Phil Jackson is basketball’s greatest champion – better than any player or coach on any level in the modern era, better than the infallible NBA executive and logo Jerry West or legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyewski. The closest comparison could be UConn women’s coach Geno Auriemma with his 11 college championships and couple of Olympic gold medals to boot, but, let’s face it, that’s college. Jackson won two NBA titles as a player with the New York Knicks and more than 70 percent of his games leading the Chicago Bulls and L.A. Lakers, earning 11 more titles in 20 seasons on the bench. He defined sports success for a generation and his impact on the game is undeniable.
But for the first time ever, Phil Jackson is failure.
Only three years into a five-year contract as Knicks president, Jackson, 71, was relieved of his duties Wednesday after torching relationships with the franchise’s present and future stars, Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis. Jackson was stopped just before he could give away Anthony for little or nothing in return.
The ousting was reportedly “mutual,” but Jackson rarely seemed happy, invested or even interested in his role with the Knicks. PTI host Tony Kornheiser recently accused him of trying to get fired (Jackson denies it), and last week a prospect told ESPN’s Jay Williams that Jackson was falling asleep during the player’s workout.
In his tenure with New York, Jackson only seemed to come alive when he was instructing mostly inept coaches on how to implement the Triangle Offense, an outdated and unnecessarily complicated system developed by his former assistant coach Tex Winter that has never really worked for any other human.
Of course, “When the triangle is working right,” Jackson wrote in his book Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success, “it’s virtually impossible to stop because nobody knows what’s going to happen next, not even the players themselves.”
If this nonsense were true it would be the only offense any team ever ran. It is not.
But we could have seen this coming from the NBA’s “Zen Master.” He left a beach house and his longtime girlfriend Jeanie Buss, the Lakers president, back in L.A. He’s had both knees and both hips replaced, and he doesn’t like to travel. He seems worn down. He’s never spotted in the stands of college games like Boston’s general manager Danny Ainge. He also thinks Kurt Rambis is a decent coach.
Jackson is being called lazy and dumb in the New York media this morning, but his above comments about the triangle suggest it might be more accurate to say he’s “set in his ways” – a polite phrase usually reserved for people who don’t like youths or pop culture. He grew comfortable as he aged. New York upset his balance and his zen.
Winning always means seeing the shifts before they happen and adapting. Jerry West proved his flexibility as he helped build at least three dynasties in three eras, including the Showtime Lakers and Golden State’s Splash Brothers. Krzyewski got back to the top of the NCAA when he gave in to the “one-and-done” culture and recruited top talents he knew he’d never have adequate time to develop.
But Jackson was the last vestige of a bygone NBA he helped create. He won so much so quickly and so often that it would have seemed silly to change. He could always center his “creative” offensive system around hall of fame-caliber talent. But iso-ball is dead. The big man camped out on the block is dead – they shoot threes now. The triangle is dead. And Michael Jordan (probably) isn’t walking through that door.
Still, failure isn’t a label that will stick to Phil Jackson outside of New York City. The knock on him may always be that he never won without Jordan, or Shaquille O’Neal or Kobe Bryant. Which is true. But none of them were champions before Jackson. He helped shape Jordan from a top-level talent into the greatest player of all-time. He crafted a system that allowed Shaq to dominate in ways basketball hasn’t seen before or since. And he created a team that somehow functioned around Bryant, twice – maybe his greatest trick. He can’t even be blamed for the Shaq-Kobe fallout.
Jackson is allowed to fail at least once. Everyone is. It’s just disappointing to see in his last hurrah. Because he was lazy with the Knicks, or at least seemed as if he was phoning it in the entire time. He doesn’t seem to have the stamina for coaching and he doesn’t look to have any interest or know-how when it comes to understanding the cap or haggling over trades and salaries. New York will be a blight on Jackson’s record and we’ll always wonder if he could have won with lesser talents. But he walks away basketball’s greatest champion.
Meanwhile the Knicks have made failure their mantra. They’re a clusterfuck in a dumpster fire that hasn’t been competitive in almost two decades. They haven’t reached the Finals during a full 82-game season since 1994, and haven’t won a title since Jackson was playing on those 1970 and 1973 teams. They’ve only had three winning seasons since 2000.
In that time, they’ve burned through coaches, GMs and presidents, they’ve faced sexual harassment suits, fought with former players and chased rising stars out of town, all while assuming the bright light of Manhattan would be enough to bring in the NBA’s top talent. But LeBron never seriously considered New York either time he was a free agent, and Kevin Durant refused to meet with the team while being wined and dined in New York’s Hamptons last summer.
Instead, superstars have stuck to Cleveland, Golden State, San Antonio and Houston. They get to keep some tax money, avoid the scrutiny and stupid scandals the bright lights bring and stay away from dysfunctional owner James Dolan, who instead of attending last Thursday’s NBA Draft played a shitty gig with his band. Former point guard Jeremy Lin’s epic month of “Linsanity” was the arguably the only bright spot for the Knicks in the last decade, and that was before Phil arrived.
Knicks fans including Spike Lee are rejoicing Jackson’s departure. Yet odds are he’ll be replaced by another name that helps the team win a day’s news cycle, never a championship. But New York’s over-inflated sense of self is in the city’s water supply, so there’s always hope they’re just one move away.
Three years ago fans thought Jackson was the answer. Now what?