Before the New York Knicks' hiring of Donnie Walsh six years ago, the commissioner of the NBA wanted to broker a deal to make Jerry Colangelo the franchise's basketball czar. David Stern wanted owner James Dolan to detach himself of his basketball meddling and meet Colangelo's conditions of the franchise's full autonomy.
The embarrassments were endless, the NBA's flagship franchise a smoldering heap of humiliation. Colangelo wanted major money and peerless power, with perhaps a provision that his son, Bryan, could someday replace him as the Knicks president, league sources told Yahoo Sports.
Colangelo knew that the Knicks' culture and final word would always belong to the owner – never him, league sources said. As the managing director of USA Basketball, Colangelo had control, the best players and a far less traumatic path to chasing a championship legacy. Walsh had a soft spot for bringing a title to his New York roots and worked the job with capability, grace and honesty. There was never a hustle with Walsh, never an angle.
Now, the Knicks are negotiating a front-office deal with Phil Jackson. He's pushing for a monumental salary, understanding the leverage his Knicks championship roots and 11 NBA titles as a coach give him in a courtship gone public. One more famous name punches the code into Dolan's Garden ATM, with full understanding the transaction fee is a guarantee of a most unhappy ending.
"Nobody will ever have full autonomy," a high-ranking league official told Yahoo Sports. "Donnie had it in his deal, and when he questioned it, it was, 'See you later.' "
Make no mistake: Thus far, there's no assurance Jackson will come work for the Knicks. If he does, history tells us the Jackson-Dolan dynamic will end horribly for everyone. Dolan will declare a betrayal, and Jackson will walk away with tens of millions of Cablevision's dollars and a fistful more on a publishing advance to ridicule Dolan's meddling ways and distance himself from whatever failures occurred on his watch.
Far less accomplished people have been hired to run franchises, thus there's no arguing Jackson isn't worthy of an opportunity. Nevertheless, there are significant doubts about Jackson's ability to translate his coaching genius to front-office organization and tenacity. Respected officials doubt his desire to spend the necessary time evaluating talent, constructing a staff beyond those indebted cronies forever at his NBA side. They wonder about his commitment to investing time into the small, mundane assignments that are necessary to turning a loser into a contender. How much time will Jackson even spend in New York?
The Knicks are low on draft picks and assets, long on bad contracts and bad knees. For even the most elite of front-office executives, this is a challenging job – never mind a 68-year-old who'll find little of the adulation of championship-level coaching, and far more the criticism and second-guessing that comes with a rebuild.
Dolan believes Jackson's star power can trump Pat Riley's on the free-agent market, but make no mistake: Before a general manager can chase free-agents star, there needs to be an infrastructure of good, young and inexpensive talent born of savvy scouting and creativity deal-making. Jackson can't snap his fingers and expedite talent to his roster.
Looking back, Dolan delivered broad autonomy to Isiah Thomas – only to watch the excesses of wasteful spending, dysfunction and losing reverberate over a decade. Thomas had almost a mystical ability to work over Dolan, to be the owner's buddy and basketball authority. Isiah worked Dolan in a way that would be beneath Jackson, that his personality and ego will never allow.
For Dolan, Thomas is still the executive with whom everyone else pales. Well beyond Thomas' firing in 2008, Dolan made multiple bids to convince underlings that Thomas needed to be rehired. In one episode described to Yahoo Sports, Dolan had become exasperated with team officials who didn't want a second Garden act for Thomas. With overwhelming evidence to the contrary being presented to Dolan, he finally blurted out: "Isiah is a basketball genius!"
Dolan will never feel so good about Jackson, because Jackson will never let Dolan think he feels so good about him. Divide and conquer has always been Jackson's game plan – from Jerry Krause to Jerry West – and that's unlikely to change now.
Eventually, Jackson will want to explain himself – defend his mistakes, revel in his successes, whatever – and that'll be the beginning of the end for him. Won't matter if he's winning, or losing: The wall of silence at the Garden trumps everything – sellouts, stars and playoffs. In the end, this tells you so much about the pathology of the owner, so much about the trail of clues that assures of a doomed Jackson-Dolan partnership.
"The biggest issue for [Dolan] is the no-talk policy with the media," a high-ranking league official said. "Everybody signs on, except for Walsh. And after that [Dolan] said, "Never again.' "
The saviors come and go for these New York Knicks, and Phil Jackson is still exploring the possibility that he could take his turn restoring glory to the Garden. They'll let Jackson make a lot of decisions there, let him make a lot of money, but as long as he understands the truth he'll never be confused. The Knicks' culture and values belong to James Dolan, and there are no executives – no forces of nature – that will change it.