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The Zen Master Takes New York City


Basketball's Zen master, Phil Jackson, is back. He returned this week to the building where, as a player, he helped the New York Knicks win two NBA championships in the 1970s. Of course, he went on to coach championship teams in Chicago and L.A. Now, he's back as the Knicks' president and the team he's now running is one of the most dysfunctional messes in the league.

At his introductory press conference on Tuesday, the most successful coach in NBA history seemed to understand just how daunting turning the Knicks into a championship team would be.

PHIL JACKSON: And this would be a pinnacle, it would be a capstone on the remarkable career that I've had.

CORNISH: We're joined now by sportswriter Stefan Fatsis. And Stefan, Phil Jackson is 68 years old. He won 11 NBA championships as a coach with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers. I mean, why come out of retirement and jeopardize that legacy?

STEFAN FATSIS, BYLINE: Well, this is an introspective guy who thinks a lot about life's paths and I can see him being objective about how many more years he's got left to work and to live. At that news conference, he mentioned various health problems and I think this is also an opportunity for him to end his career doing something new, running an entire team, maybe dispelling the notion that he won those championships only because he had Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. And finally complete his professional journey where it started in Madison Square Garden. This is a man who's been into Eastern philosophy and Native American mysticism. I bet the whole circle of life symmetry was appealing to him.

CORNISH: But this is not the '70s. The Knicks are pretty much terrible right now. I mean, there's some risk for him.

FATSIS: Yeah, they're terrible-terrible. They've had a losing record in 10 of the last 12 seasons. This year's going to make it 11 of the last 13. They've been dysfunctional on the court and in the front office. Frank Isola of The New York Daily News this week called it the world's most paranoid arena, a play on the Garden's nickname, the world's most famous arena.

The tone has been set by the team's owner, James Dolan. He's meddled in trades and free agent-signings and created a culture of secrecy. Jackson has always been candid. And he said at the news conference that he will hopefully have an open attitude towards speaking. And Dolan, who hadn't taken questions from the media in seven years, declared that he was willingly and gratefully getting out of the basketball decision-making.

CORNISH: Mm-hmm. How likely is that to happen?

FATSIS: Well, a few years ago, the owner of the National Football League team here in Washington, after hiring a respected coach, Mike Shanahan, also said that he would step aside. And when the team didn't win enough, the relationship fell apart. Operationally, the NBA parallel with Phil Jackson is Pat Riley running the Miami Heat. He's got the coaching pedigree, the championships, respect around the league.

Jackson's going to have the financial resources and the time. He signed a five-year deal reportedly worth $60 million and his reputation should insure that he has the authority to overhaul the organization. But the Knicks have hired and stymied big names before: Don Chaney, Lenny Wilkins, Larry Brown, Donny Walsh. Corporate cultures and sports team owners don't change overnight.

CORNISH: All right. What about the fans? I mean, if you're a Knicks fan, should you be optimistic?

FATSIS: Oh, of course you should be. You want to believe in Phil Jackson. It's been a terrible decade, but there are a lot of moving parts. A new coach is likely, a new playing style. Jackson's passing-based triangle offense and the big question of whether the Knicks star, Carmelo Anthony, who likes to shoot more than he likes to pass, will be more or less likely to stay in New York now that Phil is in town.

CORNISH: All right. Enough about the Zen master. I want to talk about another team, you know, who's having a tough time of it, the Philadelphia 76ers and their epic losing streak. Still epic?

FATSIS: Yeah, we talked about it a couple weeks ago. It's epic-er now. On Wednesday, the Sixers lost their 22nd straight game. They're four losses from matching the NBA record. Philadelphia hosts the Knicks tonight. No word on whether Phil Jackson will make the trip.

CORNISH: Stefan Fatsis, he's a panelist on Slate Magazine's sports podcast, "Hang Up And Listen." He joins us most Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports. Stefan, have a good weekend.

FATSIS: You, too, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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