Submitted by Mat MacDonald for Hoops Talk Nation
Follow Mat on Twitter
Indiana, New York, Michigan, Illinois, Pennsylvania, California, Georgia. These are the names of American states, rich in basketball tradition for decades. Celtics, Lakers, Knicks, Bulls, Rockets, Pistons, 76ers, Heat. These are the names of franchises enshrined in the depths of NBA records, championships and historic moments. Pettit, Cousy, Chamberlain, Robertson, Abdul-Jabbar, Unseld, Russell, Erving, Johnson, Jordan, Duncan, James. These are a fraction of MVP’s, league leaders, elites, and respected legends. Kundla, Riley, Popovich. These are the coaches who have won five and no less than three championships in the NBA and the ABA. Nine. The number synonymous to the great Red Auerbach, the leader and heart of the Boston Celtics, who won that many championships between 1957-1966.
Deer Lodge, Montana. Knicks, Nets, Bulls, Lakers. 6.7 points per-game, 4.3 rebounds per-game.1155 games won, 485 lost. Eleven NBA Championships. This is the background of a legend. This is Phil Jackson.
Not many people would ever consider somebody from Deer Lodge, Montana – a population of just over 3,300 – to become the face of a sport, or a profession. Deer Lodge was known as a railroad town, a home to a prison museum, and now, the home of an NBA legend, Phil Jackson. Could one man’s legacy have that much power to change the face of a whole community? A city? A state? Phil Jackson’s playing career certainly didn’t, as it was average at best, but his love of the game brought him back to coaching, where he flourished in Chicago and Los Angeles, winning himself those illusive eleven championships, guaranteeing him a spot in Springfield when he was ready. Over this coaching career, Jackson preached to some of the biggest names in the game – Jordan, Pippen, O’Neal, Bryant.
He’s been at the top, he’s seen it all. He’s dealt with the continuous drama between two stars, he’s witnessed a man who refused to give up his thirst for championships, and he’s been the leader of arguably two of the top three most dominant NBA franchises in the history of the game.
He’s done it all, right? So why, during the 2013 season, a year removed from coaching, is Jackson’s name being mentioned again? Is it just the basketball enthusiasts trying to generate hoops-talk, or is it legitimate? Are people just lonely without Jackson at the helm of a franchise, or do they still think that he has something left to give?
As the Lakers set their sails on another season, questions surrounded the franchise and it’s direction. Mike Brown was hired to lead the new-age ‘Showtime’ as dubbed by the media. The collaboration of two-time MVP, Steve Nash, free-agent-to-be Dwight Howard, and Laker legend Kobe Bryant were almost a lock to get at least to the Western Conference Finals, if not the whole way. Yet, like a mother sending her child to school for the first day, there’s was a reluctant feeling that remained behind closed doors. A feeling that things would never be the same without the man who had held the hand of this franchise during it’s latest success.
That feeling was evident, and that feeling was quickly addressed. After a less than slow start to the season, Brown was dumped. His inability to translate his success from Cleveland to Los Angeles was clear, and a change needed to take place to save the hearts of the Lakers’ faithful. Fans screamed Jackson’s name, media outlets suggested it was the only thing the Lakers could do to salvage their season, and the Lakers went as far as to extend their hand to the eleven-time NBA Champion. Jackson was not a coach anymore, he was a savior. How does a man who’s won it all find the drive and motivation to come back for more? Jackson won his eleventh ring and retired a year later. That push for a repeat had been the final straw. The chase was over. Jackson’s prodigy Michael Jordan beat the Utah Jazz to cap off his career as an NBA champion yet found himself back in the NBA years later in an attempt to retrieve his glory, a failed attempt to put down the game he loved so dearly. Clearly, the Lakers believed that they too could convince Jackson that his career was not finished, and like Jordan, he could come back and prove he still had what it takes to climb to the top.
The situation was perfect for Jackson. An older team with solidified superstars, all of whom are considered near locks for the Hall-Of-Fame. The city was perfect. A chance to go back to Los Angeles and prove that he could bring back a championship to the city that was three years removed from it’s previous visit with Larry O’Brien’s hardware. The opportunity seemed…perfect. But what happens once you get to the top, once you achieve what you set out to accomplish? You want more. You strive for a new challenge, which is exactly what Jackson was interested in.
The Lakers offered Jackson the job, but Jackson wanted more power, more control. Instead of being the bench boss, Jackson wanted a stake in the franchise, a bigger say. He had found his next adventure, his next goal. Already enshrined in the NBA’s legacy as a coach, Jackson now wanted to prove that he could run the show on and off the court. The signing of Mike D’Antoni put the lid on Jackson’s immediate return to the Lakers, as the organization’s brass wanted a head coach, not a new partner. The cries were heard throughout the streets and over the internet as fans and loyal Laker lovers pleaded to the organization to bring back their leader. Indeed, Jackson was the Lakers’ God.
