He got one last thing wrong, Phil Jackson did, the night before the NBA draft when he was looking for a soft place to land on Madison Square Garden’s television network. He was asked about a message to Knicks fans and once again Jackson said, “We know what we’re doing.” It sounded like the literary “we,” by the way. Or maybe the basketball one. But he wasn’t talking about anybody else. He hardly ever does. Jackson was talking about himself, still under the impression that he knew more basketball than anybody else in the world because he was a great coach once.
Only he did not. It didn’t work that way. He was a worse basketball executive at the Garden than Isiah Thomas once was, another whom James Dolan allowed to stay on the job far too long, blinded by Isiah’s star power the way he was by Phil Jackson’s. Always, across three seasons when the Knicks’ won-loss record was 80-166 with Jackson as president of the team, Dolan’s answer about everything related to the Knicks was this:
“Ask Phil.” Finally Dolan wakes up and asks Jackson to leave.
Once Jackson was on the job, and we began to discover that a man who won 11 championships coaching Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen and Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal was out of his depth as a rookie executive approaching the age of 70, stuck on himself, stuck in the past, I gave this thing two years. And was off by one. But the real problem with the Knicks was that Jackson was off by a lot more years than that, ultimately stuck on an offense that the NBA has passed by, the triangle.
When he would start talking about the triangle as if somehow an offense from the past was essential to the Knicks future, he sounded like a pro football coach thinking he could still win in the NFL with the I-Formation. But the players didn’t want to play it. His own coach didn’t want to coach it. Didn’t matter. He was Phil Jackson and still carried himself as if above it all, even as the Knicks continued to be as much of a joke franchise as there is in professional sports.
He was going to change everything, though, you bet. He was going to change the Knicks and the culture and bring back glory years of which he was once a part. He has always spoken of his reverence for the late and great Red Holzman, but somehow ignored or simply forgot this essential truth about Red: He always – always – understood that basketball is a players’ game. Jackson got here and acted as if he thought he could build a program and a future, and the hope you must sell to sports fans, around himself. I, me, Phil.
We were under the impression, quite logically, that Jackson had forgotten more basketball than most people know. But in the end, and this is the merciful end for the Jackson era at the Garden, whatever “era” means in this case, he simply forgot about how good teams are assembled. Maybe now the Knicks can start recruiting basketball players who don’t worry that they will be playing in a system that to them really does seem as out-dated as Norman Dale’s picket-fence play in “Hoosiers.”
It doesn’t mean his instincts about team play aren’t pure. I’m sure they are. But the idea that somehow he could sell modern basketball players on a system that he wasn’t even willing to coach, and one nobody else in their league is playing, was always dumber than Dr. Naismith’s peach basket. He was one of the legendary coaches or managers in the history of professional sports. You can see why Dolan went after him and why he thought he could somehow transfer the skill set that brought him all those titles in Chicago and Los Angeles to the Knicks front office. But he never did, and now never will.
Who knows what it finally took for Dolan to do this, after it took him far too long? Maybe it was the fact that he was supposed to write another big check, to Carmelo Anthony, to make Anthony go away, after it was Jackson who signed Anthony to a $120 million contract. Or maybe, and far more appropriately, the last straw for Dolan – the blues guy who watched as Jackson who did absolutely nothing to stop the Knicks from being the most expensive, laughing-stock – was when Jackson went public with his hurt feelings about Kristaps Porzingis missing an exit meeting, and started talking about actually trading the kid.
The Latvian kid: The one player Knicks fans truly wanted to watch. The one who actually gave them some hope. At this point it became clear that Jackson might actually think he got to start all over again all over again. He talked about youth, even as he was discussing a trade for a player who doesn’t turn 22 until August. Jackson was talking about the future even as he had done nothing to change the recent past for the Knicks, a decade-and-a-half when only the Timberwolves have lost more games than they have; an era when the Knicks have won exactly one playoff series since the Eastern Conference finals of 2000.
He knew what he was doing when he coached Michael. He knew what he was doing when he coached Kobe and Shaq. He was tremendous in Chicago, and Los Angeles. Just not here. The “Ask Phil” owner asks him to leave, at last.