|Jackson, here limping through last season's playoffs, had knee replacement surgery in March. (Getty Images)|
LOS ANGELES -- As the Lakers teetered on the brink of elimination and collapse last week, and while the Clippers were trying -- but ultimately failing -- to choke away a 3-1 lead in their fifth playoff appearance since moving to Southern California, Phil Jackson was trading in his crutches for a cane and walking a mile a day.
For Jackson, the 11-time NBA champion and 66-year-old philosopher, his focus and fury have been trained on one goal. It's a long road back to health and youthfulness for Jackson, a road that he hopes leads him to, of all places, a tennis court by the end of the summer.
That's right, the former Lakers coach with the fused spine, artificial hips and newly replaced knee is feeling so good, he expects to be stroking forehands and backhands -- and, by those, we don't mean he'll be slapping Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum around in the hopes of waking them up.
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Jackson has not received a single phone call from an NBA team looking for a coach. People close to the former Bulls and Lakers coach continue to say he "has the itch," and his longtime girlfriend, Jeanie Buss, said in an L.A. radio interview Friday, "He's got his energy back."
But so far, not a whisper. Not an email. Not a text message, and certainly, not a phone call.
Rehabbing in Los Angeles since undergoing knee replacement surgery in late March, Jackson can only sit back and hear his name, age, health and accomplishments disparaged. He's too old. Afraid to coach without Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant. A gold digger. A championship cherry-picker who would only return to the NBA sidelines to coach a ready-made champion -- or, for the paycheck.
"It hurts," a Jackson confidante told me recently. "People need to know he is not dead, and he is not 70."
Yes, commentators dismiss Jackson as a viable head coaching candidate because he's "70 years old," when Jackson is not. Recent leaks out of Madison Square Garden painted the public push for Jackson to coach the Knicks as a scheme right out of Larry Brown's playbook. The Knicks, according to the spin machine, aren't going to be used as an ATM by another aging coach looking to pad his retirement fortune.
As if Jackson, who played for the Knicks' last championship team in 1973, needs the Knicks' money more than the Knicks need his coaching. Never mind the fact that Jackson almost certainly wouldn't touch the roiling cauldron of dysfunction that is Madison Square Garden with his walking cane. The fact that the Knicks knew this -- knew their organization is so fraught with paranoia and pettiness that the greatest coach alive wouldn't roam the sidelines with somebody else's legs -- says all you need to know.
Not only have the Knicks failed to place a call to Jackson or his agent, Todd Musburger, they have zeroed in on interim coach Mike Woodson to serve as the latest pawn in Creative Artists Agency's top-to-bottom takeover of the team. So when it was revealed last week that Woodson had dumped his agents, the father-son team of Joe and Keith Glass, at the team's request, Knicks fans had the only explanation they needed for why Jackson will, for the time being, remain focused on reviving his tennis game.
Could you imagine Jackson, a proud former Knick with more championship rings than fingers, dancing do-si-do with the political charlatans and Hollywood operatives who are calling the shots at MSG? In the gruff parlance of Jackson, it's a "politics situation" that is beneath him.
Though if you're the Knicks, who recently ended the longest playoff losing streak in NBA history and are set to reward the coach for the solitary win that did it -- after they've corrupted his allegiances, mind you -- wouldn't at least a phone conversation with the most decorated coach in NBA history behoove you?
Instead, Jackson is painted as old and greedy and Woodson responds "how high" when instructed to jump. Once Woodson switches his representation to CAA, the agency will control the team's best player, the head coach and front-office executives Allan Houston and Mark Warkentien -- not to mention marketing and sponsorship partners and musical artists who can fill the Garden for important concert dates that otherwise might have gone to the spectacular new arena nearing completion in Brooklyn for the Nets.
Let's not be naïve about what the Garden is running now. It isn't a basketball team, but a movie production. If you want Tom Cruise, you have to take Cameron Diaz, too. And while we're at it, we've got the director and production company lined up. One-stop shopping. It'll be a great show, a smash hit, and everybody will make lots of money. Everyone will "win," without actually winning anything.
Championships? Who needs championships when you have this much power and money all flowing in the same direction? After landing CAA client Carmelo Anthony last season, the team's gate receipts went right through the Garden's iconic, pinwheel roof this past season, thanks in part to the emergence of Jeremy Lin, and oh yeah, a 49 percent increase in average ticket prices. The most expensive seats in the NBA -- more than double the league average -- will cost a comparatively modest 4.9 percent more next season. And if you don't think Woodson roaming the sidelines with his bemused scowl, immaculate goatee and Tone Loc voice will prevent people from paying those prices, think again.
Again, Phil who?
In September 2010, the Knicks signed a 10-year, $300 million marketing and sponsorship deal with JP Morgan Chase. Annually, that's more money than each of the 30 NBA teams reaps from the NBA's national broadcast rights agreements with ABC/ESPN and Turner. Revenue sharing, shmevenue sharing. The revenues from a couple of concert dates with CAA client Bruce Springsteen would just about cover Jackson's salary, if only the Knicks would call -- and if only the Zen Master would listen.
All the while, Jackson keeps chugging along, a mile a day on that treadmill, as he inches ever closer to a return to the court. For now, that return is slated only for a tennis court, but you never know.
Jackson has recently confided in a close associate that he won't know if he'd be interested in the Knicks' job -- or any other, for that matter -- until the opportunity were presented to him. If the Knicks were interested in something other than putting on a good show, they'd stop playing games, pick up the phone and make that presentation. Maybe someone at CAA knows someone who knows someone who actually knows something about winning.