the team's uniform as a player 41 years earlier: champions

Things haven't exactly gone as planned. On the court, the Knicks have failed to make the playoffs since Jackson took control. Off the court, they've become more of a circus than Big Apple ever was (to be fair: much of that was the case before Jackson arrived). Even more curious: Jackson, who vowed to rebuild the Knicks from the foundation up, has barely touched the organization's management structure, making just one change to the front office in his three-plus years at the helm.

The one change? Hiring Gaines.

In the years since joining the Knicks, Gaines has morphed into Jackson's most powerful lieutenant, and perhaps the lone Knicks staffer to have Jackson's ear. Jackson credit Gaines for N.Y.'s drafting of its unicorn prodigy two years ago—still the most successful move Jackson has made during his time in New York—and it's been under Gaines' direction that the team has continued turning its gaze overseas in an effort to unearth hidden gems. Jackson has also sat back during the majority of the team's pre-draft interviews while instructing Gaines to run the show.

"Clarence (led the interview) most of the time," Malik Monk, the Kentucky guard projected to go in the top 10, says to reporters while smiling during a predraft media session. "He's hilarious. Whatever comes to his mind he's going to ask you, no matter what kind of question it is. That's why I like him."

Which is to say: Gaines' handprints will be all over whatever decisions the Knicks make during Thursday night's draft. Whether Jackson drafts French prospect Frank Ntilikina, who Gaines recently scouted in person, or trades Kristaps Porzingis, a move that seems increasingly likely following the zany interview Jackson gave Wednesday night, the move will be made with Gaines' blessing.

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 25:  Kristaps Porzingis #6 of the New York Knicks drives to the basket at open practice on October 20, 2015 at Columbia University in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or us
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

"He's one of those guys a lot of people don't know about, but he's really influential within his organizations," Craig Hodges, who played four seasons with the Chicago Bulls when Gaines was there and then spent two seasons as a coach for the Knicks' Development League team, says.

The question, of course, is how did a former low-level college football player (Gaines was a second-team Academic All-American at William & Mary in 1979) rise to such a level of prominence within one of the NBA's marquee franchises, and come to hold so much sway over Jackson, one of the NBA's more isolated and unyielding executives?


Jackson and Gaines' relationship dates back to the late '80s, when both were working for the Bulls. Jackson was hired as an assistant coach in 1987 and became head coach in 1989. Then-Bulls general manager Jerry Krause (who died in March at the age of 77) brought in Gaines around the same time. Through the scouting world, Krause had built a strong relationship with Gaines' father, Clarence "Big House" Gaines Sr., the Winston-Salem State University Hall of Fame head basketball coach.

"Jerry gave Little House his first big break," says longtime NBA executive Pat Williams, now a senior vice president for the Orlando Magic. "He really took a liking to him." Gaines Jr. (who declined through the Knicks to comment for this story) spent 11 seasons with the Bulls, eventually overseeing the team's high school, international and college scouting and becoming one of the most significant voices for the six-time champs.

Part of that was a result of Gaines forging close relationships with both Jackson and Krause, who famously spent their years together feuding over who deserved more acclaim for the team's rise to prominence. Krause hired Gaines, but in Jackson, Gaines found a colleague whose sensibilities he shared, from a devotion to Tex Winter's triangle offense to a strong interest in the political and social worlds outside of basketball (Jackson retweeted a message from Gaines' active Twitter account to defend himself after LeBron James was angered by Jackson's use of the word "posse" to describe his friends).

Still, Gaines decided to stick around even after Jackson's divorce from Krause and the Bulls following the 1997-98 season, and he endeared himself to the coaching staff of Jackson's replacement, Tim Floyd. Like the seven other scouts, executives and colleagues interviewed over the phone for this story, Floyd says he was impressed with Gaines' inquisitive nature, basketball knowledge and sharp mind.

"He's a real professional, a consummate scout, not a guy who got into scouting because he lost his job as a coach or some other area," Floyd, now the head men's basketball coach for the University of Texas-El Paso, says. "He's chosen this profession, and he's as talented as anyone I've ever been around."

"One of the things that kept coming up after we came in was how strong the team's scouting arm was and how responsible it was for the team's success," adds Jim Wooldridge, a Bulls assistant coach from 1998-2000. "When you started taking a snapshot of the decisions the team had made in the years before us, it became clear that he, Krause and that whole department were incredibly instrumental in the team's success.

