<
>

The Phil Files: The battle ahead

Phil Jackson and Willis Reed at Knicks training camp. Illustration by Rafa Alvarez

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 Jackson's preseason evaluation of every Knicks player here. Check back next week for Part 2 of the multipart series.


Date: Oct. 2, 2014
Knicks record: 0-0

WEST POINT, N.Y. -- Everywhere you look on the vast grounds at West Point, home of the U.S. Military Academy, you are reminded of famous Army graduates and idols through statues and plaques, portraits and buildings.

There's a bronze statue of George Washington astride a horse. George Patton holding a pair of binoculars, preparing to fight the enemy. Dwight Eisenhower standing with his hands on his hips and staring fearlessly into the infinite future.

High atop a hill, inside the magnificent Thayer Hotel, one of the NBA's greatest leaders readies for perhaps his most challenging battle yet: resurrecting one of the most prestigious sports franchises as an executive, not a coach.

At a large, round table in a private corner of MacArthur's Restaurant, Phil Jackson, dressed in a New York Knicks sweat suit, sits with Knicks legend and former teammate Willis Reed awaiting training camp for what's expected to be a new era of the franchise. The two helped win a championship for the Knicks (and in Reed's case, championships) four decades ago.

But first, the tipoff topic of discussion is the distressing news that a black bear attacked and killed a young man in a nearby community. Since Jackson (Deer Lodge, Montana) and Reed (Hico, Louisiana) both hail from decidedly rural geographies, the conversation soon turns to other species of native wildlife. They tell tales of wolves, bobcats and mountain lions, but they agree that coyotes are the cleverest of these.

"When I'm out for a walk," Reed says, "or driving down a country lane, I'm likely to see plenty of them running around, ignoring me. But when I have a gun with me, I never see one. Coyotes, at least the ones near me, seem to know that I'm armed and dangerous."

"Coyotes love to eat cats and dogs," Jackson says. "They'll send a female in heat to lure a male dog to his death."

The conversation inevitably comes around to basketball, and after discussing the prevalence of artificial joints in ex-players and Dave DeBusschere's "elephant legs," they focus on the importance of training camp. Once the bustling, grinding season begins, there will be minimal time for practice sessions. So the most obvious purpose of camp is for the coaching staff to install the team's offensive and defensive game plans.

There's another vitally important use for these nearly four weeks of practices and preseason games: to address each player's shortcomings. Developing and refining skills, cultivating on-court awareness, and game preparation are necessary ingredients for any team -- especially one that's in a rebuilding mode like the Knicks.

When asked, Jackson is candid and methodical in evaluating precisely what each member needs to work on for his initial season to be a success.

Jose Calderon, who arrived this summer in a trade that sent Tyson Chandler back to Dallas, is a "lights-out shooter," but he and fellow point guard Pablo Prigioni must be "much better on-ball defenders." Mercurial guard J.R. Smith is easily the team's best athlete, but "he has to learn the difference between a good shot and a bad shot." Carmelo Anthony, who signed a new maximum-salary contract with the Knicks in the offseason despite flirtations with the Bulls, Rockets and Lakers, is a certified All-Star but must move the ball better in the triangle, Jackson's trademark offense. Jackson also likes Langston Galloway, a rookie destined for the NBA Development League.

And what about New York's rookie coach? What does Derek Fisher, who ended a 20-year career as a player just months ago, have to learn in camp?

"For Fish," Jackson says, "his education will be an ongoing process. He has to learn to recognize and influence the tempo of games and the tempo of the season. When to push the guys in practice and when to lighten up. Most importantly, Fish has to become adept at the push and pull of relationships. The relationships between him and individual players and the relationships of the players with each other. But it's his team and I'm going to [be] totally hands-off. I'll be available only if he needs me."

Yet Jackson's imprint on his ballclub was evident even before the first ball was bounced: It was his idea to open the Knicks' training camp at West Point. He understood that the discipline, efficiency and rapt attention to detail that manifest everywhere on this 16,000-acre setting will consciously and unconsciously have a profound effect on the players.

Still, there are areas that are new to the rookie administrator.

"I have to learn the deadline dates for various events," he says, "like when the rosters have to be finalized, when 10-day contracts can be signed, when contracts are guaranteed for the rest of the season, and things like that. Then there's learning who to call in the league offices if I need to get something done. Also, I've never really dealt with agents before. And, in order to make trades, I've got to know how to relate to the other individuals on all the other teams who are now my peers."

"I've never really dealt with agents before. And, in order to make trades, I've got to know how to relate to the other individuals on all the other teams who are now my peers."

Phil Jackson, before his first season as Knicks president

Jackson has sworn not to interfere with Fisher -- for instance, he will attend only home games -- though he did make a contribution after the media horde left the premises on the opening day of camp.

As a coach, Jackson was famous for spicing up his scouting videos with snippets from movies, YouTube images and other sources. So he began his portion of camp by showing the Knicks a short video that had personal significance.

When Jackson completed his senior season at the University of North Dakota, he was drafted by New York. Red Holzman was a Knicks scout back then and traveled to Grand Forks, North Dakota, to get Jackson's signature on a contract.

"He made it clear," Jackson remembers, "that I would be spending the upcoming training camp matched up against Willis Reed. After Red left, I bought a keg of beer and invited all my UND teammates over to watch the film he'd left with me. The game we saw was played on Oct. 18, 1966, and pitted the Knicks versus the L.A. Lakers. All we saw was a bunch of guys running around and freelancing. Once in a while there was a pick. Pretty soon we started to laugh, because we prided ourselves on the intelligent style of ball our coach Bill Fitch had taught us.

"The Lakers had the superior talent and were just outgunning the Knicks, when all of a sudden there was a jump ball. It looked like the tape stopped for a moment and the next thing we saw was Willis Reed being attacked by every Laker in sight. Willis was knocked to the floor and had all these guys hanging on him, when he seemed to get a sudden infusion of energy and strength. He just stood up and shook everybody off like a bear shaking off the rain. At that point, it ceased to be a fight and became a massacre. Willis punched John Block in the nose, hit Henry Finkel in the head and dumped Rudy LaRusso onto the floor. Several other Lakers scattered, and some of them even tried to hide under the scorer's table."

The present-day Knicks were fascinated and awed by the scene. Reed's reaction was merely to smile and shrug his still-massive shoulders.

Nothing needed to be said.

Reed is "the Captain" -- then, now and always. To the Knicks, he represents history, tradition, inner and outer strength, and above all else, the passion needed to be a champion.

This is how the Knicks' first season under Phil Jackson's command began. How it ends remains to be seen.