No, I did not attend yesterday's gala press conference at Madison Square Garden to trumpet the arrival of Phil Jackson, the Knicks' latest savior. I've followed the Knicks since I was a little kid. I remember the glory years of the 1970s. I've suffered through the lean years of the 21st century.
Jackson, the Knicks new president of basketball operations, follows such Messiahs as Lenny Wilkens, Isiah Thomas, Larry Brown, Mike D'Antoni and Donnie Walsh, all of whom, in one fashion or another, came to Gotham to restore the faded glory of a once-great basketball franchise which has not won a National Basketball Association title since 1973. To put that fact in some perspective, movie buffs, "The Sting" won the Best Picture Oscar that year. Yes, it was a very long time ago.
But they tell us Jackson, who coached the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers to 11 titles since 1991, will be different -- because, presumably, he will be successful in taking the Knicks to The Next Level, a championship season.
There are two ways to look at he Knicks move. Jackson will use his vaunted communications skills to usher in a new era of good vibes and victories at the Garden.
Or, Jackson is utterly untested as a basketball EXECUTIVE and he won't be able to take a team saddled with no draft choices this year and an unwieldy salary cap -- not to mention lousy team chemistry -- to any levels. The Knicks will likely miss the NBA playoffs this season,
Given the weak Eastern Conference, this ignominious feat is almost as hard to accomplish as it is to qualify for the post-season in the NBA East.
I have 5 burning questions for Phil Jackson:
1) Whither Carmelo Anthony, a free-agent-to-be and the Knicks' lone bright spot this season because he scores a lot of points and plays hard game in and out.
At the presser yesterday, Jackson said publicly that he wants Anthony, who is not renown for happily passing the basketball to his teammates, to return to the Knicks. Really? Even though Anthony isn't the kind of player you can build a team around and he sucks up tens of millions of dollars in annual salary? I'm not calling Jackson a liar, exactly. But I don't think he'd weep if Anthony moved on and took his nightly 25 shots a game somewhere else.
2) Can you work with Knicks Chairman James Dolan?
Dolan is a rather private, sometimes surly executive who has little use for the rudimentary task of talking with the media. Jackson is a much more outgoing and somewhat calculating fellow. Again, at the press conference, everyone recited his lines in an appropriate way (Dolan literally by reading from a notepad).
The press conference was an Event. Former Knick greats showed up. Even director and super fan Spike Lee dropped by. Lee represents Knicks fans everywhere, somehow, and his suffering over the years -- like ours -- is well documented.
We'll see. Dolan insisted that Jackson retain General Steve Mills (who eerily sat to Jackson's and Dolan's sides without uttering one word, Mills is apparently at the Garden to be Dolan's eyes and ears. In response to an insightful question by Bloomberg reporter Scott Soshnick, Dolan said he is happily giving up control of basketball operations to Jackson. This would be unprecedented in Dolan's MSG. I'm not calling Dolan a liar but I'm very skeptical.
3) How do you define success?
Winning one or more titles? Changing the culture? Making it through all five years of your new contract (at a nifty $12 million per)? Crafting a winning exit strategy, in lieu of an effective basketball strategy?
4) Can you entice superstars to come to New York?
This really shouldn't stand as an onerous task for the charismatic Jackson. When Miami Heat boss Pat Riley lured free agent LeBron James to Miami in 2010, he spread his many championship rings out on a table and let James, who hadn't yet won his first, gaze at them. That was an easy sell. Jackson has his 11 rings as a coach and two more as a member of the Knicks in the 1970s (although, to be technical, he was injured and missed the entire 1970 championship campaign).
5) How much time will you spend in NYC?
This is one of the biggest sticking points. Jackson has a fiancee in L.A., a multitude of children and grandchildren and a wonderful lifestyle.He doesn't need the money form the Knicks' job.He doesn't need the aggravation of the media criticism and the possibility of more losing seasons in Manhattan. He could do without the frigid winters of New York, too. Plus, Jackson, who has had nagging health problems in recent years (as do a lot of former professional athletes, whose limbs need special attention years later) and he needs to be near his doctors in LA. All in all, the questions lingers: Will Jackson give the Knicks 100% of his attention?
I suspect he will. He is a winner and a competitor. Hopefully 100% will be enough.
Bonus: Can Phil Jackson make it in New York if his boss is not named "Jerry." Remember, he reported to GM Jerry Krause and owner Jerry Reinsdorf in Chicago and GM Jerry West and owner Jerry Buss in LA.