NEW YORK -- Phil Jackson was folding himself into the passenger side of a black SUV late Wednesday night, engine running, the vehicle headed toward a Madison Square Garden ramp, when the president of the New York Knicks (and yes, it still feels weird to say it and write it) was asked about the player who had just blown a hole through the best team in the East.
Jackson was asked by ESPNNewYork.com for his impression of Carmelo Anthony, his first gamenight impression as Anthony's boss.
"He was good, wasn't he?" Jackson said. "Passed the ball, moved it around, got a couple of 3-point shots at the right time."
Of course, Jackson really liked the "passed the ball, moved it around" part of Anthony's 34-point, five-assist, three-steal performance in this 92-86 victory over the Indiana Pacers.
He smiled before reaching for the car door.
"Everything went good defensively, too," he said, "and got our first win here."
And then he was gone, off to wherever it is Zen Masters go to celebrate the first victory on a $60 million deal.
Over the next four months, Phil Jackson and Anthony will be the most watched power couple in this town since Alex Rodriguez walked into Derek Jeter's life in 2004. Though we have no idea how this relationship will end, we do know how it began:
Anthony looks and sounds a whole lot happier about Jackson's arrival than Jeter did about A-Rod's.
With Jackson towering over the proceedings, Anthony led the Knicks to a seventh consecutive victory that left them four games back of Atlanta for a final playoff spot they most likely won't claim. That's OK. Of greater consequence, as tipoff approached, Melo maintained again he agrees with Jackson's assessment that he needs to take his game, as they say, to the next level.
Anthony said that he was "blessed and honored to hear" that Jackson wants to re-sign the free agent-to-be in July, and that he planned to "rely on him, talk to him, use him as a mentor ..." Melo called the new team president "a genius" and "a basketball guru" before taking it to the Pacers while Jackson watched from his midcourt seat, his chalk-white hair visible from the Garden rafters.
The crowd gave Jackson a standing ovation when he was shown on the video board in the first quarter, inspiring the appointed savior to give a thumbs-up, wave, even pull himself out of his own chair. Triumphant music played while Red Holzman's reserve forward was hailed as if he were Captain Willis Reed himself. If it seemed Jackson owned the building, he did.
Only here's one thing a fan needs to remember while studying the president's words and body language when fielding questions about Melo in the coming weeks: Jackson doesn't own the leverage over Anthony. It's the other way around.
The 11-time champion coach of the Bulls and Lakers needs the no-time champion forward of the Nuggets and Knicks more than the no-time champion forward of the Nuggets and Knicks needs the 11-time champion coach of the Bulls and Lakers, and it's not even close.
Anthony might have limited free-agent options available to him this summer, but he does have options. After turning 30 in May, Melo could review the roster around him, weigh the prospect of one more year with the same flawed actors and decide that it's time again to take his show on the road. He might guess that Jackson could untangle some Knicks dysfunction, but not enough of it.
Jackson? He doesn't have any options when it comes to the man he calls -- with a bit of a devilish wink -- "maybe the best individual isolation player in the game." Anthony is the only legitimate star the Knicks have, and he is very much in his prime.
If Jackson can't keep him, what does that say about those powers of persuasion on which James Dolan bet all that money?
The Knicks hired Jackson for the instant credibility needed to keep an increasingly frustrated and embarrassed Anthony from leaving and, ultimately, to recruit a second franchise player in the summer of 2015 or 2016 to partner with Melo and replicate what Jackson had with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, and with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal.
That doesn't mean Kevin Love, who has never reached the postseason in Minnesota, or LaMarcus Aldridge, who has never won a playoff series in Portland. It means landing the long shot that is LeBron James, if James decides to wait a year and opt out of his deal in 2015, or airlifting Kevin Durant out of Oklahoma City the following summer.
If Jackson can't be the kind of difference-maker in free agency that Pat Riley was with LeBron in 2010, he'll have a better chance of winning the New York Marathon than he will of ending the biblical basketball drought in this city during his five-year deal. And if he fails to bring back Anthony, who has the respect of friends James and Durant, Jackson will have no shot at acquiring the kind of superstar who would've made Melo a title-worthy second option.
"I never once said I wanted to leave New York or anything like that," Anthony said. "The only thing I said was that I wanted to dabble in free agency, that I could opt out and become a free agent. I'm excited about that. I'm excited about the opportunity to hopefully go forward with Phil."
Anthony spoke after Jackson met briefly with the team, introducing himself and shaking the players' hands before advising them to focus on the Pacers. Soon enough, Melo was blistering the team that eliminated him from the playoffs last spring, inspiring Pacers coach Frank Vogel to call him "sensational."
Everyone knew Anthony would get his points; that's what he does for a living. But as if on Jackson's cue, Melo hurt the Pacers with two passes to Pablo Prigioni late in the third quarter, one a quick dish on a 3-pointer and the other a three-quarters-court blur for a breakaway layup goaltended just before the buzzer. Anthony added two more critical assists in the fourth, first on an Iman Shumpert 3 and then on a clinching Raymond Felton jumper with 1:02 left.
"It's simple," Anthony said. "If a man is open, you pass him the ball."
Jackson would merrily burn incense over that quote. In that final minute, cameras twice caught the team president wearing a thin, almost bemused smile. He'd just watched Anthony, once the face of the selfish NBA player, put on something of a team-centric show.
In fact, the game was two hours and 41 minutes' worth of evidence that Carmelo Anthony is a keeper, and that Phil Jackson needs Melo a lot more than Melo needs him.