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Former Hippie Phil Jackson Returns to New York Running Knicks

Phil Jackson
The New York Knicks hired Phil Jackson to run basketball operations, a person with knowledge of the agreement said. Photographer: Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

Phil Jackson’s first visit to the New York Knicks came with a rock through the windshield. His latest, almost half a century later, is said to bring him control of the franchise.

Jackson, a Knicks forward from 1967-78, was a socially awkward son of two ministers when he was drafted by New York in May 1967, he wrote in his 1975 book “Maverick: More Than a Game.” On his first visit to the city, he was picked up at the airport by then-assistant coach Red Holzman. The trip down Queens Boulevard included passing under a pedestrian bridge, where a group of teenagers dropped a rock through the windshield of Holzman’s 1965 Chevrolet convertible.

“I sat there in amazement and I didn’t know what to think,” Jackson wrote. “Nothing like this had ever happened in my hometown of Williston, North Dakota.”

Jackson, a member of the Knicks’ only two National Basketball Association title teams and a record 11-time winner as a coach with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers, has been hired to run the Knicks’ basketball operations, according to a person with knowledge of the agreement who requested anonymity because the deal isn’t public yet. The Knicks scheduled a news conference for tomorrow morning.

In “Maverick,” which Jackson wrote midway through his 12-year playing career, he shares his opinions of coaches, teammates and himself, both on the court and in his private life. Four decades later, the book is a stark reminder of how much New York, American culture and the league have evolved, and how long it’s been since the Knicks last won a championship.

First Contract

Jackson’s first contract paid him $13,500 plus a $5,000 signing bonus. He’ll make more than twice that each day under his new deal, which is believed to be worth more than $15 million per year, several news organizations including the Los Angeles Times reported.

Jackson missed the entire 1969-70 season following spinal fusion surgery as the Knicks won their first NBA title. The team, which included future Hall of Famers Willis Reed, Bill Bradley, Walt Frazier and Dave DeBusschere, beat the Wilt Chamberlain-led Lakers in seven games in the NBA Finals.

Jackson had a close-up view of one of the most memorable events in the history of Madison Square Garden. While recuperating from the surgery, he was working on a photo diary of the season, called “Take it All,” when he snapped a picture of Reed being shot up with cortisone before the finale.

“There was a huge needle sticking out of his leg and Willis was howling in pain,” Jackson wrote. “It was a great picture, but I never used it because Red asked me not to. Then Willis went out and played Chamberlain on one leg and we had Los Angeles beat by the middle of the second quarter.”

Celebrity Scene

The party that followed the 113-99 win included stars such as actor Robert Redford and novelist William Golding. Celebrities have been part of the Madison Square Garden scenery ever since.

“It signaled the fact that the Knicks were now a glamorous entity,” Jackson wrote.

He had a bigger role in 1973, when New York again beat the Lakers to take the title, this time in five games. Jackson averaged 8.7 points and 4.2 rebounds in 17 playoff games that season on a Knicks team that had added future Hall of Famers Earl Monroe and Jerry Lucas.

“This team didn’t have the awesome firepower of the 1970 championship team, so we couldn’t blow teams out like the Knicks did then,” Jackson wrote. “We now relied much more on team play, and we were at our best in the closing moments when the ballgame was on the line.”

Playing Career

Frazier, a Hall-of-Fame player who is now a Knicks’ television analyst, said that he couldn’t have imagined back in the late 1960s that his rookie roommate would one day be charged with running the entire organization, let alone be such a successful coach.

“I never saw it coming,” Frazier said in an interview. “He was a hippie. He had the big mustache, the long hair. He had the bike he used to ride. He was eccentric.”

Frazier said he didn’t recall the reaction to “Maverick,” but that honesty is one of Jackson’s assets.

“That’s what the players will respect about him, and that’s what we respected about Holzman,” Frazier said of the coach who took over the team midway through the 1967 season and remained there until 1982. “If he had something to say he’d come into your face and get it out, and he’d treat you like a man.”

Jackson’s playing days, which ended with a two-season stint as a New Jersey Net, also included his share of boos from local fans. He called New York the “best place to win and the worst place to lose.”

Hiding Out

“I found myself trying to duck and hide so nobody would recognize me,” he wrote about criticism he sometimes endured. “Each of them thinks that he is the Knicks’ lucky charm and his incredible presence at a game is all that’s necessary for a ballclub to win. Any player that screws up and threatens to destroy this fantasy is going to hear about it.”

When Jackson was on the court he “did the dirty work and he knew how to play,” according to former teammate Henry Bibby.

“He was a winner, a guy who sacrificed for the whole team,” Bibby, who played on the 1972-73 club with Jackson, said last week in a telephone interview. “I loved playing with him.”

Bibby, 64, now an assistant with the Detroit Pistons, said he remembered getting a phone call from Jackson in the late 1980s when both were coaching in the Continental Basketball Association. Jackson said he was tired of being in the minor leagues without NBA coaching opportunities and that he was planning to give up basketball at the end of the season. Bibby said the two then shared stories about their careers, and Jackson became an assistant with the Bulls the following year.

Almost Quit

“Phil Jackson was getting ready to leave basketball forever,” Bibby said. “What a tragedy that would have been.”

Now 68, Jackson returns as the Knicks fight to make the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season after being shut out six straight years and eight of nine. New York is 27-40, 3 1/2 games out of the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff spot.

In “Maverick,” one of seven books authored by Jackson, he talks about his experimentation with drugs such as LSD and his views on the racial differences between blacks and whites during the 1970s. He also details his transition from shy organized religious observer to pot-smoking hippie spiritual truth-seeker.

Finding ‘Maverick’

Finding “Maverick” in New York can be difficult. The New York Public Library has one copy, kept in storage, that takes 24-48 hours to produce.

Abe Books, an Inc. subsidiary that sells new, used, rare and out-of-print books through a network of independent booksellers worldwide, lists 10 copies of the book, ranging from $35-$183.99. The closest deal was in Philadelphia. New York’s Strand Book Store, which boasts 18 miles of new, used and rare books, also didn’t have a copy.

Four decades after his time as a Knicks player, Jackson’s next life change is trying to resurrect one of basketball’s storied franchises, a mission that brings his professional career full circle.

“The future is here and we’ve all just taken another step in it,” he wrote back then.

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