Mark Jackson, Hired to Rouse Knicks, Gets Sucked Into the Team’s Miasma

Mark Jackson leaned against his massive Ford Expedition on a recent afternoon outside the New York Knicks practice facility–a dismal, shadowy gym on a SUNY campus in Purchase. What team, the 36-year-old point guard and Brooklyn native was asked, do you fear most in the playoffs?

Mr. Jackson stared across the gym parking lot with his familiar look of practiced stoicism. “The Knicks, ” he said firmly.

But of course. The previous night, Mr. Jackson’s new club had been routed by the miserable New Jersey Nets at Madison Square Garden in an ugly display of laziness and ineptitude. The Nets’ Johnny Newman, an aging N.B.A. gypsy, torched the timid New York defense for 26 points. The Knicks’ leading scorer, Allan Houston, missed an almost comical 18 of 22 shots. The night was capped when net rookie Soumaila Samake grabbed a missed free throw and laid it back in, unmolested. Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy looked as if he’d witnessed a plane crash.

But it was a typical night in a frustrating season for an erratic 2000-1 Knicks team, which begins its playoff campaign on Sunday, April 22. Retooled and relaunched sans longtime center Patrick Ewing, these Knicks have tormented New York fans, rising to vanquish mighty rivals only to fall apart against J.V.-quality squads like the Nets. “Our approach obviously doesn’t work,” head coach Jeff Van Gundy complained the day after the Nets debacle. “How we go about our business does not work.”

Mark Jackson, of course, had been brought aboard to improve business. The Knicks’ February trade with Toronto for the aging, trick-passing point guard was a calculated effort to repair an unimpressive season. The hope was that a crafty veteran like Mr. Jackson could rekindle the stale club’s fire, reengage disenchanted fans–and throw some wicked-cool no-look passes along the way.

There was a compelling local storyline, too. Mr. Jackson was a hometown product, a former St. John’s star who had broken in with the Knicks in 1987, won the N.B.A.’s Rookie of the Year award, and captured the city’s heart, only to be cruelly traded away in 1992 (to the L.A. Clippers, for, of all people, the infamously flaccid Charles Smith). He had flipped around with three more clubs, most notably the rival Indiana Pacers, but now had returned as a wizened veteran to try to lead his hometown club to their first championship since 1973.

But to date, the experiment hasn’t worked. Like some amorphous blob, this Knicks team has absorbed Mark Jackson into its uninspired world of lethargy and blandness. After nearly a half season in New York, Mr. Jackson looks like just another bored N.B.A. nomad who plays as if he’s not sleeping well. Far from being a savior, Mr. Jackson looks like another part of the problem.

As a result, the Knicks–also plagued by injuries–are stumbling into the playoffs, destined, it seems, to be obliterated. To the south lies a resurgent Miami Heat club rejoined by its All-Star center, Alonzo Mourning, who had been presumed out for the year with a kidney ailment. Closer by are the mighty Philadelphia 76ers, with Allen Iverson’s answers and Dikembe Mutombo’s rejections. There are also improving clubs like the Milwaukee Bucks. Should the Knicks somehow make it to the finals, they will face one of a long list of superior Western Conference clubs.

But first, as Mr. Jackson noted, the Knicks must face the Knicks, a team whose roster is talented but defective. Take your pick. There’s Mr. Houston, he of the gorgeous, preternatural jump shot, who still reverts to an underconfident 13-year-old at crunch time. Then there’s Latrell Sprewell, a dervish of energy and speed, who lately forsakes his prodigious slashing and dunking talents for sloppy jump shots. There’s Larry Johnson, who plays with determination and a decimated lower back, and Glen Rice, a pure shooter with a gimp foot who has specialized in missing open three-pointers. There’s Marcus Camby, a dynamic young leaper with the durability of tin foil.

Such problems are not new. The Knicks have traditionally been a flawed club, one that compensated for its shortcomings by playing passionate, dogged and sometimes brutish basketball. Though New York has featured many stars, from Bradley to Frazier to King to Ewing, New Yorkers have reveled in the team’s image as a bunch of scrappy underdogs battling the N.B.A.’s slicker, more gifted Goliaths (the rest of the country just thought the Knicks were thugs, especially in the 1990′s). Fans always identified closely with the team’s role players, vagabonds and head cases like Charles Oakley and John Starks, who played with emotion and bravado and were, at least at heart, true New Yorkers.

Today’s Knicks, however, play as if they were assembled for a PlayStation video game–technically adept, but cold and emotionless on the court. They occasionally make dazzling plays, but they rarely display the fire of their predecessors, that hell-or-be-damned Starks-ian abandon that at times blew close games but made fans bleed blue and orange. This may be a question of tenure: Only point guard Charlie Ward has called himself a Knick for more than five years. There’s also a sense that this is a transitional season, a biding of time until next year, when New York will almost undoubtedly try to land Chris Webber, the Sacramento All-Star and soon-to-be free agent. And it also may be an issue of priorities: Many of the current Knicks are deeply religious, a devotion that Mr. Van Gundy fears is distracting.

Absent an emotional core on the court, today’s Knicks suffer from a disconnect with their fans and, by extension, with their city. While it’s fun to watch Mr. Sprewell go coast-to-coast or Mr. Camby slam home an offensive rebound, there is something naggingly soulless about this bunch. These days, even dedicated Knicks fans may feel, as Jerry Seinfeld once observed, that they’re simply rooting for laundry.

We brought it upon ourselves, of course. For eons, the proud Patrick Ewing was New York’s Sisyphus, an epic, often ailing figure laboring furiously, making absurd promises to win titles even when everyone knew hope was lost. Mr. Ewing was great in his prime, but by the end of his Garden run, almost the whole city had turned upon him, believing the slow-footed center was holding his younger, faster teammates back. The day after Mr. Ewing’s exile to Seattle was announced (it actually took a second try before the trade became official), the headline in the Post read, “GOOD RIDDANCE.”

