Locker Room Talk: The hiring and firing of Jackson just part of Knicks’ everyday drama
Even with Carmelo and Porzingis, Knicks fans will suffer through more drama with owner James Dolan
Leave it to the NBA’s most irrelevant big-market team to steal headlines at the NBA’s offseason moment of truth.
Less than 72 hours before free agency begins, the New York Knicks finally cut the cord with team president Phil Jackson after three seasons.
The Knicks are not relevant — even in their own division. Yet, here they are dominating the news cycle.
My fascination with the Jackson saga was not so much his hiring but rather the rationale for his hiring: the supposition that Jackson’s Hall of Fame career as a coach would translate into success as an executive. The selling point is that the famed triangle offense that Jackson popularized would transform the executive suite into a championship-winning triangle front office.
What baffled me about the coverage of Jackson is how the normally sophisticated, and cynical, New York sports media accepted the narrative of Jackson’s genius without forcibly noting the obvious — that Jackson’s success in Chicago and Los Angeles was built on the backs of four generational players: Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in Chicago, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles.
We initially looked the other way, and why not? Phil became the Zen Master to the media. He was great copy and a good story. Until he wasn’t.
On Wednesday, the story ended.
We know now (and probably knew then) that Jackson never had the chops to run an organization, not at a time in the industry when the business of basketball is nonstop, where recruiting and scouting is wide, deep and global. The game has changed since the 1990s when Jackson’s Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers ruled.
During a recent conversation on The Undefeated’s HBCU 468 Podcast, Mark Jackson, who played for the Knicks from 1987-92 and 2001-02, praised Jackson as a Hall of Fame coach but added: “If I’m man enough to say that Phil Jackson is one of the all-time greatest coaches in the history of sports, then out of the same mouth I have to be able to say he’s been a failure as president of the New York Knicks.”
Now that we’ve wrapped our minds around the bombshell of Jackson’s departure, the next level of chatter among Knicks fans is what’s next? What’s next is more drama, of course. This is the point at which Knicks analysts — and fans — zig when they should zag.
They miss the point.
Critics mistakenly filter the Knicks’ moves through the traditional prism of basketball: What do these moves mean basketballwise?
In a basketball sense, the Knicks’ roster is not terrible. With Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis, the Knicks have a better one-two punch than many teams that failed to make the playoffs.
And analysts point out that with Jackson gone, Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek will no longer be boxed in by the triangle. He will be free to establish his brand of basketball.
All valid basketball points.
But I’ve learned over the years that Knicks owner James Dolan’s moves have little to do with basketball. They have everything to do with drama, with keeping fans tuned in. Dolan’s Knicks are run like a made-for-TV drama, replete with cliff-hangers, nail-biters and next episodes.
The hiring and departure of Phil Jackson is bizarre because of what it reveals about the organization, about the fans who support it and perhaps about the general nature of fans.
Dolan knows his fan base
New York is not Boston, San Antonio, Los Angeles or even Cleveland, where there is a history of winning and an expectation (yes, even in Cleveland) of winning. Look at the Celtics’ history, the Lakers’ history, the Spurs’ history. There is an expectation among fans that the pendulum will eventually swing back to big-time winning.
Knicks fans long ago abandoned the zeal for winning titles. Indeed, the last time the franchise won a title was in 1973. Yet, the franchise makes a fortune just the way things are. Chaos and drama.
With winning out of sight, Knicks fans have come to settle for drama, for hand-wringing, for a chronic sense of hopelessness, sprinkled every now and then with slivers of hope.
I have not spoken with every Knicks fan, but I’ve spoken to enough over the years to recognize a pattern. Knicks fans LOVE the losers’ lament.
Jackson’s departure comes at the end of a string of embarrassing events.
There was the ugly incident at Madison Square Garden last season that ended with fan favorite Charles Oakley having to be subdued and removed by a Madison Garden security detail. That was an incredible spectacle, and the crowd ate it up.
Jackson did himself and the organization no favors with public comments about his own and other teams’ players, notably referring to LeBron James’ business team as James’ “posse.”
Then there was Jackson’s public feud with Anthony. And while he is generally associated with the Knicks’ ineptitude and failure, Jackson managed to make Anthony a sympathetic figure.
Now Anthony stays. Jackson goes.
The final straw was Jackson’s eroding relationship with Porzingis, the Knicks’ emerging star who notably skipped his exit interview with Jackson.
There were soon leaks that the Knicks might trade Porzingis. Instead, the franchise parted with Jackson.
Knicks fans will pick up the pieces over the next day or so, but let’s be clear: The biggest winner of all is Phil Jackson.
He becomes the latest former Knicks employee to ride off the Dolan ranch with millions of Dolan’s dollars. Some estimated that the organization wound up paying Jackson $660,000 for each victory over the three seasons of his tenure.
I’ve monitored the reaction of Knicks fans to Jackson’s departure. There is an overwhelming sense that a cloud has been lifted.
Trust me, the cloud is still there.
The existential problem for Knicks fans is that, after the smoke clears and the chatter ends, James L. Dolan will still own the New York Knicks.
Jackson may have been the Zen Master, but Dolan is the puppet master. Criticize him, curse him, promise to never come back. He knows his fan base. He knows you’ll be back, come hell or high water.