It was a no-brainer: Hire him, and they will win a lot of games, and then they will win a ring.
This is a given. This is axiomatic. As Kevin Bacon put it in A Few Good Men, "These are the facts of the case, and they are undisputed." History says that it never doesn't happen with Phil Jackson.
The Phantoms of 34th Street may not win a title for a couple of years, but once the inevitable becomes official and the Zen Master takes over their front office, they'll soon be a serious contender for the first time this century, and when that Garden saucer starts rocking rock off its hinges again, driven to delirium by the portent of Jackson's dozenth ring, we'll soon be letting James Dolan know: All is forgiven.
For quick championship results, the 68-year-old will need the tried-and-true Jacksonian roster: a megastar and a half, or a full two. And for that to happen, two things will have to fall into place, which they will, assuming Jackson and Dolan and some cap-management guru know how to clear the space:
A) Carmelo, energized by Phil's arrival, signs a long-term deal, hoping that LeBron James will play out next year in Miami before heading northward in 2015, and B) LeBron actually does so -- which you just know he will, right? Having conquered Miami, now prowling the NBA landscape like one of those towers in War of the Worlds, in search of a new market to gobble, James doesn't want to move West, where he'd just be the latest in a long string of ultra-men, from Magic to Kobe; he'll want to bigfoot the city that hasn't ever known a basketball superstar.
But should the pieces fall into place, under Jackson it won't be James and Anthony who will be the reason the team earns the first Knicks parade since Nixon was in office. It'll be the other 10 guys: the 31-minute men, the 13-minute men and the three-minute men. Because at Phil's every stop, to a man, sooner or later all 12 come to believe in the magic so fiercely that it becomes a reality. Hey, who cares if it's magic or reality when it works? The fans don't. The men who play for him don't. Because it always works.
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Critic No. 1: "But this time, he won't be on the court, and he's never been a front-office guy."
Irrelevant. First of all, no matter which Jackson guy Phil hires to coach (the greater metro area is hoping that the smoke signals say "Steve Kerr"), he will be coaching the team. Let's not kid ourselves. When Melo looks over at next year's coach during a timeout, the words he'll be hearing will be Phil's. Truth is, any Phil-watcher knows that the only place where Phil Jackson has to be for this thing to work is where he's automatically guaranteed to be: inside. And he will be, because this team will be playing inside his clubhouse. Dolan will be part of the tribe by invitation only. That'll have been written in blood on the contract; otherwise, Jackson wouldn't sign it. (He doesn't need this gig. He wants it, because he lives to compete, but he doesn't need it. For Phil, life between the beach and the Montana lake and the fiancée and the bank account is pretty damn good.)
On every winning Jackson team, to be "Inside" was to be a member of the most exclusive of professional sporting clubs. Those allowed in? The players, the coaches and the trainer. That was it. Not the GM, not the owner, not the business-people, not the PR guys, not the press, not anybody else. And that, in a nutshell, is why Phil's teams always win. Once you're in the Jackson club, you're a made man, which means that, in your own head, you're no longer what the outsiders cavalierly called you up until now -- a journeyman, a fringe guy, an afterthought.
On a Jackson team, you'll step in front of a bullet for the other 11 guys. You'll even study the tape of the next opponent even if you know you'll be a DNP-coach's decision.
"When he said, my first time in a locker room, 'Each and every one of you in this room has unique abilities to help us and teach us' -- and I'm standing next to Shaq and Kobe -- I felt I could do anything," Mark Madsen told me when I was researching my recent book about Jackson. Drafted out of Stanford by Jerry West with the 29th pick of the first round in Phil's first year, Madsen had very limited abilities. By the time he left the team? He still had limited abilities. But he also had two rings and (partly based on his legendary ability to somehow beat up on Shaq in practice) and would soon sign a reported $10 million contract with the Timberwolves -- way beyond his actual worth at the time. Mark Madsen: a Jackson guy, set for life, because Phil told him that he was a Jackson guy, and so, as they all do, he became one.
Town to town, Jackson's cult-ees dive for loose balls and study game plans and bust their butts in every practice because they have come to know that they've arrived in the perfect workplace. They know that they are employed by a guy who, no matter what the circumstances, has their backs. One year later, when they no longer fit, maybe he won't. One year later, Jackson the fuzzy boss can easily flip into Jackson the bottom-line guy, and send the exiled out into the cold, grumbling and fuming. He's no saint; he's a competitor, and like all great competitors, unless he wins, he dies.
But when Jackson famously said, "Get the f--- out of here" to Jerry West in the Laker locker room after a game in 2000, as recalled by West in his recent memoir, the words spoke worlds. West's silhouette may have been the NBA's symbol, but he was an outsider on the Lakers -- no small thing to the unknowns on that Laker team to whom the media refused to give props. "He always put me in a position where I could succeed," Ronny Turiaf, who played for the Lakers from 2005 to 2008, told me. "He allowed me to reach places I hadn't reached. He found ways to use everyone's skill set, with a system that explores every single part of a player's attributes, he stimulated me psychologically and intellectually."
The legacy of the man from Martinique? A $17 million free-agent contract after three years with the Lakers -- far more than he should have been worth had he played under anyone else's system. Guaranteed.
