Unless my web-archive sleuthing skills are betraying me, the first time Phil Jackson was seriously connected to the New York Knicks’ head-coaching job was May 23, 1999. Less than a year before, Jackson had won his sixth championship as a coach in Michael Jordan’s last season with the Chicago Bulls and retired, vowing, “It’s time to go.” But as a member of the 1973 Knicks championship team, he’d always considered the Garden his true home, and that May, Mike Wise, then of the New York Times, broke the story that then–MSG president Dave Checketts was meeting with Jackson to take over for Jeff van Gundy. Jackson eventually signed to coach the Los Angeles Lakers and won five more titles.
Since then, Jackson has been the Knicks’ perpetual object of desire. Every time the Knicks have ended a season without coming close to a title—and that has been every season—Jackson’s name hits the tabloids. Come and save us, the back pages plead. You’re the only one who can. Jackson had always politely demurred, mostly because the Knicks’ rosters have been awful for the last thirteen years, while never ruling out the possibility. But this off-season, Jackson showed a little leg, apparently allowing “sources close to him” to leak word that the Knicks could maybe have him this year, for the right price. At last, it appeared a perfect fit, the star-crossed lovers finally finding their moment: The Knicks had the sort of talent-laden but dysfunctional roster in which Jackson has always specialized, the team was rolling in cash with a remodeled Garden ready to print some more, fans were growing skeptical after a second consecutive first-round playoff loss, and, perhaps most important, the Knicks had a coaching opening. It had been thirteen years, but these two kids, they finally had a chance. And then the Knicks never called.
The Knicks have been known for being an all-in, all-risk, championship-or-nothing, give-us-superstars-or-give-us-death team for so long that their decision to ignore Jackson this off-season and simply remove the “interim” tag from Mike Woodson’s title would, under almost any other circumstances, feel like a triumphant leap forward. Whether it was the end-of-days clawing for one last chance at a title in the twilight of the Patrick Ewing era, the disastrous Larry Brown one-year investment, or, most of all, the apocalyptic Isiah Thomas half-decade of horror, the Knicks are known, more than anything else, for grabbing any and every big name they can find as a desperate bid for attention and a vague, poorly conceived opportunity for another title. There’s no bigger name in coaching than Phil Jackson, and the Knicks passed right by him, choosing instead to promote and extend the contract of the low-key, well-liked, in-house candidate. This should feel like progress. This should feel like the grown-ups are finally in charge. This should feel like a bit, at last, of sanity.
So why does it feel like the Knicks just doomed themselves?
Mike Woodson was undeniably a terrific coach for the New York Knicks this season. After the resignation of Mike D’Antoni—a worldly, intelligent coach who had guided the Knicks through the most exciting fortnight in recent history with Linsanity but who, after a subsequent two weeks of trying to work with Carmelo Anthony, decided he’d rather be anywhere else in the world than coaching this team—Woodson took a team on the brink of mutiny and led them to a fantastic 18-6 record down the stretch, securing a playoff berth and notching the team’s first playoff win in eleven years. Had the Knicks finished one spot up or down in the Eastern Conference standings—avoiding the hypertalented Miami Heat in the first round—you can make a strong argument the team would have won at least one playoff series, and maybe two. There is no way that would have happened had D’Antoni stayed on; they would have been lucky to have made the playoffs at all. Woodson has earned considerable credit for all this, and he deserves every bit of it. He also has a staggering, fantastic beard.
But let us not get carried away. The Knicks were a dramatically different team with Woodson in charge, most noticeably on the defensive end, but while some observers credited Woodson with clichéd, empty platitudes about “pushing his guys to play hard” and chalkboard locker-room hokum, the real reason the Knicks played better under Woodson than D’Antoni was because Carmelo Anthony likes Mike Woodson and didn’t like Mike D’Antoni. Anthony played so much harder under Woodson that you wondered if he was physically allergic to D’Antoni, as if the coach’s mustache gave him mono or something. Hey, don’t take my word for it. Listen to Anthony himself. When the Knicks won the first three games after D’Antoni resigned, thanks largely to outstanding efforts from Anthony, Carmelo—a man who was paid $18.5 million this past season and will make more than $65 million over the next three years—actually said, “I think in the last three games, my focus was to have an energy that I haven’t had so far this season, especially on the defensive end.” That’s a pretty amazing thing to say to a reporter, or even out loud. The next time you have a crap month at work and everyone notices, try explaining it away by saying, “You know, I need a new boss. That’ll motivate me to work with more energy.” (This is not recommended.)