GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- Phil Jackson does not have the guts to coach in New York. That is what Jeff Van Gundy said in a different life, back when Jackson stalked his job as head coach of the New York Knicks, if only for the sport of it.
If Jackson didn't have the courage to make it work with Latrell Sprewell and Allan Houston, he did have the common sense to make it work with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. The man who won six titles with Michael Jordan's Bulls won five more with the Kobe and Shaq Lakers, and that's why he's allowed to do pretty much whatever he wants, pretty much whenever he wants.
Like the time Knicks and Garden executive Dave Checketts insisted Jackson come alone to their secret meeting behind Van Gundy's back 13 years ago. And when Jackson showed up at Checketts' door, guess what?
He wasn't alone. "His agent, Todd Musburger, was standing right there with him," Checketts said.
So if Jackson prefers to wait until Mike Woodson's Knicks lose to the Miami Heat before pouncing, before proving Van Gundy wrong, then that is what he'll do. The 11-time champ will dictate the terms of engagement -- if there's ever to be an engagement -- with a franchise that hasn't won it all since 1973, when Jackson averaged eight points and change off the bench for his mentor, Red Holzman.
One league source who has spoken to Jackson in recent months said the retired legend "told me he doesn't like Carmelo Anthony's game at all, and that he isn't a big fan of [Amare] Stoudemire's game, either." So assuming the 66-year-old Jackson isn't inspired to make a comeback by these flawed Knicks, and assuming he'd rather wait to see if Pat Riley makes a human sacrifice of Erik Spoelstra in case Miami places second again, Woodson deserves a contract extension as much as Van Gundy deserved his in 1996.
Van Gundy was 13-10 as the interim coach following Don Nelson's firing, and Woodson was 18-6 as the interim coach following Mike D'Antoni's surrender. Van Gundy beat Cleveland in the first round, got a win off Jordan in the second, and earned Patrick Ewing's public vote of confidence. Woodson didn't get such a good draw in the first round, got a win off LeBron James and Dwyane Wade despite a series of devastating injuries, and earned Anthony's public vote of confidence.
"I would love to see him back," Anthony said again Tuesday. "I support that. Everybody knows what he's done thus far since he's been here, the short period that he's had the head coaching job. There's no need to cut it off right now. We're kind of just getting started."
Of course, Anthony has little choice but to endorse the new guy after running off the old guy. Woodson rebuilt D'Antoni's offense around Anthony in seven seconds or less, and there was Melomania in all its glory Sunday, seizing Game 4 and ending -- temporarily, anyway -- a whole lot of playoff misery for the franchise (13) and its franchise player.
But Melo has picked a deserving winner of this derby. Woodson saved the regular season, restored a commitment to defense, and avoided getting swept by a better, much healthier Miami team. For that, Woodson should beat out John Calipari, Jerry Sloan, Scott Skiles, Stan Van Gundy, Mike Dunleavy and the other potential candidates who are/might be available. Jeff Van Gundy is the best of the rest, but Dolan isn't going there.
So have the Knicks concluded Woodson is the most logical choice? The coach denied a Daily News report that the team had already approached him about an extension, but these things usually devolve into a game of semantics. Negotiations or no negotiations, Woodson desperately wants to keep his job, and the Knicks are seriously considering him as their long-term guy.
Asked Tuesday if he believes he has done enough to earn a contract, Woodson said, "Hey, I went 53-29 in Atlanta and was out of a job. I don't look at it that way. What's going to happen will happen. Right now, I do have a job and I'm coaching the Knicks. They gave me that opportunity, and I'm just trying to make the most of it."
Truth is, Woodson hasn't had a slam-dunk series. He didn't make a significant adjustment when the Heat fronted Anthony into oblivion in Game 1. Two nights after that 33-point defeat, Amare Stoudemire punctuated the Game 2 loss by swinging his left hand through the glass protecting a fire extinguisher, leaving his coach to clean up the mess.
Woodson needed to rebuke Stoudemire for the record at least once, especially after swearing his program would revolve around accountability, and his failure to do that didn't help his cause entering Game 3, a home loss to Miami that might've been prevented had Stoudemire been on the floor.
Even if his job didn't depend on it, Woodson felt intense pressure to win Game 4. As it turned out, Anthony gave him 41 money points, and Spoelstra was the coach making questionable decisions on both sides of the ball.
By Sunday night, Woodson was looking less like the man down 3-1 to the Heat, and more like the man who somehow forced the series back to Miami without Jeremy Lin, without Iman Shumpert, without Stoudemire in Game 3, without Baron Davis for the end of Game 4, and without a functional Tyson Chandler in Game 1.
"He knows how to motivate and gets guys to play hard for him," said Woodson's assistant, Herb Williams. "Just look at his track record; he's a hell of a coach. Everybody's always looking for the next Red Auerbach, and that's not going to happen."
In fact, everybody's always looking for the next Phil Jackson in the form of the original Phil Jackson, and for good reason. He's a special case, the greatest NBA coach of all time. In the unlikely event the Zen Master wants to go full circle with the Knicks, Dolan has to give him the job and thank Woodson for his effort and time.
But forget Calipari and the rest. Before Wednesday night's Game 5 in Miami, Woodson had already eliminated them from the postseason.
Now Woodson can concentrate on what's really important -- trying to force a Game 6 at the Garden, and hoping Phil Jackson still doesn't have the guts to coach in New York.