The Death of Zen

Fifteen months 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 tweets are 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, the New York Knicks General Manager.

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 is waiting for them in a league of men.

Phil had not been lucky, not really, not this year. The worst team in the NBA all year long, for some ungodly reason, the Knicks decided to take on the characteristics of a playoff team and put together a mini-run in the last few days of the season, hand delivering the worst record in the NBA to the Minnesota Timberwolves and seven foot god Karl Anthony Towns.

And so Phil Jackson, on this draft day night, had the fourth pick but it could have well have been the twenty fourth pick, it hardly mattered because being out of the top three was like being in Siberia. If things fell the right way then the Knicks would have Jahlil Okafor or D’angelo Russell to brighten up the dark night. But if things fell the wrong way, if it was a disaster, if the Knicks were royally screwed, then an athletic, trash-talking Latvian was waiting to walk the halls of Madison Square Garden.

But that in and of itself was not the Phil Jackson sorrow on Thursday night. It didn’t help the narrative that the New York Knicks selected a player who will need two to three years to develop. For those counting the years, Porzingis development will intersect with Carmelo Anthony’s descent. At some point Kristaps Porzingis will come into his own and many agree he has an upside that is quite different than that of Darko Milicic or Andrea Bargnani.

But forget Porzingis for a moment. Phil Jackson has come to represent an organization that has descended into 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 has been 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 are buried beneath the tragic comedy that has become the New York Knicks. 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. Porzingis fell into that vortex, worse than a hurricane, and no one has confidence in Phil Jackson anymore to pull the organization out from the abyss.

It’s one thing for Jim Buss to be ridiculed from country to coast, cities and towns. Buss is 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. It’s a sport and sometime amusing to hear how Buss is made into a caricature and for the most part it is deserving.

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 talentless- they are a ship without a captain and without oars to hang on to, thrust into a raging water that may drown them again.

As a way of explaining Porzingis, Jackson said, “We anticipate it’s going to be rough regardless of whether we have a 19 year old KP or a 19-year old whomever. They’re still young players and have a lot of maturation to go.”

In an odd way, Jackson could be speaking of himself and his responsibilities in the toughest job of his career. He still has a long way to go.



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