The Phil Files: Taking the long road
Charley Rosen, author of 18 books about basketball and a former assistant coach under Phil Jackson in the CBA, spent a day with Jackson in every month of his debut season with the New York Knicks, during which the Hall of Fame coach-turned-executive talked frankly about his roster and his new role as team president. Read Part 1 here. Check back next week for Part 3.
Date: Nov. 12, 2014
Knicks record: 2-6
Marty is Phil Jackson's on-call chauffeur, and he calls Jackson's black Cadillac Escalade "the truck." A solidly built man in his early 50s, Marty is a veteran of 20 years as a detective in New York City. His gray-white crew cut gives him an almost forbidding appearance, but he's gregarious, open-hearted, a devout Deadhead and so devoted to Phil that he swears he'd "take a bullet" if he had to.
Jackson usually sits up front beside Marty, but with a guest on board, he eases himself into position behind the shotgun seat for the hour-long drive from Vassar, where he just addressed a 30-student class on "Religion, Culture, and Society: Sports in America," back to his West 57th Street apartment building.
The New York Knicks are just eight games into the 2014-15 season but already falling behind, having lost five straight heading into tonight's matchup with the Orlando Magic at Madison Square Garden. Jackson is also finding his footing in his new role as team president, but says he's starting to settle into a routine.
"I usually get up somewhere around 6 a.m., make myself some pancakes or oatmeal, then go through the 20 or so emails that have accumulated since the last time I was online," he says. "I'll also look at the results of last night's games, check out the box scores, and read any league reports and transactions. Then I'll scan the headlines to catch up on what else is happening in the news. After that, Marty will pick me up so that by 9 I'm going to our training site in Tarrytown. If I'm in the city on days of games I'll work at home and go to MSG at 5 or 6 p.m. depending on the routine of the night."
First on his schedule is a daily meeting with general manager Steve Mills, assistant GM Allan Houston and Clarence Gaines, an advisor who worked alongside Jackson for all six of his title runs with the Chicago Bulls, to "get a read on what they see happening with the team and around the league."
"Then I'll write up something that I'll email to all the coaches," Jackson says. "Maybe I think they should scrimmage more in practice, or I'll relay my feelings about how certain players are reacting in certain situations. But I'll never criticize or second-guess [Derek Fisher] or his assistants. If the team is on the road, next on my agenda is to watch a replay of our last game before getting back to my apartment at about 3.
"If the team is at home, I'll occasionally show up at the morning shootaround. I like to watch the half-court drills and instruction from the sideline at center court. I try not to be intrusive, but since I know the language, sometimes I can't help shouting out something when a player does something wrong. ... Like grabbing a rebound and then holding the ball near his waist so it can be easily slapped away. In that case, the coach in me is still active enough for me to shout out 'Chest the ball!' But this happens very seldom.
"Wherever the team happens to be, I'll usually return to my apartment at around 3 for about a half-hour nap. This is definitely a holdover from my game-day routine when I was still playing.
"I'll get back to my office at about 6:30 for home games and confer again with my staff. One thing we'll discuss is where our scouts are. The advance guys are responsible for scouting opponents a few games before we face them. They'll also scout various individual players that might become available in trades or eventually be free agents. Fish is also using his assistants the way I did -- that is, making each of them responsible for a certain number of opponents, having them watch game tapes and, when our schedule permits, having them also go see their teams live. The advance crew and the assistants then get together and make up a game plan. Fish will also study game tapes of our immediate opponents and make his own adjustments to that game plan.
"My staff and I will also make sure we know who's watching which college games. Also who are the overseas scouts looking at? Plus there are all of these incoming scouting reports to look at."
His game days are usually consistent, as well.
"If there's someone I have to see face-to-face, I'll go up to Suite 200, the company room," he says. "That's usually where [owner] Jim Dolan and I can catch up. That doesn't happen too often because he's been occupied with his music and his other businesses, so he's just letting the basketball operation happen. When I talk to the media, I'm aware that the organization's practice is to have someone from the public relations squad on hand to monitor what's said. I always listen to their suggestions and follow a line of thought I think is a message for our fans, players and the media.
"During games I'll usually sit with Mills, Gaines -- if he's in town -- Houston, or our cap expert, Jamie Mathews. I do get emotional when a ref or one of the players screws up, but I stay cool and try to hide my reactions. I haven't gone into the locker room, yet, that's the team's private space and I'd only be an unnecessary distraction. At the half, I'll retreat to Suite 200. I'll also make a brief appearance there after the game before heading back home."
