I don’t know if you can home again. But you can go back. At least that’s my take on Phil Jackson, since New York can’t truly be his only home, even with the considerable career he enjoyed as a player with the New York Knicks. But for someone who’s fairly synonymous with Chicago and the Bulls, and someone who won a fist full of titles coaching the Los Angeles Lakers, it’s hard to consider New York his only base. As someone recently told me when I asked where Pele the soccer player lives, Phil Jackson lives everywhere.
But, if the recent reports are correct, starting next basketball season, he will in fact live in the Big Apple, even if he doesn’t spend all his time there. He’ll be there as the chief executive of the New York Knicks franchise, brought in to hopefully resuscitate a team with less consistency than an open mic night. A team that made the playoffs and actually won a series last year but now sits on the outside of the postseason fence in what may be the worst Eastern Conference in the history of America’s manifest destiny. And this is after countless years of futility going back to nearly the Patrick Ewing era, which feels further back than the moon landing at this point.
It will be Jackson’s job to change all that. He won’t do that through coaching, a position he’s turned down before, with the Knicks and other franchises that have tried to entice him out of his restless retirement. Whether is his ailing hips or general distain for the travel and grind of an 82-game regular season, Jackson’s days on the sideline appear behind him. But now he’d yield his influence from the front office, taking the effective role of team president which, most importantly, would give him control over player personnel. So even if he couldn’t call a pick and roll, he could decide who would pick, and who would roll.
This isn’t a new concept, star coaches moving upstairs. Pat Riley is the case study in this experiment, winning five NBA titles and two additional conference championships as the coach of three teams before moving exclusively to the Miami Heat front office to build todays reigning dynasty. Even if Erik Spoelstra coaches the team, it’s Riley that gets the most credit for putting it together. That could be Phil in New York, evaluating talent, clearing cap space, and trying to convince mega stars that Madison Square Garden is a place like no other. Whether he can do just that still remains to be seen. But certainly when Jackson walks into a meeting with an NBA title ring on each finger, his sales pitch holds considerable gravitas. Baseball might have sabermetrics and moneyball, but basketball isn’t quite so nuanced. In the end, no one has to spreadsheet the difference between LeBron James and JR Smith. So perhaps more than talent evaluator, as team President, or Grand Poo Bah, or whatever he’ll be called, Phil Jackson will be the marketing director.
Which brings up a couple of interesting points. First, we’re about to learn more about the importance of coaching in the NBA. If Phil Jackson can revitalize a program by simply changing the roster, it reinforces the common stereotype that the NBA is truly a players’ league, where coaches do little more than coordinate travel and massage egos. Ironically, if that’s the case, then Jackson’s success in New York could undercut all his past achievement in Chicago and LA. It used to be the biggest compliment in sports to say a coach could beat your with his players or yours. In the NBA, that’s seemingly impossible.
Second, with Jackson’s appointment, suspend any notion that competition isn’t a drug. In his late 60’s and with enough money to build a theme park, Jackson does not need to work. He could walk into the Montana sunset and revel in legacy. Yet something makes him pick up the phone when Jim Dolan calls, and it’s certainly not Dolan’s charming personality. It was said about Michael Jordan and it’s true of his old coach as well. Competitors compete, which is why Jordan has taken on a similar role to this with the Charlotte Bobcats, with little success by the way. But for true competitors, it’s the process, not the trophy, that makes it all worthwhile, which is just as true in business and education as it is in sports. And now, it seems Phil Jackson is about to start that process all over again. Even though he may live everywhere, for Jackson, competing may be the only time he truly feels at home.
Keith Strudler is chair of the communication department at Marist College and director for the Marist College Center for Sports Communication.
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