By Jason Keidel
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He stood alone at the podium like the messiah, almost glowing in a symbolic nimbus. His suit drooped from his long frame as though he forgot to remove the wire hanger, a basketball devoured by his obscenely large hands, an almost painful grin before the lightning flash of cameras.
Then Phil Jackson shared the ball with Jim Dolan, the two men smiling before the phalanx of media. The contrast in the men was startling, like a before and after photo glued together. It’s probably the last time both men will be smiling at the same time.
Not only are they vastly different in persona and appearance, but also in accomplishment. Jackson has 13 championship rings. Dolan has none. Jackson is respected or revered around the world. Dolan is seen as a corporate clown who hired Isiah Thomas and owes Anucha Browne Sanders more than $11 million from a sexual harassment lawsuit.
Jackson was calm and confident, his booming baritone dominating the room, while Dolan stuttered and fumbled through jokes and prepared statements, looking every inch like the pampered brat he is, a born billionaire spending daddy’s cable cash with impunity. It makes you literally sick to see him in speak.
Look past the grip-and-grin, the promises and platitudes, and you’ll find the truth. It took three months for the New York Knicks, a signature franchise, the NBA version of an Original Six franchise, in the media vortex of the world, to convince Jackson to take their money.
And it wasn’t until they gave him virtually unlimited power, freedom, and quid that Jackson finally accepted their offer. It was more than an offer. It was a plea, a sniveling surrender. Jackson even admitted he wanted to stay in Los Angeles, already longing for the warmth, water, palm trees, and pink sunsets over the frigid, salt-strewn streets of Manhattan.
Jackson has had surgery on almost every joint in his sprawling limbs, and now, 18 months short of his 70th birthday, he’s asked to perform unprecedented surgery on the Knickerbockers. While he won’t be prowling the sidelines 82 times a year, running the Knicks is hardly a sedentary affair, one that Jackson’s brittle bones may not withstand for two years, much less the five years of his contract.
Ownership and the more jaded fans are selling this as Jackson’s career arc completed, the circle of his hardwood life clicking closed. The curtain rose on his career on Broadway and so will close.
Jackson spoke in metaphors, about “working the bushes” to find basketball talent, but was wildly vague about his game plan, assuming he has one other than to deposit those obese MSG checks.
And though everyone agrees that you could do way worse than signing someone of Jackson’s gravitas to run your team, a younger man with more executive experience would have been more prudent. But Dolan loves the wide public splash, hiring Hall of Famers and firing them after the honeymoon months. Larry Brown. Lenny Wilkens. Don Nelson. Jackson is the latest, greatest, and priciest trophy on Dolan’s wall.
He said Carmelo Anthony was in his plans, though he has to say that, if only to keep the waters calm through spring. It’s hard to imagine someone of Jackson’s basketball acumen building a team around someone who averages less than three assists per game and has never sniffed the NBA Finals in 11 years.
Then the subject of Mike Woodson popped up, and Jackson was typically diplomatic, saying he will root for Woodson to get the Knicks into the bottom rung of the playoffs this year. He didn’t state the obvious, which is Woodson is the NBA’s Dead Man Walking, sure to meet his corporate maker hours after the season ends in April.
Jackson wants their seasons to start ending in June. Next year is a forlorn formality, with the financial anvils of Amar’e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani still hanging from their neck. So it seems 2015 will be the summer of love at MSG.
Jackson remembers the original Summer of Love, and the surreal seasons that followed at Madison Square Garden. New York City looks like another city now. Heck, I don’t even recognize my old neighborhood, between 96th and 100th Streets.
Once the most mysterious and glorious place I’ve ever lived, I don’t even know where I am when I breeze through it now, all the way from Central Park West to West End Avenue. Imagine how Jackson will feel in his shorts and flip-flops along Seventh Avenue this summer.
He’ll discover what many of us have who remember Manhattan in the ’70s. You really can’t go home again.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel
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