Correction: An earlier version of sthis story misstated the number of NBA championships won by legendary coach Red Auerbach. He won nine titles, not 10.
Earl Monroe called back late Wednesday afternoon after physical therapy. The Pearl says he’s not gleaming as much these days. He turns 70 later this year and has had six knee-replacement operations since July to prove it. Like a somewhat accomplished former teammate of his, Monroe couldn’t imagine working full time now just for the money.
“He doesn’t need a job,” Monroe said of Phil Jackson, who is said to be days, maybe even hours, away from going back to work for a Knicks organization that Jackson and Monroe last helped lead to a title more than 40 years ago. “When I last spoke to him, he seemed content living in L.A. and doing his thing.”
So what’s this really about?
“You see what Pat Riley has done lately,” Monroe said.
“Well, everyone knows that Pat Riley and Phil haven’t had the greatest relationship over time,” Monroe said. “There is an ego aspect. That’s just a fact. Pat Riley has won in L.A. and Miami, but he couldn’t quite get over the hump in New York. If Phil were to bring a championship to New York after all this time, it would be, in a sense, performing a miracle.”
Better than a miracle; it would one-up Riles.
The money and the power (reports of $15 million per season and maybe an ownership stake) that come with pulling the strings at Madison Square Garden as team president are certainly plenty of enticement.
But why else would the ultra-revered, ultimate winner in pro sports’ coaching history trade in his wise old sage label for the scrutiny and real labor that comes with fixing the Knicks at age 68?
With surgically repaired hips, assorted arthritic limbs and winters now comfortably spent on a warm Southern California beach with the original Laker girl, what would make Phil Jackson gamble on tarnishing his own legend?
Easy: to be the winner again.
And to be the winner again, Phil Jackson would have to beat Pat Riley again. The Bulls-Knicks rivalry is two decades old now, but nothing ever felt more satisfying for Phil Jackson than beating Pat Riley.
In the time since Jackson stepped down from coaching the Lakers in 2011, the Miami Heat has won two championships and been to three straight NBA Finals. It won because Riley convinced LeBron James and Chris Bosh to come to South Beach and play with Dwyane Wade.
Since Riley ditched the Knicks for the Heat in 1995, the force of one man’s personality has built and rebuilt the organization.
If Jackson’s vision ever culminated in a title in New York, he would supplant Riley as the game’s most successful executive and, by association, the NBA’s most effective recruiter of future Hall of Fame players.
Jackson coming back to the NBA is ultimately about three things:
1. He needs to be talked about more than when he is hawking a book. For all the Zen-inspired backpacking trips to New Zealand and points unknown, nothing enables Jackson to breathe and live more than teaching the Tao of the jump shot and being part of the daily NBA conversation.
2. The nostalgic pull from his old Knicks/Woodstock roots was too powerful to deny this time. He turned down the Knicks’ coaching job twice, once in 1999 during a clandestine meeting with a team official when Jeff Van Gundy was still the coach, and another time in 2005. He knows he would attain Garden immortality if he were the man who brought a banner back to the pinwheel ceiling.
And 3. Jackson just can’t let Riley age that gracefully, his distinguished gray blending into his full, combed-back thatch. Giving up the sideline for the executive suite so seamlessly, Riley lords peerlessly over a league in which he now has the Star Power team.
Beyond the millions, Phil needs this for ego. He needs to show aging New Yorkers who saw him play that the Knicks can win a title before they retire to Florida or die.
Phil needs this because Riley needs companionship on the mountaintop, because no great NBA player, coach or even executive in fine Italian wool is complete without an historic rival, someone to push them, to measure their own success by.
Russell had Chamberlain. Bird and Magic had each other. Michael had Patrick Ewing (okay, and Barkley and Olajuwon and Stockton and Malone and the Pistons and the Jazz . . .)
Even Red Auerbach, the greatest franchise patriarch there ever was and the man whose record nine titles as a coach Jackson surpassed in 2009, had a rival. His name was Red Holzman, Jackson’s beloved Knicks coach. Holzman did what Riley, Rick Pitino, Hubie and Larry Brown could not: deliver a championship to a full-throated Garden on a glorious summer night.
Jackson was once Riley’s greatest nemesis in the coaching profession. The new-age coach who burned sage in his locker room annually beat out the practice-till-you-drop taskmaster, Jackson’s philosophy prevailing over Riley’s just as much as his team.
And now he’s coming back to compete again.
It won’t happen overnight. The Knicks have more issues than a bond measure. Carmelo Anthony is ready to test the free agent market. They don’t have a first-round draft pick this season and are devoid of real salary-cap room until 2015.
“I think re-signing Anthony would be one of the foremost goals,” said Monroe, still a keen Knicks observer. “I like the [Tim Jr.] Hardaway kid, and if [Iman] Shumpert can get himself focused a little bit more offensively, because he’s already quite the defensive player, I think their backcourt is all right. Then you got the defensive player of the year [Tyson Chandler] from 2012 who is still worth a lot when he is healthy.”
“Phil is going to have his work cut out for him,” Monroe adds. “But if he has the control and power to do it his way, I have no doubt he’ll get it done.”
Jackson holds the NBA record for combined championships as a player and head coach (13). He has done it all. The jaded among us will view this as a career-ending financial score, preying on a desperate, dysfunctional owner forever trying to rekindle a franchise’s past.
But there is something else out there.
See, Phil Jackson is not the one person in the history of North American sports figures to win a championship as a player, coach and executive.
For now, that’s only Pat Riley.
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.