Knicks' hiring Fisher a calculated risk

Waiting on a rental car shuttle at the Raleigh-Durham airport on the way to Pinehurst for the U.S. Open, a couple of New Yorkers were reading the news on their cell phones and wondering aloud why Phil Jackson would hire a novice instead of a veteran coach -- or, better yet, why Phil Jackson didn't decide to coach the Knicks himself.

Nothing personal against Derek Fisher, just business. The business of being a fan of a franchise that's been waiting a whole lot longer than New York's hockey team to win it all.

The same kind of fans had the same kind of questions and concerns about Steve Kerr, another Jackson disciple with no coaching experience who almost took this job first. Almost. Now it's Fisher cashing in the way Kerr cashed in with Golden State, proving that it's a really good thing to be a heady role player with five championship rings.

Especially if some or all of those rings were earned under the detached gaze of the greatest winner in major American sports.

Jackson was usually right in his time with Michael Jordan's Bulls and Kobe Bryant's Lakers, blowing by Red Auerbach with the 11 titles won on star power and the principles of his cherished triangle offense. But that was Zen, and this is now.

This is Jackson's chance to prove he can build a team, and build a coach along with it. You'll remember Auerbach kept poking Jackson in the ribs on his road to history, assuring everyone the Zen Master wasn't as much a gourmet chef as he was a lucky soul who was handed delicious prepackaged meals and merely asked to slap them in the microwave.

Maybe that old cigar smoke Auerbach blew into Jackson's face ultimately inspired him to take on a massive rebuild; maybe not. Maybe Jackson figured he couldn't turn down $60 million of Jim Dolan's money, even if he had no experience as a team president and no idea if he could coexist with his owner half as easily as Rangers president and GM Glen Sather does with Dolan.

"For Phil," said one NBA official who knows him well, "this could be the easiest and best-paying part-time job in the world."

Jackson swears he won't be spending most of his time on any California beach; he swears he's in it for real. He wants to mold a head coach in his image, and when Kerr jilted him and jilted him good, Fisher was there on the rebound.

Kerr helped Jackson win three championships in Chicago, and Fisher helped him win five in L.A. So on that scoreboard, advantage Plan B.

Fisher was always a wise and opportunistic point man, a guy who was never afraid to take the big shot in the big game or to assume a leadership role for a players association in dire need. If he fails in New York, it won't be because the market scared him off.

But as someone who has never done this before, Fisher still represents a major gamble. Kerr was handed a credible contender with Golden State, and last year Jason Kidd walked off the Knicks' roster and into a brave new world in Brooklyn, where he could fall back on the leadership provided by a pair of proud former Celtics, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.

Fisher? He gets Carmelo Anthony -- assuming the Knicks re-sign him -- and a roster that failed to make the playoffs in a dreadful Eastern Conference, a roster Jackson called "clumsy" before he landed on Dolan's payroll.

The mess would seem to scream for a veteran coach, especially with the team president a newbie himself. Jackson could've made a strong play for Mark Jackson, a New Yorker's New Yorker, or for Jeff Van Gundy, the last coach to lead the Knicks to the NBA Finals and a potential candidate who said he was willing to listen if his old buddy happened to call. Jackson could've made the kind of run at John Calipari that Cleveland made, or he could've chased after a college coach with two national championships instead of one: Florida's Billy Donovan, who grew up in Long Island worshiping the Knicks.

He decided Kerr, then Fisher, were the safer bets, and perhaps Fisher will turn out to be better at this job than any experienced NBA or college coach the Knicks could've pursued. At the very least, Fisher deserves a fair-and-square chance to succeed.

But if Jackson was looking to match what Pat Riley accomplished with Erik Spoelstra after Riley hired and fired Stan Van Gundy, he needs to remember something: Spoelstra had spent more than a dozen years in the Miami Heat system, working his way from video coordinator to advance scout to assistant coach, before Riley promoted him to head coach in 2008.

Spoelstra was also hand-delivered LeBron James in the summer of 2010, after two straight first-round losses in the playoffs. Chances are, Spoelstra wouldn't have survived long enough to reach one Finals, never mind four in a row, if Riley didn't sign up James and Chris Bosh that summer to partner with Dwyane Wade.

Of course, Spoelstra never played in the NBA, something Fisher did for 18 distinguished seasons. Fisher can certainly make the claim that he learned more on the court about running a team than Spoelstra or any non-player could learn breaking down tape in a video room.

Jackson needs to help him either way. He needs to make the free-agent score in 2015 or 2016 that Riley made in 2010. In other words, against the odds, he needs to persuade James or Kevin Durant to leave their home sweet homes.

For now, that's a distant dream. Jackson just made his first significant move as designated savior of the Knicks, and it was a gamble, a big one. He thinks he can start building a team by building a coach by the name of Derek Fisher.

If he wants to prove the late, great Auerbach wrong in New York, hey, Phil Jackson had better be right on this one.