Phil Jackson’s emergence from retirement to take over basketball operations for the New York Knicks last month completes a basketball circle that began, of course, when the young North Dakotan was drafted by the team and helped lead it to two world championships, in 1970 and 1973.
Those triumphant, colorful days are recalled with enthusiasm, if a bit of reflexive adulation, in “When the Garden Was Eden,” actor-director Michael Rapaport’s latest film, which premiered Thursday at the Tribeca Film Festival as part of its ESPN-centric sidebar.
A lifelong Knicks fan, Rapaport introduced the film by saying that he wanted to thank his parents, who “always supported my dream of joining the NBA,” even though he was a “very slow very slow Jewish white kid who couldn’t jump over a deck of cards.”
The movie that follows portrayed an eclectic group of athletes who could jump a lot higher than a deck of cards and (and, in the case of the polymath Jerry Lucas, do some tricks with it besides). Indeed, few teams contained as many characters as those clubs, not just the coach-in-waiting Jackson but the feisty Willis Reed, the flamboyant Walt Frazier, the free-speaking Dick Barnett and the feverishly bookish Bill Bradley, all under the tutelage of the scout-turned-guru Red Holzman. (Lucas and Earl Monroe would join for the 1973 championship, a more understated affair than the 1970 run.)
Rapaport begins the film with the currently-a-shambles Knicks and the announcement that Jackson will be taking over, then rewinds to a similar period in the mid-1960s, when the team was a ragtag group that played in front of a few thousand fans, many of them gamblers who had reasons to be there other than team allegiance.
That changes as the team begins to coalesce, and Rapaport, cutting between interviews and archival footage, shows it all, including Reed’s heroic limping out on the court for Game 7 of the Finals against the Lakers in 1970.
There are some other revealing moments — Reed taking on the Lakers bench in a man-against-the-world brawl, for one — and some equally great lines. Describing his unexpected takeover in Game 7 of the ’70 Finals, Frazier says, “Red told me to find the open man. After a while I was the open man.” Jackson gets off some good ones too, describing how, rooming with Lucas as he did his memory tricks, he “couldn’t wait … for him to fall asleep.”
The movie traffics in the kind of sport nostalgia that has become standard on ESPN and if it lacks any real conflict or underlying issue, it certainly offers a pleasant way to recall that landmark era; there are few athletes as much fun to hang out with for an hour and a half, and watching them in the context of today’s tightly controlled, character-light NBA makes one realize how much the league has changed, and rarely for the more entertaining.
Rapaport proves a capable director; he is making a mini-industry out of turning his personal objects of obsession into documentary cinema, having previously directed the sure-handed Tribe Called Quest docu “Beats, Rhymes and Life.”
MSG now owns half of Tribeca, but despite the cheerleading quality to the film — at times it feels like it could run on the MSG Network as part of the channels glory-days retrospectives — the movie was signed up by ESPN long before that affiliation was forged.
An airing on ESPN is scheduled for the fall as the new NBA season gets under way. That’s also when Jackson begins the long process of rebuilding the once-proud franchise. He can only hope for a team half as talented — and colorful — as the one depicted here.