CHICAGO – Phil Jackson is much less Zen master than basketball apostle.
I once remember Phil telling me a story about a period after his basketball playing career before he became arguably the greatest and most successful basketball coach in NBA history. He’d failed at attempts to get back into the NBA. He felt perhaps he was being blackballed for his radical political stances, candor and liberal lifestyle views. So he talked that perhaps his should be a life of business, maybe politics or even religion, albeit untraditional.
He said his sister laughed and said, “You’re a basketball lifer.”
That’s what Jackson is. All the dramatic mysticism and mystery is as much a part of his natively shy personality as his intellectual curiosities. Phil believes in the tao of basketball, the open man, the good shot, the communication, above all the communication.
His parents were ministers, a bit beyond his ken as Pentacostalists. But to Phil, his team and his players were his congregation. It was his job as their existential pastor to help turn them into a community of players where their interests and needs were his. So he’d know about wives’ birthdays or give a little nod or tap sometimes when a player came off the floor in recognition of their efforts.
In the end — if not the beginning — it was not there with Derek Fisher.
And thus became a surprisingly early ending.
But if basketball was Phil’s religion, which it was, then the purity had to be maintained.
And in many ways, the hiring of Fisher was more a shotgun marriage.
Phil obviously knew who he was having coached him, though Phil’s choice for many years to be his successor was Steve Kerr. And it seemed Kerr would be.
Though the Golden State job became a godsend, Kerr believed he was going to join Jackson in New York. Kerr had his doubts, but he felt he essentially owed his career to Jackson and his offense, saved from almost being out of basketball after stops in Phoenix and Cleveland with little effect to becoming a reliable part of three Bulls championships. That boost sent Kerr for more to San Antonio, none of which Kerr felt would occur without Phil in 1993 taking him on a tryout.
So Kerr wanted to help Phil and pay him back when he felt Phil needed him as he once needed Phil. Plus, it looked like if Mark Jackson didn’t stay in Golden State then Stan Van Gundy would replace him. When that all went away and the Warriors came to Kerr, and Kerr’s family was to remain in California with his youngest son still in high school, Phil understood.
But Phil needed a coach and his second choice, Brian Shaw, still was coaching Denver. Another disciple, Tyronn Lue, wasn’t ready and his buddy Kurt Rambis was just off the mess in Minnesota. So he turned to Fisher, a bright player.
But sometimes you don’t know a person until you hire them.
Fisher didn’t have trouble with Phil’s offensive vision as much as his community vision. Fisher didn’t embrace the family concept much, or even with Phil and Phil’s assistants from his time coaching, like Rambis and Jim Cleamons, becoming insular and even distant with Phil. It was no way to run a family or a basketball team.
So Jackson reluctantly made the change; sometimes divorce, albeit painful, is necessary.
And the Knicks’ record was deceiving, as Jackson knew.
Sure the Knicks went from 17 wins last season to already 23 wins and a chance to make the playoffs. But that 17 wins was worse than it should have been considering Carmelo Anthony went out with knee surgery and the team rebuilt during the season. That preseason roster with Anthony, Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, Andrea Bargnani, Amar’e Stoudemire, Samuel Dalembert and Jose Calderon had certainly the talent to compete for the playoffs. It should have been a 35-to-40-win team, as Jackson said before the season.
Several of those players produced elsewhere, including for conference champion Cleveland.
So this season’s Knicks, even with talented rookie Kristaps Porzingis, truly haven’t advanced much.
A change was a surprise; not a shock.
So where to now?
Phil’s predecessors did him no favor offloading his draft picks. But Jackson always has shown the ability to build teams the way he lobbied for several of the players who made the crucial difference for the Bulls, like Bill Cartwright, Horace Grant and reserves. And he’s fortified the Knicks with good pickups like Arron Afflalo, Robin Lopez and Derrick Wiliams.
The Knicks will have perhaps $20 million or more for free agents this summer.
Anthony likely will stay. He has a no-trade clause. The belief is he feels comfortable in New York and doesn’t want to chase a title as you never know. After all, he almost went to the Bulls and they have taken a step back with injuries. You sense Anthony wants to be where one day he can return to see his jersey retired.
As for the much overhyped triangle offense, as Phil always has said, which is much ignored in the New York media, it’s not the triangle exclusively, but any system of play that brings out the elements of basketball in passing, ball and player movements to produce good shots.
Something for basketball lifers, like Phil Jackson, to believe in.
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”