Phil Jackson Perches Atop the Knicks, and a Soapbox


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Phil Jackson during Sunday’s win over Atlanta. He is beginning his third full season as the Knicks’ president.

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Earl Wilson/The New York Times

Like the guy behind you in a theater, chattering away during a movie, Phil Jackson seems to have lost the ability to hear himself.

Seeing an accurate reflection in the mirror appears to have become a challenge for him as well.

Early into another season in which Jackson may not have rebuilt the Knicks to the satisfaction of the long-frustrated fan base or his Madison Square Garden boss, James L. Dolan, he was back in the public cross hairs last week as a self-appointed arbiter of the N.B.A.’s purity and probity.

With Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, his expensive acquisitions from Chicago, making fans fear that their best days are behind them — and with the Knicks (6-7 after Sunday’s home win over Atlanta) already treading a fault line between mediocrity and monotony — Jackson picked a fine time to quibble with the professional integrity of LeBron James.

James is merely the very best that basketball has to offer and is, on top of that, at the height of his success and fame. But Jackson, harping on timeworn hearsay, managed to insult and infuriate James in a wide-ranging interview with Jackie MacMullan of ESPN.

Assuming there was no racial subtext to Jackson’s dropping the word “posse” while describing James’s management team and friends — and nothing in his long playing and coaching career suggests that there would be — he still came across as tone deaf to the potential insensitivity of his comments.

That is the last thing Jackson — a team president with a minimal front-office track record who is forever preaching a triangle offense widely perceived by his players to be passé — needs at the moment.

Here is a less incendiary but equally condemnatory aspect to the story: Remove “posse” from the offending paragraphs, and you still wonder what the heck Jackson was talking about, and why.

Commenting on James’s 2014 departure from Miami — again, ancient history — Jackson looked back to a time when James wanted the Heat to waive team policy so that he and his associates could stay in Cleveland overnight after a game; Pat Riley, Miami’s president and an old Jackson adversary, had to assert his authority.

Jackson told MacMullan: “I do know LeBron likes special treatment. He needs things his way.”

Really? Is there a superstar in the N.B.A. — the recently retired Tim Duncan notwithstanding — who consistently doesn’t?

Jackson, residing in glass houses in Chicago and Los Angeles, coached Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, who were both known to exert leverage whenever it suited them — daily, if not hourly.

Ask Jerry Krause — the former general manager in Chicago who supplied Jackson with enough talent, Jordan excluded, to win six championships as the Bulls’ coach — how much Jackson needed things done his way once he had been rescued from the basketball bush leagues and had been transformed into the iconic Zen Master.

Jackson expressed his gratitude by engineering, with Jordan, an unseemly campaign to discredit Krause as a professional and as a person. Krause, now struggling with his health, is the glaring Hall of Fame omission from that Bulls’ championship era while Jackson continues to bathe in the riches that their partnership reaped, including the royalties from the many tomes he has written partly in tribute to himself.

Only fools would argue that Jackson is not deserving of his place in the conversation for the best credentialed and greatest coach in N.B.A. history. The revisionist ravings — based on his executive stumbling thus far in New York (aside from the drafting of Kristaps Porzingis) — rely on an assumption that Jackson owes his 11 championship rings as a coach to the luck of working with at least two historically transcendent stars.

As if Riley, Red Auerbach, Gregg Popovich and others won their titles with the humble cast of “Hoosiers.”

Even Krause has said on many occasions that the 1993-94 Bulls reflected the most impressive coaching he had ever seen. Jackson guided that team to 55 wins after Jordan did things his way and bolted from the franchise to flail at breaking balls in baseball’s minor leagues.

So while Jackson has much to be proud of, and while he could still succeed as the Knicks’ president, what he fails to recognize or acknowledge is that his current platform is no pedestal. Formerly the league’s most renowned steward, he expounds on other teams’ issues as if he were an expert pilot just because he sits in the cockpit, missing the paradoxical evidence that this team remains on the ground.

In a nod to Riley, who has won three titles at the organizational helm of the Heat, Jackson said in the ESPN interview, “Pat has a terrific sense of what he wants to do.” And all would have been fine had he left it at that.

Riley is actually Jackson’s late-career role model, having executed a shift from coach extraordinaire to premier executive. That, along with a reported $60 million in compensation, is what Jackson had in mind when he put his retirement in sunny California on hold in 2014.

But while Riley has always been an unapologetic lifer, Jackson has long carried an air of detachment, implying that he did not need basketball because he had many other interests.

Before and after his return to the Knicks, he went out of his way to say in a 2013 interview, it was others — his fiancée, Jeanie Buss, and friends like Steve Kerr — who told him that he “should not stay away from the game because your influence is needed and brings another element to the game of basketball.”

Beginning his third full season as the Knicks’ president, he still occasionally surrenders to triangle-teaching tendencies, big-footing another coach (Jeff Hornacek) and making people wonder how much his heart is really into a position he took on at an age when most people are set in their ways, reliant on proven skills.

Around the N.B.A., the result of the presidential election has brought outpourings of concern for the country from Popovich in San Antonio and Kerr at Golden State, among others with coach/executive pulpits.

Jackson? He revealed in the ESPN interview that he had not voted in a presidential election since 1980, leaving observers to wonder: Is he, at 71, still the spiritual iconoclast, or out of step, and touch?

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