Dear Mr. Jackson:
To start, I suppose it’s best to note that we understand why you’re making this move. Even at the team’s lowest of lows, accepting a position to run the front office of the New York Knicks is rife with potential. Both personal and professional potential, to say nothing of the chance to do great things for the long-suffering Knicks fan base that has, in recent decades, been surpassed in number by the fan base you helped resuscitate in Los Angeles nearly 15 years ago.
At age 68, there are no more books to write. You already topped off the clincher last year with your final coaching memoir, and between the thousands of pages you’ve already written and the innumerable interviews that came along with your endless book promotions through the years, just about every anecdote has been exhausted. We know what strain of hallucinogen you took on the beach in Malibu after the Knicks lost to the Lakers in the 1972 NBA Finals, we were treated in great detail to your first meeting with Dennis Rodman, potential Chicago Bull, and we know all about the ins and outs of having to babysit Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant for lo those many years. Even if they were for only five in total.
Coaching at any age is a burden, sideline stalkers age in President Years despite the five-star accommodations, and there’s no point in returning to the Knicks as coach of a terrible team with no front-office security – as your mentor Red Holzman did from 1978-82 after stepping away for a year. Your personal coaching tree may not be as great nor as significant as Larry Brown’s or Gregg Popovich’s, but there certainly are enough determined would-be coaches out there you would be willing to hire to help propagate your sacred hoop philosophy: sharing the ball on offense, talking to each other on defense.
What’s left, then, is a front office position. Not as a full stroke general manager, of course, because sussing out potential second-round picks and glomming onto the NBA’s lengthy collective bargaining agreement should be someone else’s game. Not necessarily a young man’s game, but certainly for someone younger than you. No, the point, at your age and with your accomplishments in hand, is to be a big-picture guy. Let someone else crunch the numbers, let some other coach walk bleary-eyed into a hotel conference room the morning after a game to discuss that night’s opponent.
Then there is the Pat Riley conundrum.
We get it. Riley was a national darling as a star in Kentucky during college, while you toiled away from the eyes of the nation at North Dakota. You and Riley battled during two different NBA Finals as players, and while he was gifted the luxury of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Los Angeles, you spent the better part of the 1980s driving your CBA or Puerto Rican league teams from game to game in a van. Econo-style.
Even when you finally returned to the NBA, it was as an assistant, someone to be laughed at down the sleeve by Stan Albeck (who refused to hire you) and Doug Collins (who had to be goaded into bringing you along).
Of course, you’re just as slick as Riley now, but in the 1980s the initial idea that in Los Angeles this Armani-wearing would-be Republican could be making bank as a motivational speaker at the same time that your (literal) Woodstock ideals were being lost on Eric Money of the Albany Patroons had to dig at you. And then, even after three championships and well on your way to three more in Chicago, it had to hurt to see Riley reconfigure the Miami Heat and turn them into championship contenders, even if your Bulls denied the team a title. And the success of this current Heat team, created just one month after your final Finals triumph as a coach, has to drive that stake in deeper.
Of course, there are differences here.
Riley had his front office help, but he wasn’t always bringing big names to Miami just by flashing a set of championship rings. He utilized smart leverage to deal for free-agents-to-be like Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway at Tim’s lowest ebb – correctly predicting that his system could resurrect the career of the out-of-shape and despondent point guard, while keeping both players as free agents. Riley relentlessly played the trade market in the years after, jutting out for Jamal Mashburn, Brian Grant, Anthony Mason and Eddie Jones. He took chances on Dwyane Wade and Lamar Odom in the summer of 2003, putting a core into place that would inspire Shaq to want to leave your team while still under contract in Los Angeles for Riley’s team just a year later.
He also trusted his younger employees, something that your “all-the-female-employees-off-the-team-bus-today-because-this-is-our-men’s-only-circle” leanings don’t always allow you to. Riley allowed former tape operator Erik Spoelstra to flourish as a confident conductor of men, he’s intelligently worked his way through four different salary caps as a personnel boss, and to his credit there haven’t been all that many Pat Riley-penned books to sift through since his 1995 move to Florida.
You’re moving back to New York, Phil, which on many levels is perfect. It’s where you fell in love and started a family. It’s where you learned to embrace a counterculture that at once seemed completely in opposition and yet almost in lockstep with your Christian faith. It’s where you won two titles as a player, and it’s where you learned under Red Holzman.
It’s what you’re attempting to replicate.
Willis Reed, gutting another one out. Walt Frazier dominating Jerry West without breaking a sweat. Bill Bradley and Dave DeBusschere, confusing opponents with the sort of language that twins talk in before knocking in an 18-footer. That Madison Square Garden crowd, at once mixing a Paris Review-styled sense of cerebral observance with a cheap-seats level of force and fury and “DE-FENSE. DE-FENSE.”
Of course, that atmosphere is lost now. It’s not the city of New York’s fault, certainly, but it is the fault of your new boss.
James Dolan owns a basketball IQ the size of a Le Sueur pea, his favorite band is the Eagles, he thinks Isiah Thomas is a “basketball genius,” and he colors his beard with hair dye. Since driving Dave Checketts out of MSG in the early summer of 2001, he has overcommitted to his favorites, allegedly dressed down in public those who can’t fight back, and wasted hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dollars on nearly a decade and a half of mostly miserable New York Knicks basketball.
And despite his probable protestations, or the idea that you’ll have Todd Musberger and/or Irving Azoff to act as some sort of buffer zone between the eventual work of your staff and Dolan’s creeping leanings, he’ll be there.
He’ll drive you batty, his insecurity will provide a miserable match for your usual modus operandi – the edgy style that drives Jerry Krause out of practice and Jerry West away from the only team he’s ever known – and eventually he’ll get to you. He won’t drive you nuts, because you’re still the same guy that left the Bulls, Lakers and Lakers again with that wry, bemused smile on your face in spite of essentially being forced out. But unless you get very lucky he will get in the way of you fielding the team you want to field.
One that shares the ball. One that talks on either end of the floor. Gestalt theory. “DE-FENSE.”
Of course, you’ll still have that eight-figure yearly salary and the chance to, as was the case in Chicago and Los Angeles, act as a preening basketball martyr within the pages of the books that followed … but does this path have a heart?
There is potential here, and frankly, I don’t think you have any other choice but to take this gig. With the NBA as it stands, and with your prerequisites all in a row, there just won’t be many opportunities as suitable as this.
Even if you are, in all honesty, selling out to a person that should serve as an anathema to you. You can kid yourself that you’re acting in a subversive nature, that you’re Robin Hood stealing from the rich to give to basketball’s most trod-upon fan base, but that will take you only so far unless some wonderful confluence of events mixes expert basketball moves, sound playing and coaching, and James Dolan’s inability to trample over the good things in life despite his expected squirrely attempts.
This is why we’re rooting for you, Phil Jackson. Because Knick fans deserve better. Because your Knicks teams were legendary for reasons that went beyond those two rings. And because you, more than anyone else, shaped the way we look at the game of basketball. Chop wood, carry water; and if you see Buddha in the lane, feed him the ball.
Just understand that you’re leaving a piece of your soul at the door the minute you pose for photographs with James Dolan. I suppose that’s something we all have to do, when all other options are exhausted, and when the Big Picture seems so appealing at its championship best.
Good luck with all that, Phil.
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