Return of the Native

by Dennis D’Agostino 
Knicks Team Historian 

In the furthermost reaches of the Official NBA Register, in the section devoted to the game’s all-time greatest coaches, there on pages 426 and 427, the records of Red Holzman and Phil Jackson are side-by-side. 

For anyone who believes in fate, the cosmos or destiny, that is no mere coincidence. 

Red’s influence is hovering over much of what is going on around the Knicks these days, this sea change that has rocked the NBA and set the world’s greatest basketball city aflame. 

When you start to ponder what it all means for the Knicks to have Phil Jackson in the fold, take a moment to look past the glittering coaching record ---- the record-busting 11 NBA Championships, the 1,155 coaching wins (fifth all-time), the legacies of some of the game’s greatest players ---- and remember that, when you strip it down to the basics, Phil Jackson is coming home. 

Home for him in the literal sense are the wilds of Montana and North Dakota, but New York was the place where the world first took notice. 

After a while, you couldn’t help it. Jackson arrived as a player in 1967 as part of a rookie trio that, amazingly, would all wind up with Hall of Fame plaques in Springfield --- Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley, and Phil. He was clean-shaven and short-haired when he arrived, but within a few years number 18’s appearance would embody his rebel, iconoclastic side. . .the long hair, the mustache (and beard in later years), the gangly frame topped by coat-hanger shoulders. 

To be sure, no other player in the League looked like him and few had a game like him. Defensive mayhem usually followed him around. A mass of arms, legs, hands and elbows, he was given his nickname of Action Jackson --- after the kids toy --- by a toddler named Kenny Albert. He even perfected a defensive move remembered fondly by those of us of a certain age. . .the “Windmill Effect”, which consisted of putting all those arms, legs, hands and elbows in perpetual motion in front of an unsuspecting inbounder (indeed, it forced another future Hall of Famer, Don Nelson, into a costly turnover in the latter stages of the fabled Game Four of the 1973 Playoff series against Boston). 

It is part of Knick lore that Jackson missed the greatest year in team history --- that first championship season of 1969-70 --- with a back injury and subsequent spinal fusion. Part of that lore is that Phil was actually able to play at the end of the season and would have surely been an asset during the title run, but Holzman held off because taking Jackson off the injured list would subject him to the upcoming 1970 expansion draft. And Red, as it would become evident, wasn’t about to part with the man who would become his star pupil. 

Slowly, during that first title run, the hippie, the iconoclast, was stepping over into The Establishment. 

Phil Jackson did a lot during that season of idleness. He took up photography and would co-author a landmark book on the championship run with Garden photographer George Kalinsky, with Jackson writing the book’s copy in longhand on a legal pad over the course of a weekend at Kalinsky’s Long Island home. He helped Red at practice. He dabbled in scouting. He drew up plays. And as time went on, a new profession, a new life --- and the seeds for 11 coaching championships --- took root during that season of victory. 

“Ever since I’m injured,” Jackson remembered in 2003, “Red has me go out and scout. If we’re on the road and if the home team has a game the night before we’re supposed to play them, Red says to go over and catch that game, and put some stuff on the board tomorrow. Red never X’d and O’d. . .He told me point blank, `I’ve never drawn plays. I just don’t do that.’ But he asked me to draft up a team book. So whenever we’d get a new player, they’d come see me and I’d have this mimeographed book of plays.” 

Phil returned to action in 1970-71, then played a major role on the 1972 East Champions and the 1973 NBA title team. It was during this time that Red, ironically, made Jackson, by Phil’s own admission, his “whipping boy”, often made an example in front of his more glamorous teammates. The rebel considered rebelling, but, “with my pecking order on the club, it was natural to do that. And as you find out when you’re the coach, it’s nice to have a player you can use to be a motivator on the team.” 

Indeed , the path to Jackson’s next career was set. 

“As we got going and I received more responsibility as a player, there were things he’d tell me that became significant to me,” he remembered decades later. “(Red) told me that one of the best places to coach is Puerto Rico. It’s a game and a place where the energy is so intense, the language skills are different. It’s just basketball in its rawest form, and you learn to coach off the seat of your pants. And I ended up coaching in Puerto Rico for four-and-a-half years.” 

The coaching road would lead to Puerto Rico, to the Nets, to Albany of the CBA (where he ironically replaced old teammate Dean Meminger), to the assistant’s job with the Bulls in 1987 and the head job in ’89, to an unparalleled championship run and a legacy as the Zen Master. 

For two-and-a-half decades, he came to the Garden as the enemy. . .and make no mistake, he ranks right up there with Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon as the men most responsible for denying the Knicks a championship in the 1990s. But this enemy still had orange and blue roots, for anyone who cared to remember (fast fact: all these years later, his 732 career games as a Knick still rank fifth-best in team history). Certainly, Phil Jackson never forgot. 

One lasting example of that was the memorable afternoon in 1990 when Trent Tucker took a Mark Jackson inbound with one-tenth of a second left on the clock, gathered up and fired the game-winning three-pointer that led to the rule change that now bears his name. Jackson, the opposing coach, did not storm the scorer’s table, did not berate referee Ronnie Nunn, did not do anything except make the long, stoic walk to the locker room. When asked about his too-calm demeanor in the face of improbable loss, Phil replied that he had spent so many years in the Garden, played so many games for so long, that he knew all too well that unusual things could happen with the clock in this building. 

It was always Holzman’s wish – spoken or unspoken --- that Jackson return to the Knicks one day. Indeed, in between those times where he was winning championship after championship in Chicago and Los Angeles, there were brief flirtations and overtures made in earlier years. And New York still remembered, as Jackson got one of the loudest ovations at last year’s 40th Anniversary salute to the 1973 Champions at the Garden. 

But that seemed like a pipe dream for so long, while the Zen Master was forging a path to the Hall of Fame in other cities that rocked to their own beat of victory, with “Sweet Home Chicago” and “I Love L.A.” 

Well, start spreadin’ the news. It took a little while, but the prodigal son has returned.