This week, he’s dealing with swarming black flies and the searing summer heat at the Australian Open. Next, he’ll go for a swim off the Great Barrier Reef in the close company of curious tropical fish. Then he’ll avoid getting trampled by herds of sheep that roam the rolling hills of New Zealand.
But soon enough, Phil Jackson must confront a truly potential lifestyle hazard: the decision whether to coach the Knicks.
If a soothing vacation in the South Pacific is helping the Zen Master get back in touch with his inner self, then the first job offer he’ll get upon returning to the States will have him reaching deeper within for spiritual career advice. The guru in his gut will warn him that the Knicks seriously lack the supreme tyrannical forces required to execute an interplanetary extirpation of pertinacious antagonists.
Translation: He won’t have Jordan, Shaq or Kobe.
You can understand why the Knicks will, and better, make Jackson a priority. He’d give them credibility, he’d breathe life into a franchise that finds itself irrelevant once again, and he’d be less flaky than Larry Brown. Obviously, if Brown decides to flee the Pistons during his two-week escape clause this summer, he’d be as good a coach with the Knicks and a better teacher. But beware: Brown is a tortured genius who can drive those around him batty, and he eventually falls out of love with his players and his job. With him, you take the good with the insane.
The only real issue with Jackson is his phobia about coaching teams that aren’t championship-ready or lack a great player. This raises a chicken-or-the-egg question. His nine championships were won off the sweat of Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant back when Kobe was still coachable. So there’s a tendency to study Jackson’s body of work and wonder: How much was it the players, and how much was it the coach?
“There’s always been that rap on Phil,” said Steve Kerr, the former Bulls guard who’s now a commentator for TNT. “Somehow, winning nine championships isn’t enough for some people, who feel anybody ‘could’ve done that, an idea that I find preposterous. Yes, Phil hasn’t taken over a rebuilding job, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t be good at it.”
Six years ago, he had the chance to settle the matter, once and for all. The Nets came with a ton of cash and asked Jackson to restore the crumbling franchise to ABA-level glory. Jackson gave it a thought, then turned them down and waited for the Lakers, Shaq, Kobe and the chance to chase Red Auerbach’s record for most rings.
Anyone would’ve done the same. But now Jackson will be asked by the Knicks to return to the team he played for and make basketball meaningful in this town again.
For those who harbor any doubt whether Jackson can win without an all-time great player, just roll the calendar back to 1993-94, the only season he didn’t coach an MVP winner.
Back then, Jackson proved he could overcome the retirement of Jordan. He just couldn’t overcome Hue Hollins.
A ticky-tack foul call by a veteran referee who should have known better helped deny Jackson a shot at the NBA Finals and a chance to confirm that he can do more with less. That season, Jackson and the Bulls won 55 games and ranked third defensively in the league. He had Scottie Pippen, but coached a team that was clearly in transition.
“We ran the triangle better than any team I’ve been a part of, because we had to,” Kerr said. “We couldn’t rely on Michael to score any more. We had to be as perfect as possible.”
The Bulls were tied 2-2 in the playoffs with the Knicks, who had better talent, and leading by a point in the final seconds of Game 5 when Hubert Davis rushed a shot. You know what happened. He missed, but after Hollins accused Pippen of touching Davis’ arm on the follow-through, Davis sank the winning free throws. Hollins’ quick whistle prevented the Bulls from taking a 3-2 lead back to Chicago, where they clobbered the Knicks in Game 6 before losing in seven. Also, in the conference finals, they would have met Indiana, a team they whacked four out of five in the regular season.
“That was one year when Phil didn’t have the loaded player and he did a super job,” Kerr said.
There aren’t any loaded players on the Knicks, just loaded contracts. A big challenge, therefore, awaits Jackson, who can either chill until he becomes the next coach for LeBron James or try to duplicate what his mentor, the late Red Holzman, once did for the Knicks.
“If this team wasn’t in New York, there’s no way he’d be interested,” Kerr said. “They have cap problems and haven’t built any momentum. But he has so much respect for that place that I wouldn’t be surprised if he took it.”