The Ewing-less Knicks proved themselves to be something less than fury unleashed. Messrs. Sprewell and Houston had co-existed before, but now they were joined in the rotation by Mr. Rice, who had come to the club in the Seattle trade via a side deal with Los Angeles. A struggle for minutes and shots ensued. The team was also weak at point guard and vulnerable in the middle, where the valiant but brittle Mr. Camby struggled to do battle with the league’s top behemoths.

Mr. Ewing, no doubt, had outlived his usefulness as a key player. But with his removal, the Knicks lost more than a big body down low. They also lost his stubborn, irreplaceable (if deluded) sense of Manifest Destiny, that all-or-nothing, total-war attitude that he imposed on his team and New York. For 15 years, there was no better sight in the Garden than an animated Mr. Ewing flapping his monstrous arms upward during a close game, demanding more noise.

It was hoped that Mr. Jackson would restore the will to win. A smart, careful and methodical player who spent most of his nine years out of New York with a Pacers team that caused the Knicks nearly as much grief as Michael Jordan’s Bulls, Mr. Jackson took winning extremely seriously. Like Mr. Ewing, he was prone to bold predictions and tough talk about his rivals. Almost immediately, Mr. Jackson’s arrival brought an air of drama to the Knicks, as he taped a menacing Biblical passage above his locker: “NO WEAPON FORMED AGAINST ME SHALL PROSPER.”

At times, Mr. Jackson has shown flashes of his old genius and delivered on some of the trade’s initial promise. When he distributes crisp zip passes to the team’s panoply of jump-shooters, Mr. Jackson can look like a soldier feeding the ammo belts to his machine gunner. As Mr. Houston told me, Mr. Jackson “gets it to you right on time, when you’re ready to shoot it. He takes a lot of the thinking out of it. He just makes the game easier.”

But more often than not, Mr. Jackson looks like a piano player without a song. In a disorganized Knicks offense, he is often dumping the ball to players calling for it in the post, or passing it around like a hot potato at the top of the three-point circle. Without the intelligent cutters of his past–players who knew how to move without the ball, like Reggie Miller or Chris Mullin– Mr. Jackson appears out of his game, unable to take hold as a leader.

Mr. Jackson has failed even to outshine the pedestrian Mr. Ward, whose job he commandeered upon his arrival in New York. Statistically, Messrs. Jackson and Ward are performing at roughly the same level. But Mr. Wardis younger and quicker and less likely to tire, and has responded to his demotion with extra effort and better shooting. As the regular season comes to a close, Mr. Van Gundy now tends to let Mr. Ward, not Mr. Jackson, run the team in the fourth quarter of tight games.

What’s more, it’s not even clear that Mr. Jackson has outperformed Chris Childs, the point guard for whom he was traded. Mr. Childs was error-prone and childishly temperamental, a whiner and committer of stupid fouls. Still, he ranks among the best defensive point guards in basketball, and many disciples of the team agree that Mr. Childs hit as many clutch baskets as any other player. (My father, a Knicks season-ticket holder for some 30 years, often insisted–perhaps with some hyperbole, but not humor–that Mr. Childs was secretly the key to the team.)

No one, it should be noted, expected an aging player like Mr. Jackson to come in and dominate, to display Charlie Ward’s quickness or to glue himself, as Mr. Childs did, to an offensive hurricane like Mr. Iverson. But less understandable is how Mr. Jackson has also failed to provide the Knicks with the on-court leadership and gusto he showed so often in his career.

Remember, Mr. Jackson was an insufferable opponent. During the Knicks’ regular meetings with the Pacers in the mid- and late 1990′s, he often bullied smaller Knicks point guards with his plodding but effective post-up move. He was a trash-talker (he once called Walt Frazier a “pimp”) and a showboat, goading fans with his absurd chest-and-shoulders “shimmy shake.” The Sporting News wrote that Knicks fans’ hatred for Mr. Jackson surpassed their hated for Reggie Miller. After stealing the ball from John Starks late in a 1998 playoff game at the Garden, Mr. Jackson paused from dribbling up-court to rub it in with one of those absurd little wiggles, which elicited a lusty chant of “Jackson sucks” from the rafters. (I was there that afternoon, and recall enthusiastically joining in.)

The current Mark Jackson hasn’t shown any of that verve, that willingness to excite and taunt and channel crowd anger. Instead, he appears emotionally detached from his surroundings, unwilling to buy into the comeback story so many New York columnists are eagerly waiting to write. To date, his misplays have been more memorable than his contributions. In the late moments of the Knicks’ disturbing 89-82 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday, April 15, Mr. Jackson helped snuff New York’s last hopes at a comeback with a sloppy pass that bounced off Mr. Houston’s fingertips and out of bounds.

In conversation, Mr. Jackson still recites all the right bromides. (“I hope to finish my career here,” he said to me. “This is home.”) But more often than not, he sounds like a tired hired gun. When we talk, he professes to barely remember the days of being denounced on the Garden floor. “Really?” he says flatly when I remind him of the most-hated-Pacer designation. “I was just trying to accomplish something, which was winning. We had some great wars, great rivalries, but that’s over.”

The reality is that Mark Jackson is not a savior, but a journeyman, and while New York is his city, this is not his team. To have expected him to step in and hold up a passionless team, ripped of its emotional leader, was to expect too much. Perhaps once the playoffs begin, Mr. Jackson will rise to the task. But right now, he doesn’t look like the missing piece; he’s just another mismatched part on a screwball team. Once considered a storybook tale of New York, Mark Jackson and the 2000-1 Knicks seem destined for a drab and unhappy ending.