NEW YORK -- Madison Square Garden sells a lot of things -- from nostalgia to $10.50 beers -- but above all else it sells celebrity. Boldface names move tabloids and turnstiles in New York City, and that's why some 600 people were on hand Tuesday to watch Phil Jackson get publicly sworn in as the new president of basketball operations for the Knicks.
The scene was befitting of a basketball Caesar returning to a once-great Rome. The marquee on the front of Madison Square Garden entrance screamed "Welcome Home Phil" and inside the arena's Chase Square pavilion, video of a shaggy bearded Jackson as a Knicks player played on a continuous loop to Bruce Springsteen's "Glory Days." At a team store next to the press conference, there were already retro t-shirts hanging for sale with Jackson's name and the No. 18, the number he wore as a Knick during the team's championship runs in the 1970s.
In a section cordoned off for special VIP guests, rock star Glenn Frey watched along with Eagles manager Irving Azoff, who received more shout-outs during the nearly 44-minute press conference than Carmelo Anthony. New York Knicks owner James Dolan credited Azoff for convincing Jackson that he belonged to the city (something Frey knows about), and said talks with Jackson started before Christmas when Azoff invited Dolan and Jackson to a party at Azoff's California home. Dolan candidly admitted that at first he wanted Jackson to coach the team, but that notion was quickly ruled out. Several more meetings ensued between the men on basketball philosophy including the seven rules of offense, a conversation I imagine most Knicks would have loved to have sat in on. "Thank you, Irving," Dolan said at the press conference, looking at Azoff. "But if this doesn't go well we'll blame you, okay? But I know it will."
Sprinkled throughout the room were living memories of past Knicks greats: Hall of Fame guard Walt Frazier (the team's current broadcaster), Dick Barnett, and Peter DeBusschere, the son of late the Dave DeBusschere who was a teammate of Jackson and a former Knicks GM, were all in attendance. Knicks superfan Spike Lee sat near the front. The family of Red Holzman, Jackson's coach on the Knicks, sent a note that was read out loud by an MSG communications executive. Hall of Famer Willis Reed also passed on good wishes to his former Knick teammate. "Phil is a special man going back to a special place that we consider home," Reed wrote.
If you believe in the theory of winning the press conference, Jackson did that. He was equal parts Basketball Yoda and California Zen. He did not prepare remarks but spoke repeatedly about developing a new basketball culture for the Knicks, building a support staff for players, and championed an on-court system so "balls move, passes are made, and people make cuts to create open opportunities for teammates." Jackson said he was given a five-year contract (reports put his compensation at a minimum of $12 million annually) and plans to move back and forth between Los Angeles and New York. He has four children, grandchildren, and a fiancée (Lakers president Jeanie Buss) all residing in California.
The press corps for the event was robust, including 23 cameras filming Jackson's every move. Multiple staffers were on hand from ESPN, USA Today, and Fox Sports. Locally, all the New York papers were there, including those who make their living covering this team such as Berman from The Post, Isola of The News and Mr. Araton from The Times. The upscale paper seemed to be a favorite of MSG as the Times got four questions in during the open Q&A. (Mr. Isola and his Daily News compatriots, forever a thorn in the Knicks' side, were not called upon by MSG executives.)
The current relationship between Knicks management and the media can feel like correspondence between Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin but Jackson said he wants a reset. "I'll be accessible," said Jackson. "I'm reaching out to say to you today that we'll have an open relationship."
Jackson was asked about being part of a culture that has tended to reward less than more in terms of external discourse.
"I will try to monitor my blabbermouth," Jackson said. "I really will hopefully have an open attitude toward speaking, but yet knowing this is a position where at one time I was asked if I ever wanted to be a general manager, I said I hate prevarication. It is a term I don't like. To prevaricate is something I don't want to do as a general manager. I'll leave that job up to Steve [Mills, the team's GM for now]. I will not lie, to tell you the truth."
Dolan rarely speaks publicly and has a contentious relationship with a fanbase who believe his historic meddling can be an impediment to winning. But speak he did Tuesday, calling the season disappointing and saying "he was by no means an expert in basketball." Dolan said that he was "willingly and gratefully" giving up control of the basketball decisions of the Knicks. "In his role as president Phil will be in charge of all basketball decisions," Dolan said.
Jackson added that he would not have taken the job without that guarantee. As all NBA watchers know, such a promise for a Knicks executive should always comes with a caveat emptor sign the size of the MSG marquee that Jackson was on today.
Knicks brass spent a lot of time Tuesday talking about winning through the prism of Jackson's 13 titles as both a coach and a player. The talk was of forming a clear vision and winning culture, something that has been absent for the Knicks of late. "Championships come with deliberate action," Jackson said. "There are very few accidental championships in the NBA. We know that, and we're looking forward to trying to attempt that. [Winning a title] would be a capstone on a remarkable career that I've had."
It was a good day for the Knicks and Phil Jackson. Now the hard part begins.