Let's hop in the imaginary time machine, back to the 1970s. Who had even the slightest inkling that Phil Jackson one day would assume control of the Knicks? That the carefree kid from Montana, whose interests didn't span much beyond roaming First Avenue and frequenting jazz clubs, eventually would be charged with fixing the franchise?
If those people did exist, Walt Frazier certainly wasn't among them. "I never even thought he'd get into coaching," Frazier said of Jackson, a friend and former teammate who on Tuesday will be announced as the Knicks' head of basketball operations. "As players, Phil was so laid- back, loosey-goosey, and he never seemed to be interested in one thing."
So Jackson's 11 NBA titles as the coach of the Bulls and Lakers came as a surprise to Frazier. And the news of the Knicks pursuing him for a front-office role came as a surprise to most when reports surfaced two weeks ago.
Frazier and Jackson are inexorably linked. Both were drafted by the Knicks in 1967; both were members of the franchise's only two championship teams in 1970 and 1973. Both were elected to the Hall of Fame: Frazier as an iconic guard and Jackson as the most successful coach in NBA history. The pair became close as rookies and remain friends, Frazier said, but he still marvels at Jackson's transformation.
"Phil's growth has been amazing," Frazier said yesterday after broadcasting the Knicks' 115-94 win over the Bucks. "He's still laid-back, but he's become incredibly astute and knowledgeable."
Jackson has been retired since coaching the Lakers in 2010-11, but he never detached himself mentally from the NBA, Frazier said. The two last spoke at length last year, when Madison Square Garden hosted a ceremony to honor the Knicks' 1973 team. "And from the things he was telling me about certain teams and players," Frazier said, "I could tell he knows what's going on and who's who."
Equally important, the players know who he is. Jackson's sparkling coaching resume makes his name recognizable and readily associated with winning. That, Frazier said, along with the cap space the Knicks are projected to have in the summer of 2015, will allow Jackson to thrive as an executive.
"All the players know about Phil Jackson and that adds a level of credibility," Frazier said. "Plus everyone sees the 13 rings and that gets their attention right away."
Jackson's transition from the sideline to the front office won't be too difficult, Frazier insisted. Managing and motivating "12, 15 different personalities is tough," he said, but as an executive, Jackson's primary task will be "identifying talent, and he obviously knows how to do that."
"Another great asset is his communication," Frazier said. "He communicated with , Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan. The ability to handle different personalities should translate to the front office."
Leading up to the 1973 celebration ceremony last year, Frazier said he feared Knicks fans would still consider Jackson a pseudo-villain, given the 1990s rivalry with the Bulls. This time, though?
"He's getting a standing ovation," Frazier said. "It's gonna be tremendous because he's one of us; originally a Knick. Him being a part of the championship years, the connection to winning, that makes it exciting."