By Jason Keidel
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Here we go. Again.
The Knicks paraded Derek Fisher, the NBA’s elder statesman, quintessential team player and family man, down the halls of Madison Square Garden, to lead the franchise into a brave, new world, cloaked in confetti and the ephemeral hope of a fresh start.
Steve Kerr was the face of that fresh start, of course, until he read the wilted tea leaves and heard the horror stories from Marv Albert, and decided Oakland was a more glamorous town than New York City.
Think about that. Kerr rebuffed his coach, mentor, and hardwood father figure, and the world’s greatest city, to coach in the area code of the Raiders, who haven’t won since 1983; in the city of the Athletics, who haven’t won since 1989; and his Golden State Warriors, who haven’t won since Rick Barry was spinning underhand free throws in the 1970s.
So the Knicks, Jim Dolan, and Phil Jackson rubbed the mud off their face and plucked Fisher from Oklahoma, who is a suitable, Jackson acolyte – and an undeniable consolation prize.
Fisher seems like a swell chap with a robust basketball IQ and the requisite toughness to take on any job. Despite his diminutive contours, limited hops and hoop skills, he leaves the league with five rings, and a reputation as a stout, smart union rep who is fluent in the corner office vernacular needed to tackle the Big Apple.
Of course, there were other, fine candidates — former Knicks, no less — like Mark Jackson, the best young coach in the sport.
And Patrick Ewing, perhaps the greatest Knick of all-time, who’s pined on the pine for a decade, waiting his turn to slide two seats over, was never considered for the Knicks gig.
Jason Kidd, Kerr, and now Fisher were given high-end head coaching jobs without spending five minutes clutching a clipboard, grinding their way up the coaching rungs. Someone felt they were ready, and they skipped the line. Yet Ewing has done exactly what’s been asked of him, laboring and learning his craft, his famed sweat-soaked brow proof-positive of his otherworldly work ethic.
Maybe Ewing isn’t head coaching material. But we won’t know until he gets a shot. And we surely know Jackson is a star. He led the Warriors to a better record each of the three years he was on the bench, and took them to the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time in two decades. Yet he was fired. Evidently, Kerr, who has no coaching experience, will do what Jackson evidently couldn’t — lead the forlorn Warriors to the title. I guess that makes sense to someone, somewhere.
So now Jackson is toiling on a telecast with Mike Breen and former coach Jeff Van Gundy, who was given every chance to win a title and just doesn’t have the coaching chops. Jackson was not given the same opportunity.
We’d hate to think Jackson is a victim of something more virulent. Would a white coach get bounced after such a stellar debut? I’m not into boogeymen, nor do I own a deck of race cards. And clearly the NBA is the most tolerant league in team sports. But with Donald Sterling’s entrenched, Jim Crow coda allowed to fester for decades with impunity, it imbues us with a little cynicism, if not paranoia.
The beauty of sports is the zero-sum finality of the final score. Basketball is the ultimate meritocracy. The stat sheet trumps stereotypes. We assume a man of any color can coach or play or run a team because the numbers say so. So when Jackson gets fired for reasons we can’t understand, then it at least raises an eyebrow. The worst we heard about Jackson, who was adored by his players, was that he was somewhat ornery toward management. As if that were a novelty or insurmountable.
Knicks fans are something else. They tell us to judge the Jets and Mets by their dearth of decent seasons, using titles as the main metric. But when it comes to the Knicks, we need patience. Ignore the 41 wretched years, sans a single championship. And if you question anything Dolan does, then you just don’t know basketball.
For all we know Fisher is the next Red Auerbach. But no matter the GM, hard work or the hypotenuse of Phil Jackson’s famed triangle offense will make MSG a winning culture. It takes talent, temerity, and chemistry, and MSG has displayed an acute allergy to all the above.
Phil Jackson was hired to change that, for the classic cliche of “changing the culture.” Yet we’ve already heard about static between Jackson and Dolan, and Kerr leaving Jackson at the altar was a profound, PR blunder.
Mike Francesa admitted as much, but then he defends the hire, imploring us to reserve judgment until the fledgling Fisher gets a chance to prove his wares. Fair enough. But a team gets latitude to the extent they deserve it. Presumed innocence is a legal term, a relative term, and inapplicable term to the Knicks, who have been a blight on the Big Apple for four decades.
The last time the Knicks won the title, Godfather II was in theaters, Richard Nixon was president, Joe Frazier was fighting George Foreman in Jamaica for the heavyweight title. Reggie Jackson was an Oakland Athletic. Ron Bloomberg was baseball’s first DH. John Wooden was coaching at UCLA. Secretariat won the Belmont. The Mets made the World Series.
And Phil Jackson was working at MSG. His role and his life have improved a bit since then. He will find his old town has mutated into something stellar or sterile, depending on your view of the new New York City. He doesn’t have to worry about pickpockets at Penn Station. He doesn’t have to worry about hookers on 8th Avenue. He won’t smell the stench of rotting garbage or the rancid vomit steaming on the sidewalks of 7th Avenue. He doesn’t have to worry about making ends meet on his meager salary.
And he doesn’t have to worry about winning another championship.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel
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