Don’t give up.
This is the lesson of Phil Jackson, who now returns to rescue the Knicks, indeed, rescue New York.
I remember the night – the late night – in February of 1985, in a Mexican joint in Florida, when he lamented that he was done, finished, in the National Basketball Association.
I’m a bit older than Jackson, can remember him coming along in the late Sixties, a thoroughly likable counter-culture guy from the Upper Midwest, who went with Bill Bradley to Allard Lowenstein anti-war rallies.
The Knicks had virtually a whole team of cool guys. It was a great time to be around them, and not just because they eventually won two championships.
However, by 1985, Jackson had convinced himself that he would never work in the N.B.A. again. His playing career was over, and he and Charles Rosen had written his book called, “Maverick: More Than a Game,” that revealed just where Jackson’s shaggy head was at – perhaps not a good idea in the N.B.A. job market.
I was in spring training with the Mets in funky old St. Petersburg, and Jackson and his Woodstock buddy Rosen – once the star at Hunter College -- were coaching the Albany Patroons of the Continental Basketball Association, a league of bizarre travel connections to places as distant as Puerto Rico and Oshkosh, Wis.
We went out for pizza after a game, along with Herbie Brown, who had coached the Israel Sabras, Detroit Pistons and Tucson Gunners, and they were telling horror stories about overnight drives and changes-in-Atlanta.
Phil Jackson was morose. It was late at night, and he was morose. He was done. Cooked. His modest revelations into life style and politics had revealed himself to be a liberal, perhaps a troublemaker by Reagan-era standards. The N.B.A. was flush, with Erving and Kareem going out, Bird and Magic and Jordan in their prime. In Jackson’s fevered mind, there was no room for a perceived hippie.
My role was to order the food and the beer and scribble down travel tales while his colleagues tried to talk Jackson off the conversational ledge. Have another nacho, Phil. Change planes in Atlanta a few more times. See what happens.
It’s just a box of rain. I don’t believe anybody said that, but you never know.
Next time I saw Jackson was in the Garden. He was an assistant coach with the Bulls, wearing a suit and a surprised look. The thing I remember most about his Jordan years was that he loved annoying Pat Riley and all the other Knick coaches and suits, but he moderated his antagonism out of respect to Red Holzman, his coaching godfather who was always at the games.
Now Jackson has won 11 championships, not bad for a perceived anarchist.
He has enough stature to force James L. Dolan to downgrade the absolute weakest link of the New York Knicks franchise, that is to say, James L. Dolan himself.
The hippie as corporate savior.
I wonder if Phil remembers that night in the Mexican joint.
* * *
My travel column from 1985:
I caught up with Charley Rosen in 1997, by which time he and Phil were pursuing separate muses:
Filip Bondy on Jackson the other day:
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.