By the end of his reign in New York, the Knicks president was nothing like the free thinker who opened an era of new-age coaching
Despite the misguided perceptions of many sports fans, running an NBA team is actually a grinders pursuit. The men charged with picking players and managing rosters must spend the time scouting, scheming and building. Phil Jackson,who was let go Wednesday as New York Knicks president,seemed to believe his own cult of personality was enough to make the leagues most dysfunctional franchise whole again.
The message Jackson lost as he took a rich mans millions and wasted three years of the franchise is that his entire name was built on the managing the brilliance of others. His 11 NBA titles were less about his devotion to zen and more about the brilliance of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille ONeal. The foundations of those championships were built by Jerry Krause in Chicago and Jerry West in Los Angeles. Even his beloved triangle offense was perfected by an old college coach named Tex Winter, who brought it to Jackson when he took over Jordans Bulls.
Jackson was a great coach of great players and that is a hard thing to achieve: plenty have failed to get superstars to play together. Neither the 1990s Bulls nor the 2000s Lakers truly thrived until he arrived to turn them into dynasties. Getting players like Jordan and Bryant to buy into a team concept will stand as Jacksons greatest accomplishment and his fingers are laden with championship rings as testaments to his success.
But he was a terrible team president. He has always been too much about himself. His parables about his coaching genius could be tiresome and yet they were effective when he was coaxing wins from the bench. From the top of the Knicks organizational chart they became comical. It was as if he thought he could snap his fingers at a flimsy roster and that would be enough to bring the winning back to New York.
What Jackson became instead was another retired guy grabbing a big paycheck while tossing out some tricks from the old days. His greatest sin with the Knicks was that he became everything he always insisted he wasnt as a coach: an out-of-touch guru spouting yesterdays logic.
The beauty of basketball is that its perpetually a young game. Unlike other sports it remakes itself every few years with players more dazzling and audacious than anyone could have imagined just a decade before. In a young mans game, Jackson was the older guy with the wisdom to make each new generation listen. Like Gregg Popovich he was the rare outlier in a carousel of coaching hires and fires. He was yoga. He was reading. He was the triangle and all the unselfishness and matchup complications that came with it.
Eventually, though, the game evolved to a point where even Jackson couldnt keep up. He insisted upon New York using the triangle even as the triangle had been surpassed by a newer, more mathematical way of looking at basketball. The old guy who could relate to each new era looked lost in a game where the greatest value is placed on the high-percentage or high-yield of layups and three-pointers. He became the man who was perplexed by those crazy kids and all that newfangled technology.
Lost in the hype for his 11 titles as a coach was how vicious and manipulative he would be with his players. He could needle a player like no one else, puncturing their egos and crawling under their skin. Somehow that worked as he rode his star machines to championships in a suit on the sidelines. But when he tried the same thing as the boss, while sitting in a chair far away, the effect was downright mean and demoralizing.
While maybe in the old days he could trash a player in whispers to a sports writer and have the message filter effectively through the words of a local columnist, his all-out attacks on Knicks star Carmelo Anthony in todays quote-based media were crushing. Any big free agent who might long for the New Yorkwas instead repulsed by the old mans brutal swipes.
His most recent feudwith young star Kristaps Porzingisthat led to Jackson suggesting he may trade the franchises brightest hope showed how far he had come from soothing the raging egos of Jordan and Bryant. He was angry and out-of-touch and nothing like the free-thinking hippie who opened an era of new-age coaching.
The man who changed basketball couldnt change with the times. More importantly, he didnt seem to care. Now hes gone. Just one more bad idea in James Dolans Madison Square Garden.