From ELEVEN RINGS: The Soul of Success by Phil Jackson and Hugh Delehanty. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC. Copyright 2013, 2014 by Phil Jackson.
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There’s a part of me that has always longed to lead a simpler, more ascetic life. But I’ve had to balance that with the demands of constantly being in the public eye. When I retired from coaching, Jeanie urged me to stay up to date with what was happening in the basketball world — which I did — but my first inclination was to go inside and become more attuned to my “inner minister.” I fantasized about slowing down, living more mindfully, and dedicating myself primarily to service. I was happy being the chief cook and bottle washer at home and spending a good part of my time buying the groceries, making dinner, and taking care of the household. I taught meditation to some business executives and flirted with the idea of mentoring students at the Union Theological Center. As long as they didn’t call me “Reverend,” I thought, it would be OK.
Then Irving Azoff invited me to his birthday party.
Irving is a prominent music industry executive who manages The Eagles, Christina Aguilera, Steely Dan and other stars. He’s also a long-time Lakers fan, who I’d often seen at games sitting with The Eagles’ Glenn Frey along the baseline near our bench. Irving’s wife, Shelli, is famous for throwing a large “Just Us Girls” party at their home in the Holmby Hills section of Los Angeles. Not to be outdone, Irving decided to toss a similar bash for around 150 male friends to celebrate his birthday in early December. The guest list included several members of The Eagles, actor Larry David, CBS head Lester Moonves, and Jim Dolan, the executive chairman of The Madison Square Garden Company, which owns the New York Knicks. Irving gave me a heads up that Jim wanted to talk to me about his team.
There was a lot to talk about. A few months earlier Jim had replaced the Knicks’ general manager Glen Grunwald with former Madison Square Garden executive Steve Mills right before the start of training camp. The team had gotten off to a shaky start in October and things went from bad to worse when star center Tyson Chandler broke his leg in early November. I told Jim that he needed to be patient. “It’s only five or six weeks into the season,” I said. “Your team hasn’t had time to gel together yet.”
In my view, the Knicks needed to pick up the pace, move the ball more effectively, and play a tougher brand of basketball. Jim and I sat in Irving’s office discussing the plight of the Knicks for an hour or so and almost missed dinner before we decided to pick up our conversation again after the holidays.
Our next tete-à-tete was at Jerry’s Deli, a New York-style hangout in Marina del Rey, not far from my home. Jim, who had recently formed a joint venture called Azoff MSG Entertainment with Irving’s firm, was in town to discuss revamping the Lakers’ former home, The Forum, which was now part of the Madison Square Garden enterprise.
Jim asked me what I would do with the team if I came on board. “I’d have to get really involved if I was going to be part of the operation,” I said. “I’d need to know what was happening on a daily basis.”
“So what kind of role do you want?” said Jim.
“Well, I know I don’t want to be general manager.”
Irving was listening from a booth across the room.
“Make him the president,” he said to Jim. “He needs to be the president.”