Marty knows the highways and byways so well that, no matter what the time of day, he can avoid any semblance of troublesome traffic. Jackson sometimes asks Marty to identify the town they're passing through. Marty, a volunteer fireman in his home just south of Vassar, usually has something to say about firehouses they might pass. This one just got a new fire truck. That one recently hired a full-time chief.
With tipoff at MSG just hours away, Jackson turns his attention to his slumping ball club. The Knicks have given up 98.4 points a game on defense, including 110 to the cross-town Brooklyn Nets, and continue to shuffle around the starting lineup with Jose Calderon and Andrea Bargnani out with injuries.
One positive to Jackson is the presence of Amar'e Stoudemire. The 32-year-old's past three seasons have been marred by injuries, but he has played in every game thus far.
"Amar'e is a very important factor in our progress," Jackson says. "His knees seem to be holding up and he certainly has an upbeat attitude. I think he'll learn how to be comfortable in the offense and be a positive force as the season unfolds.
"Carmelo [Anthony] has been in a slump, and Iman [Shumpert] has been our best player so far. He's our best on-ball defender and the only guy who can consistently penetrate. If Iman continues playing at this high level, then re-signing Iman might be an issue.
"We really need Calderon to return ASAP. He shoots, pushes and finds, and has the experience to organize the triangle. We also need him back on the court because [Pablo] Prigioni doesn't really feel comfortable in the triangle, although that may change in time. Prigioni's shooting is a plus, and so is his ability to move over and play the shooting guard spot. Also, [Shane] Larkin does a pretty good job of staying in front of the smaller guards, and he's certainly a scrappy player, but he's simply too small to finish. To complicate the backcourt situation, there's a combo-guard on our D-League team, Langston Galloway, that's NBA-ready and needs to be signed and added to our roster before some other team claims him.
"Let's see. ... What else? Jason Smith isn't strong enough to gain an advantage with his handle. He had a knee operation and is still recovering. J.R. [Smith] feels somewhat ignored coming off the bench. When he does, before he has a chance to get loose, he looks for a shot the first time he touches the ball. J.R. has a very important role for us and I hope he can fill the void."
Marty drops us off at a 130-year-old apartment building. The elegant lobby features a uniformed doorman, marble columns, marble walls and a broad crimson-carpeted staircase.
"I like the location," Phil says as we both remove our shoes before stepping off the welcome mat. "My chiropractor is only a block away, I can email my grocery orders and get everything delivered for an extra five dollars, and the subway's so close that I sometimes take it. When I walk the streets, people stop me to wish me well and console me about the team's doldrums. I'm really enjoying living in New York again, but we'll see about the winter. And I do need an overcoat."
Jackson paid $4.5 million for the three-bedroom, 3,000-square-foot homestead, replete with wood-burning fireplaces in the living room and the dining room, and a marble tub in the master bathroom. The style might be best described as "elegant contemporary." One of his three daughters, Chelsea, is an interior decorator, and is responsible for the design of the guest room that Phil also uses for his daily meditations. There are several interesting paintings and framed posters on the walls of the living room, but in the place of honor in the long, spacious hallway-gallery is a painting of a boy flying a kite that has graced everywhere Jackson has lived.
Whether he's residing in his three-story beach house in Playa del Rey, his rustic getaway in Montana, or here, there's always some kind of music playing from hidden speakers. While his interest in classical music is a constant, Jackson currently favors Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Van Morrison and Dave Brubeck. On the program now, however, are the lively tones of Louis Armstrong's early recordings. Between random comments on the state of the Knicks, Phil scrolls through a website and finds photographs of several young writers taken before they became famous.
"Recognize him?" he asks, showing his latest discovery.
"Right now, we're running in circles on offense. Too many weaves and not enough penetration or post-up scoring."
"Our primary need is a center, whether through the draft or signing a free agent."
Edgar Allan Poe.
Later that evening, the Knicks are down two points to Orlando with 4.3 seconds left on the game clock. After a timeout, the plan is for Prigioni to inbound the ball to Anthony. Instead, the ball is delivered to Smith, who launches a 25-footer that barely grazes the side of the rim as the buzzer sounds.
Magic win 97-95.
On the drive back to his apartment, Jackson says, "Carmelo had his man sealed, his hand out, and was calling for the ball. Both Prigioni and Smith missed him."
The tough loss hurts. "But not nearly as much as it did when I was coaching."
Jackson offers his parting words as he climbs out of the car:
"Oh, well," he says. "Adversity is the best teacher."