Steve Kerr understands big league pressure and what it means to work in the looming shadow of greatness. In the 1997 NBA Finals, with the Chicago Bulls on the verge of putting away the Utah Jazz, Michael Jordan would wave off Phil Jackson's designed play and draw it up instead for his struggling teammate.
"This is your chance," Jordan told Kerr.
Sure enough, after John Stockton abandoned his man to provide help defense on Jordan, the one and only threw a pass to an open Kerr, who drained the Game 6 shot that gave the Bulls their second consecutive title and gave the reserve guard a platform to thank Jordan for his unbending faith. "I owe him everything," Kerr said.
Someday in the not-too-distant future, Kerr might be saying the same thing about Jackson. The president of the New York Knicks just fired Mike Woodson and started a search for a replacement that might begin and end with Kerr, the TNT broadcaster and former Phoenix Suns GM who meets at least two of Jackson's apparent requirements for serious consideration: He has a burning desire to coach, and he can tell you more about the triangle than your average high school geometry teacher.
Truth is, Jackson should take his time and open up the search. He should wait and see if any interesting people get fired after losing in the first round of the playoffs. The draft is two months away, so what's the rush? Should a rookie president really hire a rookie head coach? Why consider only those who live and breathe the triangle offense when it would shrink the pool of candidates to a precious few and eliminate some highly qualified coaches who run similar systems based on the same ball-sharing concepts?
Aren't Zen Masters often celebrated as broad thinkers who never allow themselves to be boxed in?
In the end, we all know Jackson is going to do what Jackson is going to do. James Dolan, the Knicks' owner, handed him $60 million to build something worthy of comparison to the 11 championship teams Jackson coached in Chicago and Los Angeles, and nobody, not even Dolan, will tell the new president how to pick his players or the professionals hired to develop them. Though it would seem to make more sense to move Kerr into the front office, where he has some experience, and hire a veteran head coach who would ease Jackson's transition into a new role, Phil believes he's smarter than the rest of us when it comes to basketball, and his track record walks the talk.
But here's one thing Kerr or whoever replaces Woodson needs to accept before walking through that Madison Square Garden door, one thing that Jackson might not mention in the official job interview: That coach had better be strong enough to handle Jackson as his boss and, of greater consequence, as his permanent replacement-in-waiting.
That will be his toughest challenge by far. It won't be the New York market, the New York media or the New York championship drought that dates back to 1973. It will be the calls from the fans, and credentialed commentators, during the inevitable losing streak or three for Jackson to come down from the mount and coach the Knicks all the way to a parade.
"New York is famous for chants, and you know you'll hear 'We want Phil' in the Garden after they lose four in a row," said one longtime league official with ties to the Knicks. "If the head coach is Steve Kerr or someone else, he'll have to be strong and understand that something like that is going to happen. He'll have to understand that it's not a knock on him, but a testament to Phil's greatness. And then it's up to Phil to protect his coach from that."
There's something of a natural line to be drawn here to Pat Riley's decision in 2005 to leave the Miami Heat's front office and replace Stan Van Gundy on the bench. At 60, the 2005 Riley was eight years younger than Jackson is now, and he didn't have the health issues that Jackson has cited as a reason to keep his coaching days behind him.
But still, Jackson considered returning to the Lakers' sideline before being passed over -- shockingly enough -- for Mike D'Antoni, and he hasn't completely ruled out one last go on the bench. What if a re-signed Carmelo Anthony or the major free agent the Knicks sign in July 2015 ultimately decide to push behind the scenes for a Jackson comeback, much like Shaquille O'Neal and Alonzo Mourning were said to have favored a Riley return in 2005?
"That's where Phil would have to protect his guy," the official said, "and come out and tell the fans, 'Stop it. You're hurting our guy. You're hurting us. I'm not doing it, and he's the best coach for us.'
"Phil will have to stand with him and support him. He'll also have to let his coach be a little different. Maybe he won't burn incense in the locker room or hand out books for his players to read. Maybe he'll use some of the triangle principles instead of using only the triangle all of the time. Either way, that coach will need to be protected by strong leadership."
Once upon a time, a new head coach named Bill Belichick ran away from the New York Jets because, among other things, he wasn't comfortable with the specter of Bill Parcells as his front-office overlord. Parcells had two championship rings at the time, or nine fewer than Jackson has right now, playing days not included.
If Kerr turns out to be Jackson's guy, so be it. He was once tough enough to accept the mother of all endgame challenges from Michael Jordan, who, deep down, wasn't sure Kerr was up to it.
But Jordan wasn't Kerr's boss or his permanent replacement-in-waiting in Chicago. Phil Jackson will be both in New York, and it's going to take one hell of a coach to deal with that.