By Jason Keidel
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The NBA is rather fickle, even by the transient standards of team sports.
George Karl was fired right after winning Coach of the Year. And now, despite a robust opening act as an NBA head coach, Mark Jackson has been canned by the Golden State Warriors, who have been laughable for a long time.
Until they hired Jackson, of course.
* The Warriors’ record improved each of the three season he coached them.
* They’d been to just one playoff series in the 17 years prior to his arrival.
* They reached the playoffs in consecutive seasons for first time in more than 20 years.
But that’s not enough, evidently. They lost by a whisker to the Clippers, who have a deeper roster, the best point guard on Earth, and the epic mojo and momentum as America’s Team, fueled by the rampant racism of their owner.
No coach is better qualified, in attitude and aptitude, than Mark Jackson is to the Knicks.
Mark Jackson was born in Brooklyn, played high school ball in Brooklyn, played college ball at St. John’s, and was drafted by the Knicks, where he became the only non-lottery player in history to win Rookie of the Year. You don’t get more native New York than Mark Jackson, down to his hopelessly thick accent. Jackson is quite familiar with the glory and gory that comes with celebrity on Broadway and in the Big Apple.
A smart, stout, gritty point guard who, despite his limited skill set, amassed more than 12,000 assists, Jackson outlasted far flashier and talented point guards of his time. Despite the money and marble of Madison Avenue, New York City is blue-collar to the bone, and no one personifies the hard-hat ethos of our town more than Mark Jackson.
Steve Kerr, Phil Jackson’s disciple and presumed successor to Mike Woodson, has never played or coached in New York City, and has already expressed keen concern over the “MSG culture.” Understandably so, as the Knicks, despite the mystique projected upon them by millions of jaded New Yorkers, have been a dim franchise, sans rings or banners or parades for more than four decades.
New York City is the mecca of pro basketball in name only. In fact, if Kerr were wise, he’d apply for the Warriors gig posthaste and kick Jackson and Jimmy Dolan to the dirt-swept curb on Eighth Avenue.
We can dissect the triangle, Phil Jackson’s pious preaching and Zen meditations all we want. But he won all those rings because he coached four Hall of Famers at their athletic zenith: Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, and then Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.
Not to trivialize Phil Jackson’s trophy case, the most swollen in NBA history, but his true gift was coddling the colossal egos on and off the court. New York enjoyed someone of similar bent: Joe Torre. Not to say that both men aren’t solid tacticians, but running a team in New York City is surely harder than any in the world west of the Hudson.
Sure, many reunions end in failure. We were told Carmelo Anthony, also born in Brooklyn, was the quintessential homecoming king who would lead the forlorn franchise up the Canyon of Heroes. Say what you will about Melo’s time in New York, or whose fault the failure has been, but the reunion has hardly been fruitful, as evidenced by the disastrous 2013-14 season.
Jackson will tap Kerr because Kerr’s his boy. But look through an objective lens and you’ll have many concerns. How will Kerr react when the throaty, beer-soaked Garden crowd clamors for his head? How will he react to a 35-win season in 2014? How can you build the triangle without the proper, hardwood hypotenuse?
It’s one thing to sit in the executive suite in Phoenix, above the press and people in the seats. But let that first forest of iPhones form under his chin, parsing every play he designed. It’s one thing to belch the platitudes about the rigors of NYC. It’s another thing to experience it. Just ask Bobby Bonilla, Jason Bay, Jack McDowell or Eddy Curry.
Maybe Kerr is a fine prospect. But Mark Jackson is not only ensconced in the public, personal, and corporate cadence of our town, he’s also had three years of experience in the hardwood hurt locker we call the Western Conference. Jackson could fail, of course, and everyone under Dolan does, but it won’t be, as they say on the street, because he’s shook.
Phil Jackson will find that NYC has changed quite a bit since he sat on his hair in Sheep Meadow in 1970. Another Jackson has taken a tuning fork to the five boroughs since then. He’s been born, raised, and groomed for this exact job at this precise time.
Sometimes it takes a New Yorker to understand New York. Mark Jackson is that guy. It’s a shame he’s not the teacher’s pet.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel
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