Phil Jackson Lends Hope to Dolan Foes

AP Photo/Richard Drew

New York Knicks fandom is, too often, about hopes unraveled. Since James Dolan took over the team in 1999, injuries have crippled rosters; big contracts have undermined salary caps; and egos – not skills – have been the priority. This year’s team is at risk of losing the season, along with its best player, forward Carmelo Anthony. Chances of ending a 41-year championship drought seem nil.

Phil Jackson wants to change that. The Basketball Hall of Famer took office as the Knicks’ new president Tuesday as part of a five-year, $12 million contract. The deal capstones a managerial career that includes 11 NBA championships and a 70.4 percent winning percentage with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers.

“We’re going to push this team, hopefully, and work into the playoffs this year and see how they really can compete,” Jackson said at a press conference Tuesday. “I have to jump in with both feet. I’ve got to move to New York, and I’ve got to do this job the right way.”

Knicks fans may remember Jackson best for his on-court victories. He spent 10 of his 13 playing years in New York, winning two championships – in 1970 and 1973 – alongside fellow legends Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere, Walt Frazier, Red Holzman and Willis Reed.

“I started my career as a Knick and know what it feels like to win in this great city,” Jackson added.

“This is someone who knows about winning,” said Knicks owner James Dolan. “Phil will be in charge of all basketball decisions.”

No matter how they recall Jackson, Knicks fans hope Dolan will offer the very autonomy he promised Tuesday. He never gave that to Glen Grunwald, Scott Layden, Isiah Thomas or Donnie Walsh.

This year, in particular, the Knicks could use some discipline, along with a break from Dolanist powergrabs. Jackson will likely spend these next few months recruiting a new head coach and managing the growing demands of Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani. The coming years will also bring chases for talents like Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant, Minnesota Timberwolves center and power forward Kevin Love, Boston Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo and Miami Heat forward Lebron James.

Maybe the Knicks, with Jackson’s help, can even take risks on young, inexpensive talent. The team only has two draft picks over the next four years and, if Dolan gets his way, will keep bandaging systemic woes with celebrity additions that deliver more press than victories.

Jackson’s presence can help the front office’s reputation, too. Dolan sought Jackson for the peace of mind he can provide. The new president’s big personality – one for Montana ranches, Native American drums, Zen thought and brash truth – might distract critics who have called the owner lazy and uncooperative. If the Knicks disappoint, fans will have Jackson – not Dolan – to blame. That is, at least, what the owner thinks.

And when it comes to tangible power, Dolan will still be atop the franchise. The owner has a history of muzzling underlings after unauthorized comments. That could hinder the president’s gameplan, especially if he wishes to open up about the team’s shortcomings.

“I think Phil could become a great GM,” one league executive told Sports Illustrated. “But unless he is revamping the front office, he’s not what the Knicks need.”

The Knicks need administrators less eager to hand out the quickest pink slip possible. When broadcaster Marv Albert criticized the franchise – on Dolan’s cable network  – he was taken off the air. When Isiah Thomas got bad press, Dolan fired much of the team’s public relations crew. And whenever big-name acquisitions falter, they are dismissed. Jackson could face the same fate if, or when, he defies the top.

But Jackson, experts say, has the upper hand for one reason: he doesn’t need this job. His 13 rings and $45 million net worth are already illustrious, and he will be 73 when his contract expires. He is in New York as a courtesy to Dolan. The owner has incentive to return the favor, ideally in the form of control.

“Unless Dolan gives him autonomy I don’t know how it’s going to work,” Beth Weissenberger, who co-founded the Handel Group corporate coaching firm, told Forbes last week.

But Knicks fans, many of whom despise Dolan’s strategies, maintain cautious optimism about Jackson’s hiring. They are too skeptical – even tired, after past dreams derailed – to feel otherwise.

“We know Dolan’s history of stubborn behavior and that nothing really changes unless he changes,” Mark Griffin, a member of a club called Knicks Fans 4 Life, wrote in an email to ESPN New York. “We support Phil Jackson and hope he has a lot of success. We at KF4L want to see Phil provided full autonomy.”

Bulls great Michael Jordan, who Jackson coached for seven seasons, has called Jackson a moderator. That reputation alone should lend Knicks faithful some hope.

“Phil is fantastic at managing egos and personalities, getting everyone on the same page and maxing out whatever potential is there for what should be the common and ultimate goal,” Jordan told ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith on Monday. “Just because he’s never been an executive before doesn’t mean he can’t do that.”

And just because Dolan has never surrendered control to a Knicks president does not mean he will never do so. The evidence lies not in basketball, but in hockey. Dolan also owns the New York Rangers and, for the past 14 years, has awarded Glen Sather autonomy in running the team. In Jackson, perhaps the Knicks’ ruler has finally found his roundball kin.

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