Phil Jackson knows how to get what he wants. So says Jim Coyne, the man who launched Jackson's coaching career 30 years ago when he hired him to take over the Albany Patroons.
Jackson led the Patroons to a CBA title in 1984, his first full year as a head coach. He then sent Coyne, the team's president, a polite but firm list of contract demands. Among them: raising his annual salary from $25,000 to $30,000 and increasing his road per diem by $7. "I would never put a team in monetary stress for a few more bucks, but I do think you know that I am worth that much," Jackson wrote to Coyne in a letter Coyne still keeps today.
Jackson got his raise. Now, three decades and 11 NBA championships later, the Hall of Fame coach is returning to New York to run the Knicks' basketball department, according to multiple league sources.
Though arguably the best coach in the history of the game, Jackson, 68, has never been in charge of making personnel decisions. Former Lakers general manager Jerry West, who hired Jackson to coach the Lakers in 1999, recently questioned whether he could make an easy transition from running the bench to running an organization. Yet interviews with others who have known him through the years paint a picture of a man who brings a unique set of skills to do this Knicks job, skills that transcend X's-and-O's and the triangle offense that he was so famous for over the years.
"One thing about Phil is that he understands people," said Hall of Fame big man Jerry Lucas, Jackson's former teammate on Red Holzman's Knicks. "He understands what they think and do and what it takes to motivate them."
Said Sam Smith, a veteran NBA reporter whose relationship with Jackson dates to his Albany years: "Phil can deal with people. That's his specialty. He wrote a book blasting Kobe Bryant. And then he came back and coached him for two more championships."
Added John Bach, his long-time assistant with the Bulls: "Phil reads people well. He does things his own way. Sometimes it's by talking. Sometimes it's through silence. It's a nice combination. As a communicator, he has no peers."
As a player, Jackson was a member of Knicks championship teams in 1970 and 1973. Lucas was his roommate on the road, and they were close. Still, he said Jackson never gave him any inkling that he was interested in coaching one day.
The son of two Pentecostal ministers, Jackson grew up in a household where television and dancing weren't allowed. A gangly big man out of North Dakota, Jackson was the Knicks' second-round pick in the 1967 draft.
"Phil was a good teammate, the consummate teammate," Lucas said. "He was on a team where everyone understood their role. His role was to come in and make things happen, and he did. He was like a daddy longlegs. He would start flailing all over the place. Coach had to keep an eye on him because some days he would make things happen one way and sometimes he would make things happen another."
Jackson has long credited Holzman with getting him interested in coaching. Lucas believes that sitting next to Holzman on the bench and watching the way he managed the many strong personalities on the Knicks teams of the late 1960s and early '70s was a major factor in making Jackson the kind of coach who could lead the Bulls and the Lakers to multiple championships.
"He's the greatest coach in the history of basketball," Lucas said, "but I think when it comes to basketball, he doesn't have to be the coach. He would be a good fit in any job. He understands the game and can evaluate talent. He can supply great insight and direction. Obviously, being a former Knick, I would love to see him come back.
"The New York franchise is so important. I think all former Knicks and Knicks fans would love to see this team turn around and head in the right direction, and I feel that Phil is a guy who could do that."
If Coyne hadn't been a big-time Knicks fan, it's possible that Jackson would be a country lawyer in Montana rather than the owner of 11 coaching championship rings.
Coyne, a one-time Albany County executive and president of the newly formed Patroons, said he called Jackson from a phone booth in Lima, Ohio, where the team was playing, to offer him the job in the middle of the 1982-83 season.
Jackson had been out of basketball since 1980. He had spent his last season as a player/coach with the Nets. When Larry Brown was hired, he was not retained as an assistant. Jackson was living in Montana, though Coyne knew he still owned a house in Woodstock, N.Y.
"I had called him before the season and he told me he had no interest in coaching anymore," Coyne said. "This time I said just come up and finish the season, and if you don't like it, you can move on. He said give me an hour and let me think."
Three days later, Jackson was in Albany. He remained there for 41/2 years, supplementing his income by working as a summer coach in Puerto Rico. In addition to serving as head coach, he drove the team van; the Patroons took airplanes only to games farther away than 200 miles. To keep down costs, the Patroons took only nine players on the road.
"When I asked him why he didn't make the players drive, he explained that there was more leg room in the driver's seat," Coyne said with a laugh. "The CBA was rough, nothing luxurious. It was a tough learning experience. He really paid his dues. I think we went to the playoffs every year he was there."
After he won his second CBA championship in 1987, Jackson finally hooked up with an NBA team when Jerry Krause offered him a job as Doug Collins' assistant in 1987. Two years later, Collins was fired, Jackson was named his successor and the Bulls lost to the Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals. The next season, Jackson won the first of his 11 coaching titles, beating the Lakers, 4-1, in the 1991 NBA Finals.
The rest is history.
"Watching great coaches is something I've been doing for a long time, and Phil is really unique," Bach said. "He handles individuals in a unique way that lets them grow up. I think it would be good for New York to see him in operation. I think he could turn it around there."
Smith, who covered the six Bulls championship teams for the Chicago Tribune, said Jackson was very involved with Krause in putting them all together. He notes that Jackson was the architect of the trade that sent Charles Oakley to the Knicks for Bill Cartwright, one that was highly unpopular with fans and Michael Jordan but ended up paying big dividends. He was a key role player in their early title runs.
Smith said that when you boil things down, Jackson is just a basketball junkie. "People get caught up in this mysticism of Phil,'' Smith said. "That's not what it's about. He's a basketball lifer. Even with all the politics, he likes basketball. That's why he's coming to New York."