Phil Jackson calls the Knicks ‘clumsy,’ because that’s just what he does

Phil Jackson with HBO's Andrea Kremer. (hbo.com)
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Phil Jackson's comments disparaging the current roster of the New York Knicks probably say as much about him as they do about the team he played for and, famously, coached against.

Jackson, who won 11 N.B.A. championships as coach of the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers, called the current Knicks "clumsy" in an interview for "HBO: Real Sports" in which he says he would have turned down the coaching position if it had been offered to him.

“Stoudemire doesn’t fit together well with Carmelo,” Jackson said. “Stoudemire’s a really good player. But he’s got to play in a certain system and a way. Carmelo has to be a better passer. And the ball can’t stop every time it hits his hands.”

Of course, Jackson was never offered the job. But his persistence as a character in the Knicks' drama this off-season was typical of his relationship with the Knicks for more than 40 years.

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It has seemed like a foregone conclusion for much of that time that Jackson would coach the New York Knicks at some point. He was a key part of Red Holtzman's teams dating back to the late-1960s, after the Knicks selected him in the second round of the 1967 draft. Praised for his willingness to throw his body around, but also for his intelligence, he would have been a natural.

But from the moment the Knicks let Jackson go to the New Jersey Nets in 1978 (Jackson, in his exit interview, suggested that the Nets make him a player-coach, and they did), he has lived to attack his former team in the press, pausing only briefly to consider, or be considered, as their next coach.

The Knicks were 14-28 about halfway through the 1987-88 season, and who else but Chicago Bulls assistant coach Phil Jackson, who also coached in the Continental Basketball Association between his Nets and Bulls assistant gigs, was around to provide a quote about their problems.

''The Knicks are a better team than their record,'' said Jackson. ''They're always in the ball game, but so inconsistent, it's difficult to figure them out.''

But he was willing to try, naturally. A year later, Rick Pitino left the Knicks to coach the University of Kentucky. And he endorsed Phil Jackson to succeed him by name.

''I feel certain it will be someone like Phil Jackson,'' Pitino said. ''I think Phil would be a very popular decision with the media. I also think that the players would enjoy playing for an ex-Knick. I think Phil is ready to step in as a head coach in the N.B.A. He has certainly paid his dues.''

But the Bulls chose not to allow the Knicks to speak to Jackson. They were about to fire their own coach, Doug Collins, in a surprise move, and put Jackson in charge of Michael Jordan's Bulls.

For much of the subsequent decade, Jackson took shots at the Knicks as his Bulls repeatedly beat them. Jackson's common theme, an ironic one from the man Holtzman described admiringly, "he's so smart, he can commit 12 fouls and only get caught for four," was the physical intensity of the Knicks.

Jackson, at one point, insinuated that the N.B.A. was instructing officials to let the Knicks get away with more physical play to extend the series with the Bulls. The implication, always, was that the Bulls would have demolished the Knicks in a fair fight, if only the refs could get out of the way.

Jackson's shots at the Knicks never stopped, though New York would only beat his Bulls once in the playoffs, during a season when Michael Jordan had temporarily retired to play minor league baseball. So as the championships piled up for Jackson, and the Knicks continued their title drought dating back to when Jackson played for them, a reunion seemed as logical as ever. That would be the team Jackson described as "an old team" a couple of years before he made himself available to coach essentially that same team, in 1999.

That time, however, Jackson chose the Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, who were then ascending as the Knicks and Patrick Ewing were into their decline.

Jackson won three championships with the Lakers, but stepped away from the game after the 2003-04 season. Once he considered a return to coaching, however, his first meeting was with then-Knicks general manager Isiah Thomas. He met a second time with Thomas, suggesting at least some passing interest in the job. But then Jackson chose the Lakers again. And again, he took a shot at the Knicks.

"The last week and a half or so it was going to be either the Lakers or nothing at all," Jackson said.

The Knicks ended up with Larry Brown, which went about as well as every other decision they made for a decade. Jackson won another two N.B.A. titles with the Lakers, before retiring following the 2010-11 season.

It appeared the Knicks, their personnel, and Jackson's desire to return to coaching all lined up. But New York, satisfied with Mike Woodson's 18-6 record after replacing Mike D'Antoni this year, didn't even call Jackson.

Naturally, he took his chance to go after the Knicks in response. It's what he's been doing for decades.

His "HBO: Real Sports" interviewer, Andrea Kremer, pointed out that despite all his reservations about New York's roster, Jackson had melded plenty of unlikely championship teams together before.

Jackson replied, “Yeah. Well, it didn’t happen.”