If there’s something James Dolan seems to have finally figured out from his tenure as chairman of the New York Knicks, it’s this: It’s a lot easier to get people to pay their cable bills every month than it is to build a winning franchise in the NBA.
Not that the paranoid owner with the Cablevision cash hasn’t tried. He’s employed a lot of lame schemes to get a winning team at Madison Square Garden, only to watch them disintegrate.
His latest is a $60 million Hail Mary that might actually have a chance of succeeding, assuming Dolan can keep his promise to stay out of basketball operations. Hiring Phil Jackson as president of the franchise isn’t the worst idea in the world, though Knicks fans would surely rather see Jackson coaching.
At the very least it buys Dolan some time. Jackson is now the public face of the franchise and he’ll get a grace period to make sure Carmelo Anthony is happy and Mike Woodson can still coach.
And, really, what does he have to lose? The Zen Master certainly can’t be any worse than Isiah Thomas, a Dolan experiment who nearly ruined what was left of the once proud franchise. At least Jackson comes with some beefy credentials that include 11 NBA titles and a very specific idea on how to run an offense.
”When you have a chance to get Phil Jackson to run your team, you do it — plain and simple,” Dolan said. ”Welcome home, Phil.”
Those were words that Knicks fans love to hear. But this was even better:
”By no means am I an expert in basketball,” Dolan said in an admission both stunning and belatedly welcome.
That Jackson was lured to a front-office position with the Knicks wasn’t terribly surprising given the dysfunction that now seems to afflict the Buss family in Los Angeles. The Lakers could have given Jackson what he wanted – should have given him what he wanted – but Kobe Bryant will tell you that the heirs of Jerry Buss can’t seem to make a decision that makes sense.
So he heads across the country for New York even while his heart is still in Southern California. Jackson says he will spend significant time in New York, though it’s not hard to imagine him keeping an eye on the Knicks from the beach house he and his fiancee, Lakers president Jeanie Buss, share on the West Coast – or even in the owner’s suite at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
It’s a strange dynamic, these two team presidents from two storied franchises living with each other. Would make a good reality show, though it’s hard to imagine Jackson selling himself out like a Kardashian.
As a young man he won titles as a player with the Knicks in 1970 and 1973. As an older man he filled his jewelry box with six rings from Michael Jordan’s reign in Chicago and five from Bryant’s stint under him in LA.
What better way to finish off a career as golden as any in the NBA than to restore the Knicks to, at a bare minimum, respectability?
”It would be a capstone on the remarkable career that I’ve had,” Jackson said.
It will, if Dolan does as he says and lets Jackson make the basketball decisions. It will, if Jackson is 25 percent as successful running the team from above as he has been on the court.
It worked for Pat Riley in Miami, with a bit of help from LeBron James. It hasn’t worked for Jordan, who bought a team just so he would have final say but hasn’t delivered a winner yet in Charlotte.
Jackson, though, is smart enough to hire people to figure out salary caps and contract minutia. He’s smart enough to figure out who he wants coaching and who he wants to be coached, and he will stick with a system that has brought him a lot of success.
”I believe in system basketball,” he said. ”I came out of a system here. I believe that’s something we want to accomplish here.”
His old jersey is already on sale in the team store, and it won’t take Jackson long to impose his culture. If he can navigate the team’s salary cap issues and get some bloated contracts off the roster, he’s got a chance to remake the team.
If nothing else, his hiring restores some faith among Knicks fans. Tired of Dolan and disillusioned with his decisions, they suddenly have hope.
It may be a $60 million gamble, but the cable money will take care of that. Return the Knicks to their glory days, and Jackson is worth every penny and more.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg