Phil Jackson could not afford to lose this season opener, the first game of his front-office life. He was given $60 million to build a winning culture for the ever-dysfunctional New York Knicks, yes, but to land a procession of blue-chip recruits for them as well.
Jackson saw a talent in Steve Kerr that not everyone saw. He identified his former contributor to the Chicago Bulls dynasty as the one and only choice to coach the Knicks back to respectability and to serve as his apostle of a triangle offense that had more or less gone into retirement with the Zen Master himself.
Kerr was going to be the sideline embodiment of Jackson, the one to carry out the mission of winning the franchise's first title since 1973, when the current president of the Knicks was a gangly reserve on Red Holzman's bench. Jackson would sign Kerr, and then Carmelo Anthony, and then a major free agent in 2015, maybe even LeBron James. This was his $60 million road map to a parade.
But now what? Against all odds, Kerr rejected his mentor and took a five-year, $25-million deal to replace Mark Jackson as coach of the Golden State Warriors, a team with a much better roster much closer to his San Diego home. The Knicks were said to be near-mortal locks to land Kerr, and Jackson couldn't close the deal.
The three-time champ with the Bulls just delivered Jackson a three-ring circus with the Knicks.
What a major blow to Jackson's credibility, one that had to drop the designated savior to his knees. Yes, the Warriors offered Kerr a playoff-ready talent base, a chance to work near his wife and kids, and a better contract to boot (a source said the Knicks came in at four years and approximately $20 million, including incentives).
But the Knicks offered a ton of salary-cap space in the near future, a much easier road back to contention through the softer Eastern Conference and the alleged opportunity of a rookie coach's lifetime -- a well-paid apprenticeship under the greatest of them all, the man who won 11 titles while coaching the Bulls and the Lakers.
The Knicks also offered potential sainthood to the coach who ended the biblical championship drought, and all the big-city benefits of Broadway. None of it mattered in the end. Jackson either failed to sell Kerr on all the beautiful basketball things they could do together in Madison Square Garden or he failed to persuade his boss, James Dolan, to overpay here like he'd grossly overpaid so many coaches and players before him. Or both.
Either way this is bad for Phil Jackson -- really bad. He so desperately wanted to clean up the Garden's toxic image, to announce to the world that the Knicks were no longer a high-priced hoax, only for Kerr to inform him Wednesday that the joke was very much on him.
Jackson didn't lose his chosen coach to the historic Lakers or to the historic Celtics or to the two-time defending champion Miami Heat. He lost Kerr to the Golden State Warriors, a franchise that has won a grand total of two playoff series since the close of the 1990-91 season.
Down in Miami, after eliminating the Brooklyn Nets in five, LeBron James had to allow himself a little chuckle over this. He once chose the Heat in free agency because of Pat Riley's rings and Dwyane Wade's skills, and he knew that people were already talking about New York as his post-dynasty destination.
James loves the Garden, loves Melo's game and knows that Jackson can put Riley's ring collection to shame. But James has to be looking sideways at the Knicks' president now after Jackson chased after Kerr in vain.
"Ultimately, it was agonizing to say no to Phil because of what I think of him and what he's done for my career," Kerr told his TNT colleague David Aldridge in a story posted on NBA.com. "When Phil Jackson asks you to coach the Knicks, how do you say no?"
Only Steve Kerr did say no. He picked Golden State's talent, and Golden State's location, over whatever his old coach in Chicago was selling in New York.
"It was so tantalizing on many levels," Kerr told Aldridge of the possibilities with the Knicks.
Just not as tantalizing as the prospect of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson in his backcourt. Stan Van Gundy had rejected the Warriors' offer for complete control in Detroit, and suddenly Golden State management turned to a Plan B that was its original Plan A.
Phil Jackson gave Golden State its opening, its chance to fly into Oklahoma City on Tuesday to apply the full-court press. Had Jackson gotten Kerr signed, sealed and delivered, the Warriors would've been forced to do their poaching somewhere else.
Jackson has no choice but to scramble now. He will likely stay clear of big personalities with their own big ideas and come up with another young, triangle-friendly prospect the likes of Derek Fisher.
Only no matter whom Jackson covets on the rebound, he's already been scarred 15 minutes into the job. If it turns out Dolan got in the way of this deal, shame on him for breaking his pledge of "willingly and gratefully" surrendering control of basketball operations. And shame on Jackson for failing to impose his will on a boss who is so clearly starstruck in his presence.
The Knicks' president has some explaining to do to Anthony, who heard all about Kerr over that recent dinner at a Manhattan steakhouse. Melo couldn't have been any more impressed by this botched courtship of a coach than he was by Jackson's public call for him to take a salary hit this summer for the betterment of the team.
Kerr? The former player, broadcaster and Phoenix Suns general manager gets to add an impressive new title to his résumé, so he's the blowout winner of this game, along with the negotiator who happens to be the former GM of the Jets, Mike Tannenbaum. Kerr called Jackson with the bad news Wednesday. Though his 79-year-old mother, Ann, wanted him to coach the Lakers close to her Pacific Palisades home, Kerr made the safer Western Conference bet with Golden State.
He didn't want to hurt Phil Jackson in the process, but he hurt him all the same. Suddenly, the $60 million savior is in need of some serious saving himself.