The only reason Phil Jackson’s firing on Wednesday was a surprise at all was because it meant that New York Knicks owner James Dolan actually admitted he’d made a mistake. Specifically, a $62 million mistake.
Actually, calling Jackson’s 3+ years as president of the Knicks a mistake is a little bit like calling the Detroit Lions winless 2008 season disappointing.
We’re talking one of the great disasters in sports history. A friend of mine who worked in the NBA for more than 20 years summed it up pretty well yesterday: “Who would have thought,” he said, “that Knicks fans would someday look back on the Isiah Thomas era fondly.”
Maybe Dolan will bring Thomas back.
Jackson did one thing right during his disastrous tenure: drafting Kristaps Porzingis two years ago. Then he even made a mess of that one gem by somehow alienating Porzingis, who skipped his routine exit interview at season’s end and found himself the subject of trade talk prior to the NBA draft.
This may be a stretch, but I wonder if Jackson didn’t put those rumors out there to force Dolan to fire him. If he actually traded Porzingis, it would have been proof he’d taken complete leave of his senses. The fact that he was even thinking about it was pretty good evidence of that possibility.
But the albatross that Jackson couldn’t escape was his inexplicable decision to sign Carmelo Anthony to a five-year, $125-million contract three summers ago. That was Jackson’s chance to actually rebuild: get rid of Anthony; open up cap space for the future and start stockpiling draft picks. Instead, he brought Anthony back and then whined publicly about his unwillingness to waive the no-trade clause. Memo to Phil: who GAVE him the no-trade?
Since then, the Knicks are 80-166. Let those numbers percolate for a while. Funny how the triangle offense isn’t quite the brilliant innovation it appeared to be when Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal were running it. And, to quote Red Auerbach, who is THE greatest coach in NBA history, “That zen (stuff) works a lot better with Jordan, Pippen, Kobe and Shaq.”
Someone tweeted at me today saying, “So you’re saying Red didn’t have great players?”
He absolutely did. But when Red ran the Celtics – winning a total of 16 titles as coach/general manager and then general manager – HE put the team together. He was the one and only scout and he made all the decisions on who to draft and who to trade for. Remember, in those days, you couldn’t just sign Shaq as a free agent; you had to trade to get better. Go back and check out some of the trades Red made. Start with Kevin McHale and Robert Parish for Joe Barry Carroll and go from there. Don’t forget drafting Larry Bird a year early when he still had a season of college eligibility left. Back then, you could do that. But only Red actually did it.
If you’re wondering why there aren’t a lot of tears being shed about Jackson’s demise – among fans, media or anyone else – it is at least as much about his incredibly arrogant attitude as anything else.
Remember, Jackson wrote a memoir modestly titled, Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success.” If you were to read it, you’d think that Jordan, Kobe, Shaq and Scottie were just along for the ride on the Zen train. Jerry Krause? Yeah, he was in the building once or twice. Jerry West? Pretty much the same thing.
It was all about Phil. In fact, when a New York writer questioned a couple of things Jackson had done during a (very) rare press conference a couple of years ago, Jackson snapped, “I’ve got 11 rings. How many have you got?”
Nothing like humility.
Jackson rarely spoke to the New York media the last two years, choosing instead to whisper in the ears of a few national reporters willing to grant him anonymity to pick up a few Phil crumbs.
What it comes down to is this: a leader, especially one more than willing to take bows for success, has to be the guy who stands up and says “My fault” when there is failure. Jackson was as likely to say “My fault” as the Fonz was likely to say “I was wrrrrrrrong.” At least the Fonz tried it a few times.
There’s no doubt that Jackson damaged his legacy – which I believe he DOES care about – in New York. He was extremely well-paid to do so, but it has to sting. Anytime someone says, “I don’t pay attention to the media,” I know in English that means that he reads and listens to every word being written or said about him.
Bob Knight once told a reporter (not me) that when he died he hoped his tombstone read, “He never gave a damn what anybody said about him.”
I never met anyone who cared more about what people said about him. Everyone cares. It’s human nature.
At some point in the not-too-distant future, Jackson will sit down with someone and answer softball questions about his tenure with the Knicks and will say something like, “I take responsibility,” and then will explain at length why none of it was his fault.
It wasn’t ALL his fault. Dolan was at fault for hiring him and paying him so much money without getting some kind of commitment from him to actually work at the job. The rest was on Jackson.
Jackson is 71, so it’s pretty certain New York was his last stop. Given his performance with the Knicks, who in the world would hire him even if he wanted to work again?
It’s sad when icons stay too long: Willie Mays, Michael Jordan, Joe Namath, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are just a few examples of players who should have retired younger or, in Jordan’s case, made the mistake of coming back once too often.
Jackson’s last act is different. No one is going to feel sorry for him, especially since Dolan still owes him another 25 million bucks. Beyond that, though, is this: a lot of basketball people wondered for years if Jackson got too much credit – from people other than himself – for his “Eleven Rings.”
Clearly, he did. His legacy is changed forever. He has no one to blame but himself.
John Feinstein’s most recent non-fiction book, “The Legends Club—Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano and an Epic College Basketball Rivalry,”—spent six months on the New York Times bestseller list in hardcover and two more in paperback. His new book, “The First Major—The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup,”—will be published in October and is available online for pre-sale now. He is also the author of, “Last Shot,”—winner of the Edgar Allen Poe Award for mystery writing in the Young Adult category—and his next kids mystery, “Backfield Boys,” will be published in August.