It wasn't as daft as letting Carmelo dribble the length of the court with seven seconds left, down by one, to hoist a brick when the Knicks still had timeouts -- as happened in that loss to the Wizards a few weeks back, the one that signaled the beginning of the end of Mike Woodson's glorious reign in the Garden.
But it was a moment every bit as indicative of Woodson's inability to infuse the Knicks with an iota of court sense. It came in the fourth quarter of the second game of last weekend's home-and-home losses to the powerhouse Raptors. Having once trailed by 21, New York had cut it to six, 101-95 -- whereupon rookie guard Tour'e Murry, the former Rio Grande Valley Viper, decided to flagrantly foul Toronto's Kyle Lowry, who converted both free throws and then hit a three. Final score: 115-100. "That was probably the biggest sequence of the game," Woodson said, after his 21st loss in 30 games. He then added in summation: "I liked the way we fought." In a just world, those would have been the last words we ever heard from Woodson as head coach of the Knicks.
Was Murry's idiotic, rally-killing brain spasm as felonious as the Wizard debacle? No. But was it Mike Woodson's fault? Absolutely. Good coaches control their players' heads. Make the 12th guy as mindful of his role as the first. Woodson clearly has no control of anyone's head; he has become nothing but a frowning figurehead of failure. But in light of Jimmy Dolan's recent locker-room assurance that no changes are forthcoming, it likely will be a few more months before Woodson is ejected and lovable Herb Williams (in his third interim stint) brings the Knickerbockers in at, say, 27-55.
At that point, Dolan faces the choice of an until-now markedly undistinguished lifetime: Hire another mediocre coach who will prove slightly more capable of melding these disparate and clueless heads into a slightly less mediocre team ... or lure Phil Jackson back home.
New York is the town where Jackson always belonged, ever since -- as a player, living 14 blocks south of the Garden in a loft above a brake shop, smoking weed, reading obscure philosophic tomes in the locker room -- he picked up his first two rings. It's the town where, in the off-seasons, to satisfy his hoop jones, he'd play weekly games with buddies at various grungy gyms around town. It's the town where, in the early '70s, his woolly, bearded, flannelled countenance delightfully seduced the purple-prosed tabloid columnists: "He looked like a clumsy 6-foot-8-inch stork that suddenly winged away in a graceful arc," wrote Larry Merchant in 1972, as Phil began to emerge as an effective sixth man. "... He plays like a Giacometti sculpture on roller skates."
It's the only town where his basketball business in still unfinished.
Is it possible? That Phil, at 68, would consider coming back to lift the cloud of despair that has shrouded the Garden for four decades? Hell, yes. With Phil, anything is possible. He has spent his life trying to live in the moment. Take his decision this past January to propose to longtime swain-ette Jeanie Buss. When Diane Mast, the widow of Phil's old Knick best friend Eddie Mast, and a friend since 1970, asked Phil why he'd finally popped the question, his answer? "It kind of surprised me."
Now consider: Do you honestly think Phil wants our last memory of him to be that slap of Pau Gasol's chest, of Andrew Bynum's ugly theatrics in the wince-making sweep at the hands of the Mavs? And let's not forget the subsequent grumpy interview he gave Andrew Kremer of HBO after he'd left the Lakers... and Dolan, needing a coach, hadn't even called. Phil then let Kremer into his Montana compound, where few are allowed to tread, for an uncomfortable segment that seemed more advertorial than interview:
Kremer, on his effectiveness moving forward as an NBA coach: "Is sixty-six too old?"
"That's hogwash," came the quick answer from a frowning Phil. "...As much as I've been around this game, it doesn't happen. The game doesn't pass a person by."
Would he want to come home? When, as we speak, he currently resides in a) an L.A. beachfront home with a balcony view of the rippling Pacific, and b) a compound on a breathtaking lake in northwestern Montana backed by snowcapped peaks, a place to which Buddha would have happily relocated?
