- Ian O'Connor, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Dave Checketts was the first man to recruit Phil Jackson for the New York Knicks, hosting the bluest of blue-chippers for four hours in his Connecticut home. Checketts had a lot to offer Jackson back in 1999, big money and bigger plans with a Finals-bound roster.
"And yet I knew Phil well enough to know he was just playing me," the former Garden president said Wednesday night, right after Mike D'Antoni surrendered to the inevitable and jumped before he was shoved out of a heavyweight job that too often left him looking and sounding like a lightweight.
"Phil was playing me to get his Lakers number up, because he was always going to take the job that gave him the best chance to add to his championship rings. We had a good team, but we didn't have a young superstar like Kobe Bryant."
Thirteen years later, the Knicks still don't have a young superstar like Kobe Bryant. Jackson is a free agent, again, a 66-year-old man who adored his Knicks coach and mentor, Red Holzman, but who is likely too smart to cart his 11 Bulls and Lakers titles into the Garden for one last go-around with the team that hasn't won it all since Jackson came off the bench in 1973.
"I think Phil has too much pride to come back to draw a paycheck; he'll only come back to coach a team that adds to his legacy," said Checketts, now the chairman and CEO of Legends Hospitality Management, a company owned by the New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys.
"I'm not sold on Carmelo [Anthony]. [Amare] Stoudemire is still owed more than $80 million, and he looks like he's really struggling. Jeremy Lin is being called the next Walt Clyde Frazier, and he might be an over-glorified backup. Phil would only return for a team that can win it, and I just don't know if you can say that about this Knicks club."
Let's face it: The basketball side of the Garden has been no country for old men. It ended badly for Lenny Wilkens, Larry Brown, even Donnie Walsh, which doesn't mean it would end badly for Phil Jackson, maybe the greatest basketball coach of them all, college or pro.
But the odds of Jim Dolan convincing Jackson to take the job might be longer than the odds of Mike Woodson inspiring the Knicks to win enough playoff games to keep the job.
"Don't underestimate Mike Woodson," warned Checketts, who ran the candidate through a three-hour interview while serving as a consultant to the Detroit Pistons. "I really like him as a coach, and you'd better take him seriously. He has that defensive mentality, which they love in New York and in the Eastern Conference."
Woodson was a competent head coach in Atlanta, a winner of two best-of-seven series, and one longtime associate said the new Knicks coach wasn't afraid to get on the Josh Smiths and Joe Johnsons when he had to, and that -- unlike D'Antoni -- he won't hesitate to scream at players with a higher profile than Landry Fields.
"I am going to be held accountable," Woodson said after a Garden debut straight out of a fantasy camp, a 42-shredding of the Portland Trail Blazers. "And I am going to make damn sure [the players] are going to be held accountable."
That's the new Mike. The old Mike? No, D'Antoni wasn't tough enough for one of the toughest jobs in one of the toughest towns, and so he surrendered to the inevitable and let the people who run the Garden -- people with awful shooting percentages -- go find a coach with the whistle for the job.
D'Antoni started building a case for his dismissal Sunday, when the Knicks quit against the Philadelphia 76ers at home before the losing coach all but conceded he was working with a spineless core.
Of course, it was already clear that D'Antoni had no use for Anthony (and vice versa), that he had no clue how to get the best out of Anthony and Lin at the same time (some offensive genius, huh?), and that he couldn't have convinced Bruce Bowen, Dennis Rodman and Jerry Sloan to play defense, never mind Melo, Stoudemire and Lin.
But when a coach publicly admits his team has no resolve, that coach is publicly asking to be fired.
"Management was concerned that Mike wasn't fighting hard enough to save himself," said one source close to the situation. "He was like a bloodied boxer just waiting for the ref to stop the fight."
D'Antoni begged out before Wednesday morning's shootaround at the team's Westchester practice facility, begged out in the company of executives Glen Grunwald and Allan Houston. But then, according to Dolan, D'Antoni "did offer to stay" in a post-practice meeting with the owner. Dolan's thanks, but-no-thanks response was his first good move in a very long time.
As he headed for a Garden office following the news conference, Grunwald was stopped in a hallway and asked if he would've fired D'Antoni in the near future in the event the losing didn't stop.
"It's hard to say," Grunwald said. "I think we weren't planning on changing coaches. We were going to try to go the whole year."
No, the Knicks were going to give D'Antoni a few more games before putting him out of his misery. The coach just saved them the trouble.
"It's been a rough go for Mike," Grunwald said.
A rougher go for Knicks fans.
D'Antoni didn't have enough talent to win early in his stay, and he allegedly had too much talent to win late in his stay. Whatever. In the end, he was overmatched in this market, a nice guy destined to finish where he did.
Nobody knows for sure where this is heading with Woodson, the interim coach promoted by the interim GM, Grunwald, the two of them Indiana teammates of Dolan's BFF, Isiah Thomas. For this re-opening night on Broadway, Woodson kept Linsanity backstage while the Blazers followed D'Antoni's lead and quit on command.
The Knicks won by a staggering 121-79 count, and the Garden crowd responded with a standing ovation. J.R. Smith and Steve Novak combined for 43 points and 13 3-pointers off the bench, and Anthony and Stoudemire seemed much happier in a world where Lin was good for six points and six assists in 23 minutes.
"I believe [Woodson] can help us put together a drive to make the playoffs," Dolan said.
That drive to the playoffs won't get it done for Woodson, not unless he delivers the kind of improbable postseason run Jeff Van Gundy delivered in '99, when Checketts and Jackson were meeting behind his back.
John Calipari could be out there, no matter what he's tweeting, and Tom Thibodeau is a pending free agent. Jeff Van Gundy, the Sequel, is only a possibility if someone convinces that notorious grudge-holder, Dolan, to give Van Gundy a call.
But as a candidate, Phil Jackson is in a league of his own. Will he actually leave retirement for a homecoming job so many people have run away from, including Pat Riley, Rick Pitino, Van Gundy, Don Nelson, Brown and now D'Antoni?
"A coach's toughness is so important in this market," Checketts said, "because we all know it can be pretty miserable for you here if you don't win."
Way back when, Van Gundy declared that the scheming Zen Master "doesn't have the guts to coach in New York."
Thirteen years later, bet against Phil Jackson having the stomach for the job.
Don't expect Phil Jackson to save the Knicks. He's too smart to take the job.