You may have heard of Phil Jackson as the coach of the Chicago Bulls, who won six National Basketball championships in nine years, thanks in no small part to Michael Jordan. Then he led the Los Angeles Lakers, with Kobe Bryant and, for a time, Shaquille O’Neal, to five championships.
I was first aware of Jackson, now the president of the New York Knicks, as the bespectacled “sixth man” (first man off the bench) for the Knicks in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
But my greatest appreciation for him developed when he became the coach of the Albany Patroons in the minor-league Continental Basketball Association. The team played its home schedule in the tiny Washington Avenue Armory. The games were always standing room only, and the crowd helped make it more exciting. In those days, the Patroons led the league in attendance.
Jackson was hired to coach the Patroons because Jim Coyne, an Albany county executive and president of a new Continental Basketball Association franchise more than a quarter-century ago, had a thing for [Red] Holzman’s championship Knicks and especially for their role players. “He telephoned Jackson during the 1982-83 season to offer him the job that a former Knicks teammate, Dean Meminger, was about to lose.”
On the road
Life in the CBA was tough, especially on the road. Jackson described one doozy of a trip thusly: “Leave Oshkosh [Wisconsin] at 4:30 in the morning. Snowing like crazy. Drive to Milwaukee. Take a plane to Atlanta [Georgia]. Wait forever for a flight to Evansville [Indiana]. Fly to Evansville, sleep in a dive right along the highway for an hour, and play that night. Immediately get in a van and drive to Cincinnati [Ohio]. Get in at 5:30 in the morning.”
Jackson led the Patroons to a CBA title in 1984, his first full year as a head coach. “He then sent Coyne… a polite but firm list of contract demands. Among them: raising his annual salary from $25,000 to $30,000 and increasing his road per diem by $7. ‘I would never put a team in monetary stress for a few more bucks, but I do think you know that I am worth that much,’ Jackson wrote to Coyne, in a letter Coyne still keeps today. Jackson got his raise.”
The Washington Avenue Armory is half a block from 21 Central Avenue, where FantaCo, the now-defunct comic book store where I worked, used to be. So I got to see Jackson and the Patroons quite often during that first championship season.