The Zen Master Has Disappeared

By running the Knicks into the ground, Phil Jackson has begun to tarnish his unparalleled legacy.

In the days leading up to last Thursday’s NBA Draft, league sources turned the usual pre-draft rumor-mill into a 24/7 social media cycle. By Tuesday, the commonly used “sources say”, was not only reserved for breaking news stories, but for hearsay, speculation, and conjecture. Presumedly like many basketball fans, I had become so numb to the instantaneous leaks, that even reports of the Knicks shopping Porzingas failed to grab my attention.

By Wednesday night, the rumors were hard to ignore. Less than 24 hours before the draft, New York Knicks President, Phil Jackson, made an appearance on MSG’s “Knicks Live” to address the state of the franchise, along with the recent trade talks.

In mere minutes, Jackson did the unthinkable — throwing Porzingas under the bus in an attempt to defend his decision-making. After claiming that in his time coaching he had never had a player skip an exit meeting, as Porzingas had done in April, Jackson threw down the gauntlet — “As much as we love this guy, we have to do what’s best for the club.”

Crickets. At that moment, Jackson had completely fallen off his rocker. It was impossible to shrug off the incomprehensible egregiousness of it all, in that Jackson was unapologetically shopping the team’s franchise player, a 21 year-old unicorn who possesses one of the four highest celings in the NBA, along with Giannis, KAT, and Embiid.

Yet, more so than Jackson’s indefensible acts, I was having a harder time accepting one realization that had forever seemed impossible — the greatest coach in NBA history was shamelessly tarnishing his legacy in real time.

While I was too young to witness Jackson’s role alongside the GOAT, in orchestrating the ’90s Bulls dynasty, my early memories of Coach Phil came during the Lakers’ three-peat, in 2000–02. Nonetheless, my lasting image of him comes from the 2003–04 season. That year, the Lakers were self-destructing, with Shaq and Kobe’s relationship bottoming out after a downward spiral, Kobe’s sexual assault allegations, and the subsequent self-induced alienation, poisoned what was left of the team’s chemistry, and the free-agent signings of Malone and Payton fueled an unprecedented level of expectations.

Even amidst the most ego-driven, dramatic, and disastrous NBA season of all-time, Jackson kept his composure. On a nightly basis, behind the on-court and post-game feuding between Shaq and Kobe, there was Phil, seemingly basking in the dysfunctionality. Despite their inner turmoil, the Lakers found a way to get back to the NBA Finals. After heading into the series as heavy favorites, the Lakers were outmuscled, out hustled, and outclassed by the Detroit Pistons, in five games. Three days after their collapse, the Lakers announced that Jackson would leave his position as Lakers coach. The following month, Shaq’s departure closed the book on an era.

After spending one year out of basketball, Jackson was back on the Lakers bench at the start of the 2005–06 season. In their first year without Shaq, Phil and Kobe’s relationship blossomed, as the coach pandered to his egotistical superstar. For the first time, it was easy to feel their mutual understanding, or dare I say, companionship? In the following years, their resent-fueled relationship was buried, as the Lakers won back-to-back titles in ’09 and ’10. Their last championship together was rooted in mutual validation, as Kobe’s fifth title gave him one more than Shaq, while Jackson’s 11th ring was the most ever by an NBA coach.

One year later, Jackson retired after the Lakers were ousted in the second round. Immediately, Jackson became tied to every potential and imagined coaching gig. Whether it was speculation surrounding LeBron’s inability to win with Erik Spolestra, or Durant and Westbrook failing to live up to expectations under Scott Brooks, Phil was always the answer. Essentially, he was thought of as a mythical magician, a coach who possessed an unprecedented power to repair any feud, right any wrong, and lead any team to the mountaintop.

During his three years away from the court, the Knicks were constantly mentioned as the team representing the potential final accomplishment on his unparalleled resume. In 2014, the marriage came to fruition, as the Knicks hired Jackson on as the President of Basketball Operations. At the time, despite his age, inexperience as an executive, and the Knicks’ failure to advance past the second-round during Melo’s three-year tenure, it was easy to get caught up in the fairytale narrative. If anyone could lead the Knickerbockers back to prominence, it had to be one of their own.

