Somewhere, tucked underneath the barren wasteland of Montana, there lies a laboratory. Inside is Phil Jackson, who is conducting experiments on Bill Russell, testing different methods on how to grow an eleventh finger.
Meanwhile, on the floors of New York City apartments with their blinds drawn and television screens on, Spike Lee, Michael Rapaport and Charles Oakley all lie in the fetal position, swaying back-and-forth as they watch a loop of Willis Reed’s iconic entrance into Madison Square Garden moments before Game 7 of the 1973 NBA Finals, the last time the New York Knickerbockers won a championship.
Somewhere else in the Big Apple, Carmelo Anthony gazes at the cloud looming over the Knicks franchise, but there’s no rain, as Anthony normally doesn’t make shots.
This is what basketball in New York City has become. An iconic ex-coach turned team president is now tasked with juggling loud-mouthed comedians who spill their feelings on a show headlined by Skip Bayless, former players who turn home games into Monday Night Raw in the stands and a hodgepodge of has-been super fans and washed-up “superstars.”
For years, we’ve been spoon-fed a lie that New York City is the Mecca of basketball. It’s earned that dubious title not because of what’s transpired on the hardwood, but rather, what’s taking place on the concrete of legendary streetball venues such as Rucker Park. There, promising stars of tomorrow play the game with the sort of freedom and passion that currently doesn’t exist as Madison Square Garden.
Instead, the environment at MSG is toxic, and Jackson is primarily to blame. However, Jackson’s actions, especially this season, are a necessary evil for the Knicks. In two years, he’s gone from a pillar of hope to a perceived cog in the organization’s imminent demise. In a way, Jackson is becoming basketball’s version of the Dark Knight.
“You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
Maybe the Zen Master should’ve faded into obscurity after retiring from coaching in 2011. Maybe his NBA-record 11 championships rings as a head coach, along with his two championship rings while playing for the New York in the 1970s should suffice. Maybe he should’ve stayed in Los Angeles with his then-fiancée Jeanie Buss. Had he done all of that, his legacy would still be intact as arguably the greatest basketball mind of all time.
Now, Jackson has, in the eyes of fans, overstayed his welcome. His image has taken blow after blow since becoming involved with the dysfunctional Knicks. He’s taken both direct and passive aggressive shots at the beloved Carmelo Anthony. He referred to LeBron James’ inner circle as a “posse,” thus triggering the most pointless sports banter since Deflategate. He frankly hasn’t appeared to care all that much about the consequences of his actions.
But despite taking on the role of instigator in this drama-filled era of the Knickerbockers’ storied franchise, Jackson is, per usual, one step ahead of the curve. His current mission isn’t to construct New York’s third championship team. Rather, his goal is to test the current roster’s, and in particular Carmelo Anthony’s, mental toughness by planting the seeds of tension.
Let’s be fair to Jackson for a moment. He’s well-versed in handling massive egos and thriving despite drama while coaching in gigantic media markets. During his run with the Chicago Bulls, Jackson had the fortune and misfortune of coaching Michael Jordan. While Jordan is universally recognized, and rightfully so, as the greatest basketball player of all time and was the central piece of six championship Bull teams, there was a dark side. MJ was so adamant on winning that he was borderline psychotic, as he often subjected his own teammates to verbal and physical abuse. His stories of trash talk and punching his teammates in the face during practice are the stuff of legend, but for a head coach, Jordan’s level of competitiveness and ballooning ego would’ve run most out of town.
In addition, Jackson valiantly tamed the feud between Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant long enough to deliver three straight titles for the Los Angeles Lakers. Eventually, the rift between the two superstars came to a full boil during the 2003-2004 season and after the Lakers lost to the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals, the Shaq-Kobe combo was over with.
Given his track record, Jackson’s surface-level treatment of Carmelo Anthony appears egregious and wildly disrespectful, but there’s a method to his madness. Jackson is simply testing the mental makeup of his resident “star.” Based on Anthony’s response in terms of on-court performance, the 13-year veteran has exposed himself as the most mentally fragile “star” in the NBA.
Anthony, regardless of what the media tells you, is not the victim in this situation. If anything, Jackson is the victim unfair media criticism despite justifiable treatment of a faux star. Never before in the history of the NBA has a player as mediocre as Anthony received more praise. Despite being worshiped as an offensive savant, Anthony is actually nothing more than a volume shooter and an assassin of ball movement. Yet, because he plays in the Big Apple, he naturally receives a copious amount of attention. But, as the cool kids say, “Ball don’t lie,” and only once has Anthony dribbled a basketball in a conference finals.
In a city with such glorious sports history, where legends such as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Reggie Jackson, Frank Gifford, Lawrence Taylor, Walt Frazier and Willis Reed delivered championships and etched their names in immortality, Anthony is an embarrassment and the perfect representation of what a mirage the New York Knicks franchise has become over the years.
When Jackson was hired as an executive back in 2014 before taking on the role as team president, he accepted one of the toughest jobs in professional sports. While the Knicks were fresh off a 2012-13 campaign that saw the team go 54-28, Jackson had enough foresight to understand that the path New York was traveling on wasn’t leading to the NBA Finals. So instead of allowing the current head coaches and players to drive the franchise into a permanent state of mediocrity, Jackson fired the entire coaching staff and began trading away players who had bad contracts in his view.
The immediate consequence was a 17-65 campaign in 2014-15, the worst season in franchise history, but instead of delaying the rebuilding process, Jackson kicked it into warp speed. Despite his genius, New York sports fans lack any form of patience and began treating Jackson with hostility.
Even then, Jackson’s reception is all part of his diabolical plan. With each questionable decision, soundbite criticizing Anthony’s style of play and cryptic tweet, Jackson is intentionally poking the bear to stir a visceral reaction. His intent is to not only weed out the mentally weak from the mentally strong on the court, but he’s exposing New York’s poisonous sports culture one condescending action at a time. Jackson was infamous during his coaching days for manipulating referees through the media. Now, he’s using media and social media to manipulate the restless fans of a franchise that’s been snake-bitten for the past four decades.
It seems cruel and unusual, but Jackson is proving to be the hero New York City needs, not the one it deserves. Eventually, Anthony will crack and leave the Big Apple, which means the Knicks can finally play team basketball. Eventually, the hyper-sensitive fans will boycott home games, turning MSG into the playground for the rational fan. After years of sabotage, Jackson’s goal of shifting the culture in a positive direction will transform New York into perennial contenders.
Once the Knicks begin competing for championships, all the erroneous fans of the past, including the famous ones, will beg for Jackson’s mercy, and like the classic, stone-cold product of the NBA’s most physical era that he is, Jackson won’t care. He’ll just be looking for ways to grow extra fingers as his ring count increases.
As it stands, New York is no longer the Mecca of basketball. Due to improper ownership and horrific personnel decisions, it has become an ancient city reduced to rubble. Jackson has taken it a step further, disintegrating any leftover piece from the previous eras. He’s slowly washing away the sour taste of the previous 40 seasons and molding the Knickerbockers into a team mentally capable of handling everything the New York media can throw at it, as well as a team that can function properly and consistently on the court. While everybody is playing checkers waiting for their tables at Cracker Barrel, Jackson plays chess against himself and wins twice.
The process is only beginning. More pain-stricken seasons are ahead, but as Harvey Dent said in the Dark Knight, “it’s always darkest before the dawn.”
Edited by Quinn Pilkey
Featured image by Rian Castillo, courtesy of CreativeCommons.org