"Clarence was a big part of that. Dealing with Clarence—you were dealing with someone who's very single-minded in doing what's best for the organization with no aspirations of being front or center."

(Of course, this is a good time to mention that the presence of Michael Jordan, drafted prior to Gaines' arrival, certainly helped.)

Clarence Gaines (top right) during the 1990-91 season.
Clarence Gaines (top right) during the 1990-91 season.NBA Photos/Getty Images

But in 2001, Gaines elected to step away from his job with the Bulls and move out to Southern California, where he and his wife, a deputy district attorney for Los Angeles County, raised their two children. He began blogging—he titled his website "A Scout's Perspective"—and put the master's degree in business he'd earned from the University of North Carolina to use by trading stocks. He also stayed in touch with Jackson, who in 1999 was hired to be the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. Jackson often invited Gaines to attend Lakers practices.

Why Gaines never took an official position with Jackson's L.A. teams is unclear. Mitch Kupchak, the Lakers' general manager at the time, says he can't recall whether Jackson (who through the Knicks declined to comment on this story and instead provided Bleacher Report with a statement he had previously issued to the New York Post) ever requested the organization hire Gaines, or whether there was ever an opening for him to fill. Instead, the two had to wait 15 years, and for Jackson to take a different job 3,000 miles away, to professionally reunite.


Jackson's early goals in New York were simple: He wished to address the franchise's deficiencies one department at a time. That way, he thought, he could best determine the reasons the Knicks had spent so many years shackled in the league's cellar. To help with this task, a former team staffer says Jackson deployed Gaines, sending him into all the different wings within MSG to gather information and report back.

"Phil told us that Clarence was one of his consultants, that he would be going around asking questions," the staffer says. "And Clarence is used to being the smartest man in the room, which is why Phil likes him, and intellectually, he's really smart. But the problem is early on he became Phil's eyes and ears, and it made people paranoid."

One problem, according to the staffer, and echoed by others from the Knicks, is Gaines' people skills, or lack thereof. Even opposing scouts who respect his ability to mine talent admit Gaines' struggles cultivating relationships with coworkers and colleagues.

"He's a strange bird," adds one Western Conference scout.

"He's not really well liked by people around MSG," says another former Knicks employee.

None of the people interviewed for this story questioned Gaines' abilities as a scout. And Gaines, it seems, is willing to challenge his boss. Just one month before the Knicks hired Jackson, Gaines tweeted a mathematical breakdown of why players are better off hoisting three-pointers, a shot Jackson has acknowledged he's not a fan of, as opposed to mid-range jumpers.

But the problem, some say, is that with the Knicks he's been miscast. Leaning on Gaines' expertise for personnel decisions puts the Knicks and Jackson in good hands. Relying on him to conduct interviews is a smart move, too. Hodges still laughs at how tough and unnerving Gaines, his friend, was while interviewing him for the D-League job.

"He asked me point-blank how come the teams I coached beforehand at Chicago State were so bad," Hodges says. "The biggest thing for him, I think Clarence has studied enough on a psychological level to get people to open up to him, even about tough topics, from drugs to girls to anything. He'll ask it all."

But, some believe, expecting Gaines to serve as a middleman between Jackson's suite and the lower rungs of the organization is a recipe for disaster.

"He's kind of nerdy; it's not a criticism," says a former colleague. "He's very analytical and a deep thinker. Some people in this business, they don't think like that or act like that. He's just a different type of guy."

Of course, some NBA executives find those traits endearing.

"It always bothered me when you see a scout sitting next to another scout at a game and talking the whole time," Kupchak says. "That means they're either sharing information or not paying attention."

Kupchak says he doesn't know Gaines well, that over the past 20 years the two have developed a cordial relationship but nothing more. Yet he adds that he's always had a deep respect for Gaines. The reason?

"Your job's not to buddy up to guys from other teams," he says. "My impressions of Clarence, from the small relationship we've had and what I've heard from Phil, is that he's not interested in any of that stuff. He's interested in one thing: doing his job."

   

Yaron Weitzman covers the Knicks, and other things, for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman and listen to his Knicks-themed podcast here.

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