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Knicks are Phil's toughest challenge

Jerry Krause once erected a dynasty around Michael Jordan for Phil Jackson's benefit, and so the former general manager of the Chicago Bulls seemed like a good guy to ask if Jackson can build a one-time champ in New York -- never mind a dynasty -- around Carmelo Anthony.

Only Krause had little interest in breaking down the strengths and weaknesses of Anthony and a supporting cast with no Scottie Pippens in sight.

"That's Phil's problem now," Krause said Tuesday from his suburban Chicago home. "I don't envy Phil. He's got a really tough job."

Truth is, Jackson now holds the toughest job he's ever had. Wednesday night in Madison Square Garden, where his Knicks face the Bulls franchise that made him a coaching legend (at the Knicks' expense, of course), Jackson starts what's contractually scheduled to be a five-year mission to land the big city its first NBA title since 1973, back when Jackson was a bench player for his mentor, Red Holzman.

He's the president of the Knicks, not the coach, and even though Anthony has never been in the same league as Jordan, Jackson is starting where Krause did when he took over the Bulls in 1985. "I had one really good player," Krause said, "and a lot of guys I didn't want."

Now 75 and rebounding from a series of health problems, Krause, a special assistant to the Arizona Diamondbacks and a longtime baseball scout, said he hasn't spoken to Jackson in about 10 years. Krause did shake hands with his former coach at the 2011 Basketball Hall of Fame ceremonies as a favor to one of the inductees, former Bulls and Lakers assistant Tex Winter, who effectively taught the triangle offense to Jackson. But that was that.

Krause wasn't interested in drawing up the X's and O's on the feud, but a comment often attributed to him -- despite his denials -- that organizations win championships (not players or coaches), didn't help his relationship with Jackson or Jordan. Either way, it is an indisputable fact that Krause is the first NBA executive to detect a trace of genius within the counterculture coach of the Albany Patroons of the minor league Continental Basketball Association.

"Phil was going to get out of the game and go to law school," Krause recalled, "and he'd have been the best lawyer in Montana if I didn't hire him [in 1987]. Phil didn't have a good reputation in the NBA back then, and I don't think anyone else would've hired him. But to his credit, he worked his ass off and became an outstanding coach, and he's certainly the best coaching hire I ever made.

"It's just that Phil's ego is a little different than what people think. It's not big. Big is a minor word for it."

A record 11 championships coaching the Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers will do that to you.

Given the obstacles he faces, Jackson might need that outsize ego to win it all in New York before he calls it a career. He might need the power of his personality to win over free agents, to persuade Anthony to embrace the principles of the triangle, and to keep the owner paying him $60 million, James Dolan, a million miles away from personnel decisions.

"Phil definitely has the intellect to be a very good general manager, but it's going to depend on what Dolan lets him do," Krause said. "Phil has to scout, too, and I don't know if he can physically do that at his age [69]. When I was the Bulls GM I did more scouting than the scouts did. I didn't have any scouts when I was hired. Phil's also going to have to work it in the draft, and he's going to need some luck there."

Krause got a bit lucky with his defining draft choice, Scottie Pippen out of Central Arkansas in 1987, three years after his predecessor, Rod Thorn, selected Jordan out of North Carolina. Krause had picked Earl Monroe and Wes Unseld for the Baltimore Bullets in the late 1960s, and had considered Jackson, the gangly forward out of North Dakota, with a second-round choice in 1967 before the Knicks took Jackson four spots later; he had a sharp eye for talent.

Krause thought Pippen had even longer arms than Jackson's, along with tremendous athleticism. He figured Pippen's small-college résumé would keep him available until Chicago's pick at No. 8, at least until Krause spotted Pippen at a pre-draft camp talking behind the stands with Sacramento GM Joe Axelson, who was holding the sixth pick. The Bulls were then inspired to trade up to No. 5, giving Olden Polynice to Seattle and landing the complementary star Jordan needed to win his half dozen rings.

Five spots later, Krause selected Horace Grant. The following summer, against Jordan's wishes, Krause traded Charles Oakley to the Knicks for Bill Cartwright.

"That was the deal that made us champions," Krause said.

Other moves along the way earned Krause a Hall of Fame nod he's still waiting for. But just as Jackson won't be able to win big unless his coach, Derek Fisher, proves to be the real thing, Krause couldn't have made it in Chicago without his coach becoming a franchise player himself.

In his early hours as Bulls GM, Krause had asked Jackson, then with the Albany Patroons, to send him some scouting reports on CBA prospects. The reports were so comprehensive that Krause had his new head coach, Stan Albeck, interview Jackson as a potential addition to his staff.

"And Phil came in looking like a bum," Krause said. "Long hair, dressed real bad, wearing a hat that was ugly as hell. Stan and Phil went out to dinner and the next morning Stan came in and said, 'I don't want that guy.'"

Two years later, with Doug Collins in Albeck's seat, Krause told Jackson the Bulls had another assistant's opening, told him what Collins was looking for, and ordered him to show up for this interview in a coat and tie (Phil obliged). The morning after Collins and Jackson met for dinner, Krause asked his coach what he thought of his recruit.

"I think he's OK," Collins said.

"Good," Krause said. "We hired him."

In the middle of the following season, Krause confessed to Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf that he didn't think Collins would ever win the team the title, and that he planned on replacing him with Jackson at season's end.

"When I hired Phil as head coach," Krause said, "we never talked about the triangle. I hired him for defensive reasons. I thought Phil had such a presence about him, and that he'd be great for us defensively, and it was only afterwards when I asked him, 'What offense do you want to run?'

"Phil is one of the best brain-pickers I've ever been around. He picked Tex Winter's brain until Tex was blue in the face; they used to sit around for hours and hours talking about the triangle. Michael wasn't really for the triangle, but Phil convinced him. Michael finally got the idea, 'Holy crap, I can score easier in the triangle than out of it.' Without the triangle, Michael might've been a worn-out 30-year-old who took a ton of shots every game."

Funny, but some might call Carmelo Anthony that very thing. He's the closest thing Jackson has to a Jordan on a lightweight Knicks roster, making this challenge the greatest of his epic career.

Can Phil actually pull this off and build a team worthy of a ticker-tape parade?

"I don't know," Krause said. "Nobody knows. I do know that if the numbers are true, Phil's making more money than anybody in history. So more power to him."

In other words, good luck, Phil. You're going to need it.