Alas, some things are too good to be true. Three years later, the Phil Jackson-era has gone far worse than anyone could’ve imagined. During his first year at the helm, the incompetence of rookie head coach, Derek Fisher, combined with injuries to Melo, amounted in the worst record in franchise history. Even so, the fourth pick in that summer’s draft presented a silver-lining. After Jackson’s selection — Porzingas — was met with instantaneous backlash, the rookie showcased superstar potential, leading to the fanbase’ unanimous praise of Jackson.

The honeymoon phase lasted less than one year. Last summer, Phil proved that even he wasn’t immune to the Knicks’ posion. In the Knickiest of moves, Jackson signed Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose, two injury-riddled veterans who were long past their prime. And so began the “season from hell.”

After starting out 16–13, the Knicks went 15–39 the rest of the way, finishing 12th in the Eastern Conference. Aside from their on-court struggles, a series of off-the-court drama hung over the franchise’ head all year — In November, Phil Jackson takes a bizarre shot at LeBron James, criticizing him for having a “posse”, leading to Melo speaking out in defense of LeBron; Before a Monday night game against the New Orleans Pelicans, Rose disappears, going AWOL just before tip; One week later, several outlets report that Jackson is currently looking for teams interested in acquiring Melo, forcing Melo to meet with Jackson to discuss the rumors; And then, during his end-of-the-season press conference, Phil proclaims that Melo “would be better off elsewhere.”

As if Phil’s ongoing power struggle with Melo wasn’t enough to drive the fanbase off the deep-end, the Porzingas rumors happened. Now we’re here. As irresponsible as it may seem, without diminishing the age-old plight of the Knicks-fan, along with having to come to terms with it being his own undoing, forgive me for not wanting to accept that the last three years may inevitably tarnish Jackson’s legacy.

While it’s likely that there is a generation of basketball fans who will only associate Phil with this botch-job, if anyone over 21 years-old remembers him prior to this nightmare. No matter how far he runs the Knicks into the ground, Jackson is still the greatest coach ever, by any measure, along with leading the two greatest basketball players of their respective generations — MJ and Kobe — to a combined 11 titles.

For a point of comparison, look at Elgin Baylor, Isiah Thomas, and Kevin McHale. The further we get from their failures as GM and/or coach, the more we chose to remember them by their transcendent careers. Maybe Phil isn’t buried yet.

While assessing Phil’s over-arching legacy, I keep coming back to one lasting image. Heading into the 2011 Playoffs, despite being at their most vulnerable, the defending champion Lakers were expected to get by on their unmatched experience and mental toughness. However, in the second round, the underdog Mavs proved to be too much. Down 3–0 in Game 4, it was reasonable to assume that the Lakers’ championship mentality would help them fight off elimination, if only for one more game.

Instead, as Dallas blew the doors off and turned the game into a rout, two of Jackson’s players basically quit on him. The first was Lamar Odom, who was ejected after a premeditated body block of Dirk. A few minutes later, Andrew Bynum delivered a flying elbow to JJ Barea, earning an automatic ejection, but not before he ripped his jersey off while being escorted away. Granted, for the sake of this argument, harping back on a time in which Phil’s team collapsed, only forshadows the Knicks’ current debacle. With that said, at the time, it was unimaginable for a Jackson-coached team to self-combust like this.

Fittingly, there was Jackson on the bench, looking shocked, yet slightly amused by it all. Could you blame him? This was a man who who had seen the most intimidating player ever — MJ — berate teammates in practice, goading them into fistfights; Witnessed the borderline insane antics of Dennis Rodman; And successfully stroked the egos of two alpha-dogs — Shaq and Kobe — into playing unselfishly through three-straight championships. Through it all, Jackson’s cool permiated every trial, which begs the question — Where is the Zenmaster when the Knicks need him most?