Well, consider a few other factors: After he won a CBA title as a coach in Albany in the '80s, he told me back then, he was dying to get back down the Thruway... but the Knicks didn't call. Then, when Dolan was looking to replace Mike d'Antoni two years ago, he didn't call. Phil, standing on ceremony (and ego) didn't call Dolan, either.
But you don't think he'd pick up the phone if Dolan called now, the third time around? I do. I'll heed the opinion of a man possessing five rings earned under Jackson: "Phil? Never gonna let any grass grow under him," Ron Harper told me not long ago, laughing, during my research for a book about Jackson. "And no matter where he is, he finds a way to make everything work."
Here's how the dream scenario goes: He won't coach. According to friends, the coaching days are done. Two fake hips, a fake knee and an angioplasty require placid, "mindful" moments behind a desk, not a stalk-the-sideline role wherein tripwire anger-emotions boil to the surface. Instead, he'll be a Riley-like prez/guru overseeing the entire show.
So who will be the head coach? Not his old Bulls guard, Lakers shooting coach and triangle PhD Craig Hodges, who learned the offense playing for Tex Winter at Long Beach State, and, in his first year under Phil, hit 87 three-pointers (and won the All-Star three-point competition in which, in one round, he hit 19 straight). No, Hodges will be on the bench to help coach the triangle.
It won't be Harper, Phil's wise-man quarterback on both the Bulls and Lakers; Ron will be the defensive specialist. (When Phil took over the Lakers, he called Harper, who said, "Phil, I think I'm retired." Jackson replied, "Not yet you're not.")
No, the head man will be Jackson favorite John Salley, former Bull and Laker under Phil, who will take over the bench role Phil always filled: master motivator.
Cerebral and worldly and ever-searching -- he's had audiences with the Dalai Llama, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu -- Salley is, like the younger Phil, a huge man possessed of a prime-time aura as soon as he enters a room. And like Phil, he knows how to play the corporate game while simultaneously questioning it at every step. (On top of which, he knows the triangle so well that he used to coach Shaq on it during their championship year together in L.A.)
Speaking of the triangle, could it work with this bizarre Knicks roster, this jerry-rigged amalgam of once-weres, wannabes and weirdsmobiles? (Metta World Peace on why he missed that Dolan pep talk: "I was in another galaxy yesterday with my galactic friends." Presumably Darryl Dawkins on the planet Lovetron.) Could even the Lord of the Rings mold this roster into a semblance of a challenger? Of course. Let's break it down:
Carmelo, like MJ, will adapt and become a team player. Phil tends to have pretty good success at deflating egos. J.R. Smith, like Bulls' malcontent and overshooter B.J. Armstrong, will be ejected. Iman Shumpert, freed to be fluid, will thrive in the triangle. Amar'e Stoudemire, still possessed of skills, will be a reliable, selfless vet when he sees the glimmer of a ring on the horizon.
Metta? Either discarded, a Rodman past his shelf-date, or a guy who re-channels the Artest whom Phil called the MVP of the ring-clinching seventh game of the 2010 defeat of the hated Celts. Andrea Bargnani? Well, if Phil could turn Matador-defender Toni Kukoc into the sixth man of the year as a Bull, he'll find a way to bring out the best in the Italian; Jackson always got the most out of his euro-style players (see Pau, Sasha, Vlad), relying on their knowledge of the fluid, stats-oblivious game they play across the ocean, especially when he had to rein in the chaotic games of Kwame, Bynum and Odom.
To a man, the whole team would elevate its effort; that's what players do when a guy with rings comes in. When Jerry Krause brought Phil to the Bulls in the first place, to be an assistant to Doug Collins, Jackson told friends that he thought it was because he had a couple of rings when none of the other Bulls coaches did. It worked. "Sports is a strange animal," Earl Monroe told me, "in that you can make all the money in the world, but if you haven't won the championship, you don't have the same respect."
And that's one thing Jimmy Dolan's been dying for -- for a long, long time.
Hey, Cable Guy: It's one phone call away.