There are two things and really two things only to know about the New York Knicks’ now-apparently-imminent hiring of Phil Jackson to head up basketball operations. These two things have both been written about and argued for at length but where the narrative up to now errs is that it poses them as conflicting viewpoints on the hire when, in reality, they’re both true.
Yes, this will probably fail. And yes, it’s still the right move.
Such is life for the Knicks, a franchise who seems to bring in a new savior as often as most of its competitors bring in new ballboys. Once-in-a-generation scorer Bernard King gave way to can’t-miss-future-Hall-of-Famer Patrick Ewing who was joined by four-time-champion Pat Riley who was replaced by former-Coach-of-the-Year Don Nelson whose stewardship was far too brief to work under greatest-pure-point-guard-ever Isiah Thomas who hired former-NBA-champion Lenny Wilkens who was fired in favor of winner-at-all-levels-and-coacher-of-The-Right-Way Larry Brown whose disastrous tenure led to his replacement by Thomas himself before David Stern tore him from James Dolan’s death grip in favor of no-nonsense-basketball-lifer Donnie Walsh who hired offensive-mind-of-his-generation Mike D’Antoni who was reunited with proclaimer-that-the-Knicks-are-back Amar’e Stoudemire who accepted the role of second banana behind guy-who-grew-up-idolizing-Bernard-King-and-holy-shit-time-is-circular Carmelo Anthony. Each of these men came in with pedigree to spare and each was hailed as a bringer of a new era and each has baked a big, doughy New York bagel where the championship ring was supposed to be.
The point is, we’ve tried this just about every way we could think of and it hasn’t really counted for much, give or take a deep playoff run here and a Marburian Truck Party there. All of it seemed great at the time. None of it really worked.
Comes now Philip Douglas Jackson, coacher of legends and wearer of rings on all 10 fingers and one of his big toes, who for some mysterious (hint: it’s money) reason (seriously though, lots of money) has decided to embrace this century’s most disappointing franchise in the throes of it’s most disappointing season and call the whole mess his own. The man he will either replace or marginalize, Steve Mills, has made but one decision during his tenure that anybody will remember five years from now and that was the rostering of an utterly unqualified point (?) guard for reasons that the Knicks didn’t even bother to pretend weren’t nakedly nepotistic. The coach, Mike Woodson, has been living on borrowed time for months that have felt like decades and is likely to be replaced before too long as part of the wholesale (and overdue) ousting of the ancien MSGime. The players, who have cloaked their contempt for the present situation about as well as flip-flops cloak your feet, seem desperate for a leader or a direction or a plan. And the nominal center of the Knicks’ decision-making universe, so long an intellectual vacuum, is about to be filled by anyone’s choice as one of the top 5 basketball minds of this or any generation. In terms of bona fides, this is an upgrade to rival Grant over McClellan. In terms of gravitas, it’s the fucking Big Bang in reverse.
And do you want to hear the real kick in the ass of it? There’s an entire cottage industry of relatively smart, plugged-in people out there who think this is a mistake. That’s what the Knicks have wrought over the past decade and change: a sense of existential despair so enveloping that even the all-time greats aren’t exempt. To put it more simply: when you expect every decision to fail, you expect every big decision to fail bigger.
If I’m being gun-to-my-head, last-twenty-on-the-table, as-long-as-you’re-gonna-quote-me-on-this honest? It probably will fail. History has spoken and you need a great reason to bet against history. And I’m looking for one but the truth is that the Knicks have done nothing to indicate that the Phil experiment will differ from the Brown and Walsh experiments cited above. Sure, he’s even better pedigreed than those two but it wasn’t the qualifications (or any lack thereof) that did either of those great basketball men in. Rather, it was their inability (far more pronounced in Brown’s case, unsurprising given the outsized nature of his personality in relation to the tight-lipped Walsh) to thrive within a system that suppresses individualized, big-picture thinking in the name of chasing the easy answer. They were 10-piece-screwdriver-set minds in a duct tape world and Jackson won’t be any different, or at least he’d better not be.
So…what was the question? Oh: why should it work this time when it hasn’t before? Yeah, I don’t have a great answer for that. Where some billionaires buy art or cars or pricey new gadgets, Dolan buys Big Names. They are his vanity pieces. Their success and creativity qualifies them as things worthy of his possession, even his desire, but like any good vanity piece, they…well, it’s right there in the name. When that same success and creativity stop serving his vanity, when they instead challenge his vision of himself and his own place in the NBA pecking order, when they suggest a change in the obviously flawed direction in which Dolan and his coterie of yes-men and doormats have taken the Knicks, they cease to serve their purpose. Once that happens, they’re just high-paid, highly-visible reminders that lots of really smart people don’t think James Dolan is particularly capable of owning a winning NBA franchise. And then it’s over, just as it would be over if you hung a painting on your wall and all of a sudden it started talking to you when you had company over, telling you to get up off the couch and do a load of laundry and for the love of God call your parents every now and then.
Yes, this will probably fail. And yes, it’s still the right move.
Nothing should scare Knicks’ fans more than stagnation. Their star is opting out, their draft cupboard is bare, their cap number is inflated and, worst of all, there is absolutely nobody in their organization who will acknowledge that this is a problem. Phil Jackson will acknowledge it — or we will know by his silence that the poison has run so deep into the Knicks’ organization that it can fundamentally corrupt the nature of lions for the glorification of jackals. Phil Jackson will change it — or we will know by his inaction that the party line at One Penn Plaza is so fundamentally misaligned with fans’ interests that we had better start asking different questions if we have any desire for meaningful answers.
Jackson’s name has cache with players, both current Knicks looking for a direction and free agent targets in need of a basketball reason to move to the League’s biggest stage. His resume has cache with GMs, enough at least that when the phone in one of their offices rings and his assistant tells him that the Knicks are on the line, the first emotion he feels won’t be elation and the first thought he has won’t be to ask for the farm and give no quarter to any hardball. And maybe — please, God maybe — the rings on his fingers and his big toe will have enough cache with Dolan (a confirmed idol-worshipper who gave Isiah Thomas a stunning amount of leeway considering that he’s also a confirmed control freak) that he can actually try to build a team that makes sense.
Big names are overrated. Pedigree is overrated. Hell, even past success is probably overrated. We don’t know that Phil Jackson can be the GM of a great team and we don’t even really know for sure that he can be the coach of a great team that doesn’t have Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant on it. But might this be the unusual situation where a name and a pedigree and a resume are necessary (if not sufficient) conditions for success? Does it take somebody who can say “I’m Phil Jackson, I do what I want!” to carve out the freedom necessary to function in the face of an egomaniacal owner and a deceitful bureaucracy and a sporadically predatory local media? I think it might. And that doesn’t get us to the end but it might get us to the beginning and even the beginning is a hell of a lot better than where we are now which is in the middle of nowhere without a map and the tank on empty.
And if not? Then it blows up, like it’s blown up so many times before, except this time I will read the absolute crap out of the book about it.