Azoff Flexes ‘Floor-Seat Mafia’ Muscle in Landing Phil Jackson

Spike Lee threw his arms around the man responsible for bringing Phil Jackson back to the New York Knicks.

“Thank you,” the film director with a permanent seat on Madison Square Garden’s celebrity row whispered into the ear of Irving Azoff, the former Live Nation Entertainment Inc. chairman.

Jackson, 68, had just been introduced yesterday as the president of the Knicks, and owner Jim Dolan declared that the most decorated coach in National Basketball Association history wouldn’t be overseeing the team he played for -- and won two championships as a member of -- without Azoff.

“These two guys are going to be fantastic together,” Azoff told Bloomberg News in an interview, referring to Dolan and Jackson, the owner of a record 11 NBA titles as a coach. “I know Jim for who he really is, not for who is portrayed to be.”

Azoff, a member of “the Lakers floor-seat mafia,” a term for the power brokers with front-row seats for games in Los Angeles, said he and Dolan have been partners since 2004. Last year Madison Square Garden Co. said it would set up an artist-management venture with Azoff, agreeing to pay $125 million for half of the new company. Azoff’s music clients have included Van Halen, Christina Aguilera and The Eagles, whose warmup act is occasionally JD & The Straight Shot, a band fronted by Dolan.

‘Brilliant Strategist’

Azoff, 66, was the chief executive officer of Ticketmaster during its merger with concert-promoter Live Nation in 2010. He became chairman of the combined company in February 2011, when Live Nation acquired the remainder of his artist management business for $116.2 million. About a year later, Azoff resigned from Live Nation, frustrated by the limitations of leading a publicly traded company.

“He’s a brilliant strategist,” Azoff said of Dolan, whose role with the Knicks has widely been portrayed as micromanager whose meddling has hurt the basketball team that last won a championship in 1973. “Jim’s a loyal friend, a loyal partner. He gets the big picture.”

Dolan said in hiring Jackson, who led the Chicago Bulls to six championships and the Lakers to five, that he “willingly and gratefully” ceded control of the franchise. Moreover, Dolan said he never wanted to take such an active role in team matters but that circumstance dictated that he intervene.

Decision Maker

“I found myself in a position where I needed to be more a part of the decision making for awhile. It wasn’t necessarily something that I wanted to do,” he said. “I am a fan, but my expertise lies in managing companies and businesses.”

Azoff said his courtship of Jackson began in early December, when the coach and owner met at his home. Azoff said he’s convinced the basketball marriage of Jackson and Dolan will work because the two share the same philosophies of taking care of the clients, product and, by extension, the customers.

Jackson, who signed a five-year contract, said at the news conference that one of his goals is to remake MSG into a comfortable place where athletes feel encouraged and supported by management.

“What Phil said is exactly what Jim and I feel about the music business,” Azoff said. “If you do the right thing for artists and their fans, it’ll be the right thing for your business, too.”

Azoff, who said he attended four meetings between the Knicks and Jackson, has been friends with the coach for years. One perk of having floor seats to the Lakers was an annual dinner with the team’s late owner, Jerry Buss, and top team officials.

‘Ask Phil’

Azoff said he was with Dolan the other day when Jackson called on the telephone. Jackson told Azoff that he wanted him to ask Dolan about bringing somebody on with the Knicks.

“Jim threw up his hands and said, ‘tell him to ask Phil Jackson,’” Azoff said. “It was cute, but memorable.”

Most memorable, said Jackson, who has enjoyed championship celebrations in Chicago’s Grant Park and downtown Los Angeles, would be a trip up lower Manhattan’s Canyon of Heroes.

Azoff said he hopes that happens for the friends he brought together.

“Nobody knows that it’s going to lead to a championship,” Azoff said. “But it’s definitely going to be more fun around here, and Jim’s going to take his shot.”

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