In Chicago? Jackson couldn't have won without Jordan and Pippen, but he didn't win because of them. He won because of the guys he convinced were every bit as important as the megastars: the Kerrs -- the little guy who stood up to Jordan in practice, and traded punches with him -- and the Hansens and the Salleys and the Buechlers. Especially the Buechlers: "Phil's guy," as Ron Harper put it to me about the overachieving Jud.
What's a Phil guy? In Buechler's case, a guy who's been made to feel as if his four points were every bit as vital as Scottie's 37. A guy who, upon first meeting Jackson after surviving a Bulls' cut as the 12th man, was stunned when his new coach's first question of him was, "How's your wife settling in?"
"I thought to myself, 'Excuse me?'" Buechler told me. "Then he said, 'Have you found a place? Are you making friends?' The other four years I'd played, not a single coach even knew if I was married -- or cared.
"I loved the man. Still do."
Buechler's legacy? Three rings, all earned: He scored key off-the-bench baskets in just about every playoff series from 1996 through '98.
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Critics Nos. 2 to 2,000: "Anyone could have won with that talent." No, they couldn't have, and no, they didn't. Until Phil took them over.
And while we're on talent, a little bit of history: The most impressive ring Jackson ever won was in a lonely town up the Hudson, coaching in a mean and scrappy minor league where, in the early '80s, every player was hardwired to score 37 a night to earn a 10-day tryout with Vancouver, CBA team title be damned. This is how meager the talent Jackson inherited on the 1983-84 Albany Patroons was: Not a single player was good enough to be called up for a single day to the NBA that season. They won a title in Phil's first full year, and no one outside of Albany ever heard from them again.
On Jackson teams, it's not the technique that wins the games. The technique is simple. The Triangle, Tex Winter's all-five-move-all-the-time scheme? "You play pickup? You're playing the triangle," Craig Hodges told me. Hodges studied the Triangle under Winter for four years at Long Beach State, and helped implement it in Chicago. The Triangle is not calculus, and it requires neither an all-planet point guard nor a dominant low-post guy, just five mobile players.
The blueprint? Keep moving. With each pass, find your next spot. Eventually you'll be in a place where you're open and balanced. Take the shot, because it will likely go in. Because Jackson convinced you that it probably would.
Defense? "It can be taught," Jackson told me one day in Albany many moons ago. And he'd know: Defense was his forte as a player in the '70s, back when he bicycled from his loft above the Big Bear Brake Shop in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood, wearing denim overalls, to the Garden on game night. Defense, he explained to me back then, is more a state of mind than a state of strategy.
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And yes, state of mind is what it is always about on a Phil Jackson team. "I got to meet the Dalai Lama. I met Mandela. I met Bishop Desmond Tutu. And Phil brings that mentality," John Salley, owner of both Bulls and Lakers rings, told me.
Did they drink the Kool-Aid throughout all these years, nearly to a man? Yes. Was it potent? One-hundred proof. It got them where they wanted to go. In fact, for 11 seasons, it was good as the gold ring that prompted Jerry Krause to lure him to Chicago from the CBA in the first place: the gold. Rings are a pretty strong motivational currency to a kid who's never won one. Jordan and Scottie hadn't won one, and none of their coaches had, either.
Enter Jackson, and the rest is history. "Sports is a funny animal," his former teammate and close friend Earl Monroe told me. "You can earn all the money in the world, but if you don't own a championship, you don't have that same respect."
In New York, they'll play for him because he has the rings, which represent a promise to whomever remains: You'll win one, too. I'll show you how. Because I know how.
* * *
So, let's address the specifics of this team, so sporadic and unpredictable of late, underachieving under men in whom they never believed. Carmelo? Critics see him as nothing but a glorified Allen Iverson; George Karl, a lifelong rival and skeptic of Jackson, says Melo isn't "a Phil Jackson type of player." Well, he wasn't under Karl, anyway. But he will be under Jackson. Jackson wouldn't agree to a job with the Knicks if he thought he couldn't make Melo more mellow.
More relevant was Karl's utterance that "[Anthony's] got to have that mental toughness around him for when he gets a little selfish," as he accurately dug at the current Knicks' collectively soft ensemble. What Karl is intentionally ignoring is that, in the short term, if they're around, Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith, likelier than not, will get tougher. That Tim Hardaway Jr. will fully realize his potential. That Raymond Felton, if unable to turn into a Ron Harper, will at least develop into an actual semblance of a quarterback.
This we know: That guys we've never heard of will come off the Knicks bench to get a steal, or hit a three, or draw a charge, then sit down as their teammates rub their heads and bump their fists, even though no one will mention them in the game account.
Why wouldn't they? That's how it's played out for three decades now. Come on: Name a player who has never gotten better under Phil Jackson?
I'm still waiting.
And if the mega-neon-names and skywalkers and transcendents aren't wearing the Skittles Orange in two years because Dolan the team owner remains the worst businessman since Dolan the Cableguy? Is it guaranteed that the team will win a ring?
Will the team be a hell of a lot of fun to watch? Hell, yeah.
See, on the Inside of Jackson's clubhouse, they believe. Then they win. These are the facts of the case, and they are undisputed.