With each lost season that Phil Jackson serves as president of the New York Knicks and every bizarre pronouncement that he makes about an NBA superstar—his own, players for other teams, whoever—it becomes easier for frustrated and perversely gleeful basketball fans alike to dismiss his accomplishments as a coach. Maybe Jackson was overrated, the thinking goes, and maybe it really was all about Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant, and Shaquille O'Neal. Perhaps this doddering lover of a geometrical basketball system has been a naked emperor since 1991. It's difficult to square Jackson's past success with his grumpy, flailing present.
However, it would be a mistake to demean Jackson the coach simply because of the struggles of Jackson the executive. Failures in one field don't erase his successes in another. To the contrary, his career numbers are—like the vastness of the universe, the Triangle offense, or a late-night Phil tweet—effectively incomprehensible.
Jackson has won more championships (11) than Gregg Popovich and Pat Riley have combined (10); in an 11-season stretch, Jackson's teams captured nine titles; he won championships 19 years apart. Since 1969 there have been four title repeats by non-Phil coaches, while Jackson accomplished that feat seven times. Long story short, there has never been a coach like Jackson, from his CBA title-winning days with the Albany Patroons to the glory years with Chicago and Los Angeles to his quietly telling stint with Lox Around the Clock.
Don't remember the Lox? That's all right, because only about four or five people in the world still remember Jackson's brief time with the club. Now, thanks to the internet and a New York City playground legend named Jack Ryan, we can see Jackson as both a young coaching prodigy and an old playing warrior. In 1987, during a two-day tournament, Jackson—who, that same year, left his head coaching job in Albany and become an assistant with the Bulls under Doug Collins—coached Ryan and a mismatched collection of middle-aged muscle-pulls waiting to happen in a weekend competition in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. Phil didn't just coach the Lox, either. He pulled a Bill Russell and served as a player-coach.
Behold one minute and 46 seconds of pure basketball:
The video survives thanks to Ryan, who I met while writing my book Rise and Fire. Ryan has long been considered one of the great playground performers in New York City, a ball-handling wizard and shooting phenom who has dominated on courts throughout the city, especially at his favored haunt, the Cage at W. 4th Street. A high school star at John Jay in the early 1980s, Ryan never made it to big-time college basketball, done in by personal demons that led to a nomadic life. In 1990, with an assist from well-connected NBA writer Peter Vecsey, Ryan finally got a tryout in rookie camp with the New Jersey Nets; he was in his late twenties by then, and got cut. Ryan turned his life around and has spent years performing at arenas across the land as a basketball entertainer. Today he makes a living putting on shows at schools, Bar Mitzvahs and other events. And, even in his 50s, he keeps raining in jump shots all across NYC.
So how did Ryan end up playing for, and with, Jackson on that weekend in 1987?
"I was bartending" in Brooklyn, Ryan told me. "I'm there, it's the middle of the week, it's like happy hour and there's nobody in the bar. This older white guy comes in and we start shooting the shit, and we start talking about basketball." Ryan recapped his life story for the customer, from his high-scoring high school days to his college flameout and subsequent wanderings. The man told Ryan about an upcoming weekend tournament he organized in Scotch Plains, and "he said, 'I think one of the teams could use a guy like you.' So he got me on a team called Lox Around the Clock," named after, and presumably sponsored by, the Manhattan restaurant at Sixth Avenue and 21st Street. (According to a 1987 story in the New York Times, the joint's matzo ball soup had a "medicinal taste.") That thirsty recruiter was Bill Clancy, the visionary founder of Club Basketball USA who later went on to create an over-50 basketball league.
Clancy asked his friend Phil Jackson to coach the team, but Jackson did him one better by also ditching his coaching sweats for some dangerously-brief-even-considering-the-era short shorts and mixing it up between the lines. The highlights of the tourney, or at least of the few spliced clips of it that survive 30 years later:
- Early, we see Phil offering up coaching instructions. "On the offense, let's just stay with pass, go, wing, set a pick, point guard…" He's direct, patient, and wise.
- At 33 seconds, Phil, in that iconic green No. 41 Lox Around the Clock home jersey, competes under the glass against an opponent. When the other guy grabs the offensive board, Phil, instead of playing fundamentally sound defense against any putback attempt, yanks the man's white T-shirt that's under his yellow jersey, tearing it in the process. Remarkably—or not, if we consider the possibility Phil worked the officials in a press conference early that morning—a ref runs in to call ... traveling. A voice is heard, however, calling a technical on Phil after a bit of trash-talking with his foe, who just stands there, stunned, sort of stupidly, with a tattered shirt. Fourteen years earlier the guy had probably celebrated while watching Phil and the Knicks win the 1973 NBA title. Now he had to figure out why a former NBA hustle guy had gratuitously vandalized his favorite tee.
- At 46 seconds, Phil knocks down a little lefty 15-footer, displaying the soft touch that made him a high school star and college legend at the University of North Dakota. The southpaw form is a bit reminiscent of Jackson's future player Toni Kukoc, if Kukoc played the day after he helped move a sleeper sofa and a dozen bookcases into a pal's sixth-floor walkup.
- At 55 seconds, Phil, who was never shy about confronting his stars, expresses his displeasure to the pasty-skinned civilians. "Hey guys, guys," he says, "it's all a matter of getting the goddamn basketball and not giving the fucking thing up." As memorable coaching proclamations from Phil go, it doesn't quite rank with his directive to the Lakers to "forget about Shaq" as they stormed back in Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals, but it worked.
- At 1:04, boom! As an opposing player, who we learn from an off-camera voice is named Peter, goes in for a seemingly easy layup on the left side, Phil emerges and levels the poor guy with a body check, a likely flagrant 1 foul in today's game and one that would in another age have elicited smiles from Riley's Knicks and protests from Jackson's Bulls. Peter stays on his feet while Phil tumbles to the ground. Our commentator watches Phil's antics and mutters two words that dozens of rival coaches, executives and players would repeat over the next three decades: "You asshole."
Or, as Ryan puts it 30 years later, Jackson was "just one nasty fuck on the court."
Not surprisingly, since it's on his YouTube page, Ryan excels throughout the video, displaying ball-handling skills that make one opponent in particular look like an actor playing a patsy for Uncle Drew. His silky pull-up jumper goes down from anywhere, whether on an indoor court or out in the elements.
Ryan remembers the team losing in the finals of the tournament and Jackson, the shirt-grabbing banger, being "tech'd out" of the event. For the official Lox Around the Clock history books, a few years ago I sent the clip to the Knicks. I didn't hear from Jackson about it, but I believe he saw it because a PR guy—who called the video "great, great stuff"—reported back that "Phil didn't do so well for the rest of the tournament. He got hurt." Injured, tossed ... the details blur 30 years later. Safe to say it wasn't the greatest weekend as a player for the physically past-his-prime Jackson. It was also the last final he'd lose as a coach until 2004 against the Detroit Pistons.
What did Ryan think of Jackson the coach, before Tex Winter, Jordan, Shaq and Kobe came into his life? "Obviously he knew what he was doing," Ryan says. "He was just designing plays, telling us what to do. One time he cursed at us. So yeah, that's my Phil Jackson story."
It's a better story than the one being written now at Madison Square Garden.
Shawn Fury is a writer in New York City. Visit him at shawnfury.com or on Twitter @shawnfury.