A Tale of Two Pities

What can Phil Jackson’s demise tell us about the future of another famous New Yorker — Donald Trump?

Flickr/Keith Allison/Gage Skidmore/DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

Phil Jackson’s ill-fated return to Madison Square Garden is a study in microcosm of the social forces that have swept another famous New Yorker to power— The 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump. While the dumpster fire that was Jackson’s tenure at the Knicks has now been extinguished, it is worth raking through the ashes for clues as to what the United States’ future under President Trump may hold.

It was uncertainty that led the Knicks to Phil Jackson’s door and it was uncertainty that led the American people to Trump. The prevailing public perception at the time was that the US economy was spluttering like a Prigioni-Bargani pick and roll and the Republican party stumbled into a candidate that struck a chord with the voters. After all who better to revive the economy than a billionaire businessman with a proven track record of financial success? Similarly in New York, who better to turn around the ailing Knicks organisation than a team legend with more championships than he can count on both hands. On the surface these decisions appear defensible but in reality both commit a logical fallacy known as the ‘appeal to authority’. In an appeal to authority, a person, or in this case, group of people mistakenly conflate a person’s expertise in one field with supposed expertise in another. In this instance, Donald Trump’s supposed expertise as a shrewd businessman was used as evidence of his ability to run an entire country. While Phil Jackson proved himself to be an excellent man manager and on-court strategist, it was a mistake to assume that this expertise would prepare him for the fiscal acrobatics required to navigate the nuances of the NBA salary cap.

As both men began their respective tenures, many who supported them hoped that they would be able to act as populist figureheads, synthesising the best and brightest ideas and policies from their respective teams of experts into an era of sustained prosperity. In reality the winds of change at that blew them to their new found positions of authority made this extremely unlikely. When a lone man is heralded as the saviour of the down trodden masses, it is unsurprising when he attempts to behave as such. Trump and Jackson both believed they had been given a mandate to act unilaterally, to create a future in their own image. Despite having little relevant experience in their new conquests, the weight of expectation hanging on every move they made was immense, so turning to their new colleagues and asking for the training wheels was a move both men were too prideful to make. This is the paradox of expertise, the more one is perceived to be an expert, the more difficult it is to ask for help. Unfortunately for their constituencies this led both men to pursue an ill advised agenda based on out of date ideals. As David McRaney puts it, “those who are held in high regard can cause a lot of damage when no one is willing to question their authority” or in other words, you agree to pay the ghost of Joakim Noah $72 million over four seasons.

As is so often the case, pride ultimately proved to be the undoing of Phil Jackson. Unable to reconcile the drastic changes to the league during his hiatus from the game, Jackson rejected the league wide trend towards the three pointer and instead began assembling a squad capable of functioning in the “Triangle Offense” he favoured during his time as a coach. It was the basketball equivalent of bringing the Spanish Armada to a drone war. Despite landing a generational talent in Kristaps Porzingis at the 2015 draft and having a ten-time all star and scoring champion in Carmelo Anthony at his disposal, Jackson’s Knicks won less than a third of their games during his three season stint in the Big Apple. Coaches were fired, excuses were made, and when the players and coaching staff dared to express scepticism about the viability of the Triangle offense, thinly veiled character assassinations and trade rumours were leaked to the press. Sound vaguely familiar? While Trump is a mere six months into his tenure, many of the same hallmarks are there to be seen. The Triangle offense is a perfect analogy for Trump’s coal revival - both ideas favour abandoning modern methodology in the name of nostalgic curmudgeonry. Similarly the slightest whiff of dissent from within the White House ranks has been handled in the same stead. Where a trial by twitter would not suffice, outright firings have ensued. Phil Jackson’s mouth must have watered at the thought of dealing with Carmelo Anthony in the same manner as Trump did former acting Attorney General Sally Yates and the FBI’s James Comey.

Keith Allison/License CC-by SA 2.0

Ultimately neither Trump nor Jackson have been able to demonstrate the type of humility or self awareness required to counterbalance their short comings as Presidents for the greater good, and their constituents, at least in some part must share the blame for that. It is likely that both the Republican party and James Dolan know there are more capable candidates for the job, ones with actual credentials and experience, but also understand the power of public opinion. For Dolan, Jackson was a metaphorical bandaid, temporarily stemming the steady flow of discontent oozing from wounds inflicted on the Knicks organisation by Dolan and Jackson’s predecessors. Meanwhile in Washington, sustained efforts to forcibly remove Trump from office will surely only make a political martyr of him. Perhaps a more politically astute move would be to wait for the tide of public opinion to turn on Trump the same way it did on Jackson. However, to do so would be a risky strategy as the effects from Trump’s presidency may be far more damaging and long lasting than Joakim Noah’s ill advised contract.

The real lesson for their supporters is that there is no panacea for any sports franchise or economy. They cannot be upset at Trump or Jackson for failing to deliver on the unrealistic expectations they encouraged them and their inflated egos to strive for. Yes Donald Trump managed to build an entire empire from a small loan of $1 million from his father, and yes Phil Jackson managed to win 11 championships with a mere handful of the greatest players of all time, but they are but men. True progress is brought about not with broad brushstrokes but with incremental improvement, vetted policy adjustments and patience. In the NBA, former Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie embodied this ideal, taking tradable assets and exchanging them for draft picks and contracts of higher future value in a series of manoeuvres he described as “the process”. Although unpopular at the time, Hinkie’s forward thinking is now coming to fruition. The 76ers have a young, talent laden roster and “Hinkieism” is all the rage. If the American people truly want to make America great they must abandon the “again” from Trump’s campaign slogan and champion a future-centric approach, not look back with rose tinted glasses at a utopia that no longer exists. The American political system is crying out for their version of Sam Hinkie, the last thing it needs is another Phil Jackson.