The Death of Phil

Three years after Phil Jackson took over basketball operations from maniacal, despotic owner James Dolan, and was seen by the faithful-their fault for believing in imaginary things- as a miracle worker, the luster has dulled to a pale glow that no longer lights up a room. There is something very ordinary about Phil Jackson now, about his white hair and the wrinkles beneath his jawline and his absent eyes. His tone is hardly arrogant anymore, his slanderous outrage about trivialities is all that is invective about him as he still tries to hang on to his former life, the ruler of the championship mythology, eleven titles, two dynamic shooting guards who cannot save him now. Nothing will save Phil Jackson now as he was ousted from a job he was never ever qualified for.

On another Thursday night, another year, with another talented class, the NBA Draft was held in another ballroom and there they were, the young men, the 19 and 20 year olds thrust into the arc of their second life because of their talent, unaware what was waiting for them in a league of men. Jackson chose a French national who has more bust potential than star potential. And so the Jackson wheel turns.

Phil had not been lucky, not really, not this year, not last year, not the year before. For some ungodly reason, the Knicks decided to take on the characteristics of a wannabe playoff team and put together a roster of old players with very little efficiency and on the downside of their career. The one exception, Kristaps Porzingis, Phil tried to run out of town for reasons of revenge. It was that same revenge, not allowing Carmelo a buyout to join the Cavaliers, engaging in a Carmelo war, that led to his demise.

But his demise started way before last night and James Dolan pulling rank. Phil was never cut out to be a head personnel guy. He has a specific philosophy that hasn’t changed over time. He is unwilling to adapt what he knows can win with what wins today with a new type of player. He is old. He is antiquated. His system still works but is dependent upon certain personnel. The Warriors run parts of the triangle offense so it is not a dead man walking strategy. But you have to have the gifted to be able to embrace it.

But that, in and of itself, was not the Phil Jackson sorrow. What his tenure became on its face, both public and private, was  mediocrity and humiliation; no one said this was going to be easy. Jackson is a Hall of Fame coach, not a team builder, so it was naturally rough for him on the other side of the line. His ethos and Native American rituals and Buddhist ideologies and team building strategies and selfless psychology and share-the-ball philosophy were buried beneath the tragic comedy that became the New York Knicks under his tenure. Phil Jackson the emperor is now Phil Jackson the ridiculed.

He came to New York and didn’t make the team a little better as was the advertised promise, he made the team a lot worse and frankly the light flickering at the end of the tunnel is the light of an oncoming train. Phil fell into that vortex, worse than a hurricane, and no one had confidence anymore in Phil Jackson to pull the organization out from the abyss. Like the Humphrey Bogart character Captain Queeg in the movie The Caine Mutiny, who loses all touch with reality and fixates on strawberries, so has Jackson, hell bent on revenge, blurring the big picture lens. He became mired in insouciant details.

It’s one thing for former Lakers President Jim Buss to be ridiculed from country to coast, cities and towns. Buss was a rich man’s son, the inheritor of privilege. Buss, born on third base, has never had to go it alone. He never had to pull himself up from nothing like Jackson who grew up in meager surroundings in North Dakota, the son of evangelists. Buss was always entitled. 

But Jackson is the Montana sage who meditates and finds energy in the whole of the group. He believes in connections, in not one man but many men, each linked together which, right about now, is so ironic because the New York Knicks aren’t linked to anything but their own fate. They are separate and selfish and talent poor- they are a ship without a captain and without oars to hang on to, thrust into a raging water that may drown them again. And all Phil could breathe was the triangle offense.

This was always going to fail. It happens when unqualified meets hope. Unqualified usually wins regardless of the institutional pedigree of the privileged. Phil didn’t ruin New York. He made them mediocre which is almost as bad. The marriage started out tenuous, then was ugly. Now it is over, sparing us all.

Jim Dolan did the unthinkable. He saved the Knicks. He made Phil Jackson go away.

 

 

photo via llananba