Numerous rumors continued throughout the next few months as Jackson’s words had sparked the conversation of the legendary bench boss returning to take a seat in the upper-deck of a franchise. Pat Riley had done it successfully, switching from the bench boss to the red lower-level seats in Miami’s American Airlines Arena. His success had been documented, and when things looked to be shaky, he simply signed off on a coach and took a few strides down the steps, returning next to the scorer’s table on the hardwood. It seems like a fool-proof plan for Jackson. An opportunity to translate his successes as a coach to the front office make it seem like a no-lose situation for any franchise that would be willing to pick the 67 year-old up. But could he really do it?
Enter the Toronto Raptors, a franchise that has made the playoffs just five times in eighteen seasons since entering the NBA. Searching for an identity, the Raptors have gone through numerous coaches and management, struggling to put the right pieces together. They’ve had their franchise names in Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and most recently Chris Bosh. Toronto’s secured the first pick in the NBA draft, and have done their best Portland Trail Blazer impersonation, picking the new-school Sam Bowie, Andrea Bargnani, with that pick. They’ve gone through rental stars such as Shawn Marion, and they’ve seen players leave and later regret their decision, like Damon Stoudamire. A hockey-rich town with a team that’s legacy is deeper in the NHL history books than any other, Toronto has been craving a winner, someone to come close to the expectations that former Leaf teams have set. Toronto wants more, they want a champion.
When MLSE hired Tim Leiweke on April 26, 2013, the message was clear: Toronto franchises are here to win, and the push starts now. The job security of Bryan Colangelo and Dwayne Casey immediately was put in to question as both have a year remaining on their contracts. Colangelo has been less than impressive after his inaugural season with the Raptors where his team exceeded expectations, winning the Atlantic Division and securing him the league’s GM of the year. Casey is yet another coach in Colangelo’s tenure, another attempt at trying to turn around the enshrined values and work ethic of a team that has struggled to emerge from the basement of the NBA. His values and work ethic alone have given him praise around the NBA, but not much has changed in the franchise. Leiweke was known in Los Angeles as the changer, the man who wasn’t afraid to pull the trigger and make things happen. His ways brought soccer legend David Backham to Los Angeles, and his relationship with Phil Jackson was instrumental to the winning music in Laker Land. When Leiweke got the job, Jackson was the first name brought up, and if interested, he could become the Raptors’ Pat Riley.
The question is, does this move make sense for the Raptors and the city of Toronto? I presented the question to former Toronto Raptors coach and NBA coach of the year, Sam Mitchell. Would bringing Jackson to any franchise bring any value to the front office, or would it merely be a smokescreen to bring in an attractive name with no experience in the field? “In the short term, a name helps,” says Mitchell. “But in the long term, it’s always about your skills.” Not many can argue with that, as the product you produce is the most important aspect of a hire. Nobody has questioned Jackson’s abilities on the floor as a coach, but would his style and his way of doing things translate to the front office? Would his teams be contenders? Michael Jordan went from winning rings, breaking records and engraving himself as the greatest of all time, to sitting lonely nights in the front office of the Washington Wizards, itching to come back, only to return briefly and then find himself in another losing organization that he controls, the Charlotte Bobcats. Winning in one aspect of the game does not always carry over into other jobs. Steve Kerr was instrumental in the Chicago Bulls’ success during the Jordan-era, yet his talents never translated over into the Phoenix Suns’ board room. As Mitchell puts it, “Time will tell. For every Pat Riley or Wayne Embry, there is someone who isn’t. But, who could argue with his track record?” And who could? Jackson has won in different eras, with different greats, great teams, and the same approach. Who could argue with him being appointed to front office of the Toronto Raptors, or of any team for that matter?
The culture within Toronto will never be satisfied with a slum, a mediocre talent, or anything below great. They constantly cry for success, they dream about it, and now they want to see it. Some could see Jackson’s hiring as a way to intrigue players to the city of Toronto. Stars have boasted about their love for the city. Charles Barkley has gone on record to show how much he loves Toronto. Yet, none of them have actually ever lived there, played there, or been a part of anything special…yet. With the intriguing possibility of the Raptors and the city of Toronto hosting the NBA All-Star game, this, along with a relationship and the opportunity to turn a franchise around, may be enough for Leiweke to convince Jackson that Toronto is his next stop, his next mountain to climb. By doing so and adding Jackson, you instantly have the credibility and name that the franchise has forever dreamt of having since Vince Carter departed to New Jersey. It brings back hope, it brings promise. And while it could be a major success, or a massive failure, everybody is in love during they honeymoon, and for the city of Toronto, they pray that it’s a marriage that could last forever.