Here in New York City, there is not a buzz in the air among basketball fans. A feeling of urgent anticipation does not permeate Madison Square Garden. Friends are not stopping each other near water coolers on the top floors of skyscrapers to talk in excited whispers; strangers are not high-fiving on the subway. This despite the fact that the Knicks — who retain a singular place in the city’s consciousness despite having played 15 straight years of garbageball — are making perhaps their least-terrible decision of the 21st century by bringing in Phil Jackson to run the team.
The lack of buzz, hype and excitement can be attributed to one man, James Dolan. Dolan owns the Knicks, and has defeated its fans. He has made so many poor decisions in a row, and tried to redeem them with so many headline-baiting Big Moves, that he’s created something unique in American sports: casual fans immune to star power. Fans — East-Coast-metropolitan-area sports fans! — are reacting to hyperbolic rumors with reasoned patience. I’m out here seeing it in person. “Phil Jackson, eh?” I said to a bartender the other day, raising my eyebrow at the screen showing ESPN. He barely reacted. When New York bartenders have no comment on the possibility that a guy who keeps thirteen NBA championship rings in his house is taking over the New York Knicks, things are bad. Sane and skeptical is no way to go through life watching sports.
Fortunately, I have just the kind of goofy theory that Knicks fans need to bring irrational hope back into their lives. It’s about the potential bond between the two men in this initially maladroit-seeming pairing, one that their generally younger observers are overlooking. Namely: their shared belief in an egotistical, grudge-heavy version of free-spirit lonesome-hero Americana. Both Dolan and Jackson, inside their own heads, are the stars of the kind of movie that most of the rest of the United States stopped watching in like 1981.
I don’t mean to suggest that the skepticism toward their partnership doesn’t have logic behind it. The Knicks have long cared as much about having celebrities on their team as they do with having celebrities in courtside seats, but so many theatrical, “the Knicks are back!” moments — hiring Isiah Thomas, trading for Stephon Marbury, hiring Larry Brown and Mike D’Antoni, trading for Carmelo Anthony — have ended in busted-ass seasons that a reasonable default position is to expect nothing from another one. (Click here for an even more detailed and harrowing recounting of the cycle of damage.) Meanwhile it’s true that Jackson has never been a general manager, doesn’t come across as highly motivated, and loves to talk to the press, while his prospective boss Dolan doesn’t come across as highly motivated, notoriously doesn’t like people who talk to the press, and, at least as far as building a basketball team, has a very poor record working with others. The heir to a fortune derived from a cable company not exactly beloved by its customers, Dolan was only responsible for Knicks’ brief recent semi-renaissance insofar as he decided for a while NOT to make Knicks decisions. When he got involved again, it fell apart. He replaced respected general manager Donnie Walsh with Glen Grunwald, who did a pretty decent job — until Dolan replaced him with Steve Mills, a sports business figure with no coaching or scouting experience who last worked for the Knicks as the COO who oversaw the loss of a $10-million-plus sexual harassment lawsuit against the team. Mills’ first season running the show has not gone well.
But there is some reason to believe Dolan will trust Jackson more than he trusted Walsh or Grunwald. Dolan, born in 1955, is, as stated, a cable-TV heir. He is a rich kid. He graduated from SUNY-New Paltz with a degree in communications. He is from New York and is a member of corporate and philanthropic boards. And yet he presents himself like he’s perpetually on his way to a whiskey bar in Reno. He wears black blazers and black shirts with the top two buttons undone; he’s got a stubbly beard; he is the lead singer of a band called “JD & The Straight Shot” that describes its music as a fusion of blues and classic rock. (Which makes no sense!) His band plays the theme song for the 19th-century AMC railroad-buildin’ drama Hell on Wheels (Cablevision owns AMC). He still talks about Isiah Thomas like the two are underdogs in a foxhole together. He carries himself like a countercultural figure.
Phil Jackson, born 1946, is also a salesman of Western-flavored delusion. His (seemingly sincere) interest in various religious and philosophical traditions was noted, early in his coaching career, as a novelty. Through Jackson’s own self-branding, journalists’ impulse to make themselves sound smart by alluding casually to something they don’t actually understand, and the fact that he owns a ranch in Montana, this biographical side note turned into a perception that he was some sort of basketball-hippie cowboy-shaman. He wrote a book called Sacred Hoops and talked about Zen with Oprah. He also owns a three-story L.A. beach house, engages in distracting, public back-and-forth contract negotiations that inevitably end up with him earning an enormous salary, and routinely disparages his best players in public. Relative to other top ’00s franchises like the Spurs, Celtics, Mavericks and Heat, Jackson’s Lakers might have been the WORST place to be an employee. When he was finally through with them, he wrote a book called Eleven Rings: The Soul Of Success about how “deep values” and “humanistic psychology” had guided his career.
Dolan and Jackson are, to this outsider, a living embodiment of the turn that the Baby Boomer generation took in the 1980s. They incorporate bits and pieces from authentic countercultural traditions into their self-image and sense of style while their material standing and personal behavior remain type-A egotistical rich guy. And so it seems likely to me that the fame-obsessed Dolan, far from resenting the famous Jackson, will want this cool Grateful-Dead-fan guy, this fellow outcast, to be his friend. They have much more in common than Dolan and Donnie Walsh, or even Dolan and Isiah Thomas.
And that’s all it should take for Knicks fans to feel good about the move. Remember, the problem wasn’t actually that Dolan listened to Isiah per se. Dolan should be taking advice from people who have actually played and coached NBA basketball. The problem was that Thomas’ advice turned out to be terrible. But Phil Jackson, for all his goofy huckster side, actually knows what he’s talking about when the subject is basketball. He will definitely need to bring along people who understand statistics and the salary cap and the demands of scouting. But the Knicks have actually had those kinds of front-office employees before — remember when they uncovered that diamond-in-the-rough point guard from Harvard? What the team and its fans have always needed is someone that Dolan will actually listen to when the crucial decisions are being made. In Jackson — and in Jackson’s likely ability to carry on a conversation about Eric Clapton with his boss by way of convincing the latter not to, say, sign Tracy McGrady out of retirement for $50 million — they might have found him.