The elderly woman approaches cautiously, like most people who come to his table in the upscale Italian restaurant.
She tells Phil Jackson he knows her son, which, as it turns out, he does. Then she leans in and lowers her voice.
“Good luck,” she says to the most successful NBA coach of all time. “I hope things get better.”
“Things” would be the New York Knicks, the franchise Jackson was hired to turn around. He was given about $60 million over five years to do so, but the first season has been a New York state of grind.
The roster is lousy, the cornerstone player limps around on a balky knee after signing a huge contract, and the triangle offense looks more like a circle on many nights. Or, really, a zero.
The man who lobbed barbs over the years at David Stern (expensively), Kobe Bryant (bravely), Mark Cuban (amusingly) and a still-on-the-job Donald Sterling many, many years ago (prophetically?) had to sling a few at someone else — himself.
Jackson issued a mea culpa a couple of weeks ago, a surreal development for someone who used to chuckle at losses to Milwaukee as simply being part of the learning process.
Losing to the Bucks by 16 points wasn’t as fun a couple of weeks ago, the Knicks somehow falling for the 26th time in a 27-game span.
“Obviously I didn’t do the right thing in picking the group of guys that were here,” Jackson said. “Now I have to do the job that I was brought here to do.”
It’s been a rough start as the Knicks (9-38) prepare to face his old team, the slightly-less-ragged Lakers, on Sunday.
Carmelo Anthony hasn’t yet lived up to the five-year, $124-million contract he signed as a free agent last July. Slowed by a troublesome left knee, one that will probably require surgery, his numbers are down across the board.
Point guard Jose Calderon has been a bust since being acquired from Dallas, while the Mavericks have prospered with the player they got in the trade, rim-protector and rebounder Tyson Chandler.
The Knicks, coached by Jackson protege and former Lakers Derek Fisher, can’t even win in their own watered-down conference — they are 6-23 against the East — so they waved the white flag a few weeks ago by salary-dumping J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert.
“When he came here, Knick fans were so desperate for anything good to happen, they were forming a parade in the street that Phil Jackson was here,” said Frank Isola, a longtime Knicks and basketball writer for the New York Daily News. “None of them ever really sat back and said, ‘Well, they are getting the greatest coach in NBA history but he’s not coaching the team.’ He’s doing something that he’s never done before and it’s not an easy job. And now it’s really going to be hard work.”
Sure enough, Jackson is greeted as “Coach” more often than not around the city, be it restaurant maitre d’s or 30-somethings with bewildered smiles who see him walking near Central Park.
Shortly after Jackson’s “blame me” dialogue with reporters, the Knicks won four of five, briefly energizing fans perhaps too eager to realize the victories came against New Orleans without Anthony Davis, bottom-dwellers Philadelphia and Orlando, and Oklahoma City without Kevin Durant.
Then the Knicks lost to Indiana, 103-82, scoring 12 points in the third quarter and reminding everyone they were 28th in the NBA in scoring average (92.7 points a game).
Former players have rallied around Jackson, almost predictably.
“It’s the first year and the next couple years, I guess, we’ll see if he can make a successful run for himself,” said Pau Gasol, who won two championships while playing for Jackson with the Lakers.
“I’m sure it’s frustrating. He’s just got to stay patient. He’s a guy that’s so intelligent and so cerebral that I think he’ll make the right moves.”
One of the players who could help Jackson is Gasol’s brother, Marc, a free agent after this season. Maybe he’ll be the first prize Jackson swipes from another team.
“Maybe,” Pau Gasol said coyly. “Maybe not.”
It can only get easier. Perhaps.
Amare Stoudemire’s contract finally comes off the books, freeing up $23 million more to spend in free agency this summer. The Knicks will also get a top draft pick in June.
Isola wasn’t convinced it would get better soon, but he predicted a captivating development — Jackson vs. his fiancée, Jeanie Buss, the president of the Lakers, who are projected to have about $24 million to spend on free agents in July and perhaps even more the following year when Kobe Bryant comes off their books.
“The next few summers it’s really going to be Phil and Jeanie going head-to-head to get players on some level,” Isola said. “I think Phil would probably admit that the Lakers have an advantage because there is more history there, they have won more titles and it is L.A. I think that he is probably going up against his girlfriend, realizing that she has a bit of an advantage.”
For now, the Knicks are nowhere near winning a playoff series, nothing new for a team that’s advanced past the first round once since 2000, one of many crags in the mountain for Jackson when he took the job.
He was a rough-hewn forward for the Knicks when they last won the NBA title in 1973. What he faces now will take all the guile he employed back then. And then some.