Why so serious? Phil Jackson Edition.

Yesterday, in Seth's epic Phil Jackson post, I posted the following:

The alpha and omega of the Knicks woes is James Dolan. Even if you don’t believe that it’s James Dolan (somehow), the common wisdom in the media and among most fans is that it’s James Dolan. Being the case, the only way anyone will ever be satisfied with the Knicks direction is if a) Dolan gets his shit together, or b) sells the team.

Neither of those things is apparently going to happen, so all conversations therefore are doomed to begin and end with, "We’re fucked because Dolan, but…," and, "Dolan will never do that though, so we’re fucked."

That’s the air we breathe. It’s our "normal." Given that inescapable fact, and given the idea that Dolan will always hold some form of direct control (read: meddling), we’re faced with the strategy of filling the organization with the NBA’s emeritus class…the only group of people with enough gravitas to counter Dolan’s flaws in some measured way. There is no other possibility (that I can see, at least) given the owner’s controlling proclivity. A guy like Phil Jackson, and Donnie Walsh before him, brings unimpeachable credentials and the respect of the league. He has connections with other smart (younger) folks and can act as a buffer for them to do their good work. Jackson’s real value has nothing to do with his own powers of basketball genius, but with his gravitas…as an expensive but necessary shield for better folks to do their work. He talks, draws attention, convinces, massages, leads by holding up the enormous circus tent above everyone else’s head. If good things happen long enough while he’s playing Atlas, maybe the whole thing gets turned around. He looks like a hero, Dolan gets what he wants, he fades into the sunset having left a better culture in his wake. If there’s a good legacy of personnel, maybe it lasts a while. It probably would disintegrate without him, but what the hell?

Whenever there's a dramatic news item around the Knicks the typical cynicism and mockery follows in short order. We've certainly earned it. Woj, over at Yahoo!, pissed on the Phil Jackson parade as quickly as is humanly possible and seemed to relish every second of it. It's par for the Knicks' course. At least when we enlist our collective cynicism we have the guts to say flat out that Dolan has to go before the Knicks will ever figure things out. We have the freedom to say it, frankly, but the media game is played by pretending and politely dancing around the idea that James Dolan is a terrible, dysfunctional owner with a narcissistic streak that would make Narcissus blush, without ever saying it plainly or bluntly. Isola, as much as I dislike his typical routine, is the only guy in town who just comes out and says it. Dolan is a bad owner. If he doesn't go, the Knicks are doomed. Sure, he has a bone to pick, but it's what each one of us says every time the shit hits the fan.

My argument above stands on its own. I'll stick with that, although I think it's fair to argue something more pessimistic if its how you really feel. I just think we have to separate the stigma of Dolan's Knicks' culture and the circus that lingers at MSG long after the elephants have gone. Not every news about the Knicks is created equal. Pessimism can become a cultural trait that influences every social interaction and the negotiation of every development, whether or not it's deserved. It's how we cope (small 'c'). I'll argue 'til I'm blue in the face, though, that optimism is a necessary part of fandom and that cultures that have surrendered totally to cynicism are hardly worth pursuing. Such cultures invite ridicule and create a terrible spiral of negativity that can only be overcome by the most extraordinary success. That's where we are, and we all know how we got there. I'm arguing today that Phil Jackson seems like a smart choice to counteract the cultural rot, if not the championship drought.

You can argue that Phil Jackson's hire is a season ticket ploy. You can call it a straight money deal. You can call it desperate and risky and typically narcissistic, rather than smart. The fact is, though, we have no idea what will come of this move since we haven't once heard Phil Jackson speak on it. People are already arguing that he'll be a part-time vanity executive who won't invest himself in the job. How on Earth can that be reasonably argued when Phil Jackson has yet to sit in front of microphones to explain his vision? We have past precedent to suggest that the silent Garden will squeeze the free-spirited and loose-lipped Jackson and that it will crash and burn...but you'd just be speculating. Phil Jackson is about to be paid $15 million a year, by all reports, to fix the culture of the Knicks. It would be fair to say that Dolan's issues will still pervade the situation and neuter whatever good things Jackson has to offer, but I think it's worth stepping back for a second and letting the situation breathe. Let's see how it plays out. There's plenty of healthy skepticism to buffer any disappointment, but Knicks' fans need to start trading in the currency of optimism again, if only just a bit.

Jackson is a visionary. He's always had technicians and specialists surrounding him to handle the details. His greatest strength as a leader has never been his Xs and Os. It's been his ego management. Michael Jordan has the single greatest ego a professional athlete has ever shown, and Jackson channeled it into a 6-time champion. He got Jordan and Pippen to play nice with fucking Dennis Rodman, for God's sake. He got Shaq and Kobe to play nicely for 3 more titles. He helped Kobe mature into the alpha character on another championship team. He had to navigate dating the owner's daughter and the LA environment, which is demanding and a circus on its own. He had help. The triangle was Tex Winters' brain child. He had committed and intense superstars to dictate the environment. All of it required a vision and the leadership chops to keep it all together.

What is it the Knicks' franchise needs more than anything else? I mean, LeBron James, wouldn't hurt, but even LeBron might stumble and sink in the Madison Square Garden quicksand. The Knicks need a character with gravitas, vision, credentials, and connections. We need a "Zen" Garden instead of a circus. If Phil Jackson can manage Jordan's ego, there's no reason to believe he can't manage Dolan's ego. If Isiah could capture the imagination of JD, Phil Jackson is likely to turn him into his personal Tom Cruise. I could be wrong, but absent the departure of Dolan, the next best thing is the cult of Phil Jackson that might sweep everyone up and allow smart folks to do good work. If the cult of 11 Rings keeps a whirlwind of excitement up top, while the foot soldiers fight the good fight in the trenches, brilliant. Can't we all hope for that. I think there's sufficient reason to believe in that plan to stave off the worst of our cynical tendencies, no?

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