Phil Jackson wins his opening Knicks press conference preaching culture change
It doesn’t get him a 14th ring, but Phil Jackson won his first press conference in New York.
Jackson was formally introduced as the Knicks team president at a press conference on Tuesday. He won it by talking culture change — and for a day at least getting the organization to walk that talk. Jackson talked about a fundamental shift in how the Knicks operate that will build a potential championship foundation. And he also played to the fans.
“There is no better place to win than New York City,” said Jackson, who won two rings as a Knicks player in the 1970s before his Hall of Fame coaching career. “It really is something that is special. It had a definite impact on my decision to come here.”
Jackson said the word “culture” gets overused in the NBA but that is what got him the job, the promise of change. Evidence of that culture change: Owner James Dolan had barely said two words publicly (save for some scripted comments) in the past seven years, but after this press conference where Jackson talks about the Knicks needing to be open and honest — with the fans, with the media and most importantly with the players — Dolan agreed to an interview on a New York radio station.
More than that, Dolan said all the right things about pulling out of his role of making basketball decisions and leaving that to Jackson — who Dolan signed to a five-year contract at a reported $12 million a season. Dolan said he would cede power to Jackson “willingly and gratefully.”
“The two gentlemen to my left here are the two experts in basketball, I am by no means an expert in basketball,” Dolan said while Knicks fans nodded at home. “I’m a fan but my expertise lies in managing companies and business. I think I’m a little out of my element when it comes to the team, I found myself in a position where I needed to be more a part of the decision making for a while. It wasn’t something I necessarily wanted to do but as the chairman of the company I felt obligated to do. And I am happy now that we have a team in Phil and Steve to do that. My whole job now is about supporting them in winning a championship. That’s a lot easier than what I had to do in the past.”
We’ll see if he can stick to those words. Jackson certainly knows about winning teams and focused on the system and team aspects of the game in his comments.
“We want to build a team,” Jackson said. “A team doesn’t have an ‘I’ in it. We’ve used that expression a few times as coaches, but this is a franchise that developed a team back in the 1960s that was consistently playing team basketball for seven, eight years (and won titles)…
“I believe in system basketball. (Knicks GM) Steve Mills came out of Princeton. I came out of a system that we ran here in New York in which team basketball was an important aspect of playing. We believe that is what we want to accomplish here.”
Jackson said he wants free agent to be Carmelo Anthony to be part of that future.
“There is no doubt about Carmelo being one of the top scorers in the league, maybe the best individual, isolation players in the game,” Jackson said. “I have no problem committing to saying Carmelo is in the future plans. There are a number of things I see Carmelo doing as he moves forward, and I think I’m on record from a year ago saying that Carmelo, as great a player as he is, still has another level he can go to. I hope together with the team we create we can get there.”
Dolan said talks with Jackson started before Christmas at the home of Irving Azoff (the manager of bands such as Dolan’s favorite The Eagles, as well as acts ranging from Christina Aguilera to Van Halen). Dolan started pitching the idea of Jackson coaching the Knicks and was quickly shot down, but the conversations steered toward Jackson in a front office role.
With that Jackson laid out his vision of the organization and how to turn it around to Dolan — that includes a more open relationship with the media and doing more public speaking. For now Dolan has bought in.
“This is someone who knows about winning, about the importance of a clear vision and how to install a culture that ensures a team wins, like his team did when his team played for the Knicks,” Dolan said. “Now that vision comes back to New York.”
Jackson said he wants to be “established” in New York but will split time between there and California, where his fiancee Jeanie Buss (co-owner of the Lakers) and much of the rest of his family lives.
That can work fine (although will become an issue if the Knicks don’t win) — Jackson is not going to be the details guy, that’s Mills. Jackson said he didn’t know that he would be spending a lot of time at the Portsmouth Invitational or other scouting spots, that physically (with two replaced hips, one replaced knee and likely another knee replacement in his future) he is not up for that kind of grind.
What Jackson is there to provide is the big picture things. He is a name and personality that can recruit free agents, he can help put in place an on court system that will move the Knicks away from the isolation heavy ball of the past years.
More than that, he can take what had been a secretive and dysfunctional organization and disinfect it with sunshine — open up the windows and let the light in. Not completely, but there is no reason for a basketball organization to have a terse (sometimes hostile) relationship with the media, to have players looking over their shoulders at the politics of the organization.
The real question is will Dolan let him do that, and if so for how long?
For a day, it looks like Jackson is winning.
If he can keep on winning and really change the culture, the Knicks will be winning, too.