Jordan and Drexler, Kobe and LeBron: Are Championship Rings Overrated?

Not Even a Ring

It came as no surprise when the Knicks officially removed the interim tag from head coach Mike Woodson’s title. The players responded to Woodson, finishing the season with an 18-6 record after he replaced the departed Mike D’Antoni, and his stars, most notably Carmelo Anthony, publicly backed him after the Knicks first-round playoff exit.

Curiously, the Knicks, who are always looking to make a splash, decided to wait until after 5:00 PM on a Friday evening before a holiday weekend to announce Woodson’s new contract. It was as if they were trying to slip something past the media and fan base, which of course, they were.

Phil Jackson, the most successful coach in N.B.A. history, is healthy, unemployed and interested in returning to coaching and Knicks general manager Glen Grunwald didn’t even so much as make a phone call to gauge his interest in coaching his former team.

“I think Woody earned the right to be the first person we talked to and turned out to be the only person we talked to,” Grunwald said.

“Obviously, there are some great coaches out there that, had we opened up the search, would have been called. Namely Phil Jackson, who was the most successful coach in the NBA history. We felt Woody was our guy and he showed it during the season and in our discussions after the season.”

I don’t mean to take anything away from Woodson. His Hawks team improved during each of his six seasons coaching in Atlanta and he salvaged what was quickly descending into a lost season for the Knicks. He holds players accountable, especially on the defensive end and he convinced the disjointed Knicks to buy into an offensive system geared towards the strengths of their best scorers.

There’s something to be said for continuity within a franchise, especially after a disastrous decade and a particularly tumultuous season. Grunwald was also wise not to open a full scale search for a head coach, which based on the recent history of the franchise and owner James Dolan’s reputation would have been more embarrassing than fruitful and would have undermined the team’s confidence in Woodson, who would likely have landed the job eventually anyway.

Neither of the Van Gundy boys, both of whom are considered better coaches than Woodson would have taken the job. Jeff coached for Dolan once before and I doubt there’s a number high enough to convince him to leave the ESPN booth and do it again. Stan wasn’t about to walk into Dolan’s den after his year of turmoil in Orlando.

Woody was a safer choice than sentimental favorite Patrick Ewing and flashy Kentucky coach John Calipari, neither of whom have had any success as a head coach in the NBA. And as great a coach as Jerry Sloan is, his inability to coral Deron Williams in Utah, had to raise questions for the Knicks brass as to whether he and his ball-movement offense could co-exist with Anthony in New York.

With 13 championship rings (11 as a coach and two as a player for the Knicks), Phil Jackson is in a class of his own. Grunwald could have reached out to him and still hired Woodson in the event that Jackson wasn’t interested or the two sides failed to work out a deal, without Woodson losing face. Jackson also has experience coaching superstars and the cachet to bring Anthony on board.

Grunwald didn’t explain his unwillingness to contact Jackson, other than to state that Woodson had the first shot at the job and he blew Grunwald and Dolan away during his interview. So, are we to believe that based on 24 games and an interview that Woodson is more qualified to lead this Knicks team to a championship than Jackson?

Grunwald’s history with Woodson had to factor into his decision. The two were teammates at Indian University under Bobby Knight. From a more sinister perspective, it’s natural to wonder if another former Indiana Hoosier and Dolan adviser, Isiah Thomas, was involved with the decision. Is it merely a coincidence that the two men who replaced him as the Knicks coach and general manager were ultimately forced out in favor of two IU grads?

It’s also conceivable that Dolan was turned off by Jackson’s personality and/or price tag. The Knicks owner is fanatical about controlling the flow of information out of the franchise and the Zen Master is known to speak his mind about various league, team and player issues. Jackson also would have likely demanded at least $10 million a year, $6 million per year more than the Knicks are paying Woodson. Though, money has never been an issue for Dolan before and he couldn’t have known Jackson’s price tag without reaching out to him.

It’s not clear whether Jackson would have been interested in the job if the Knicks did call. Sources close to him, including his girlfriend Jeanie Buss, have stated that he’s interested in coaching. Even if he does want to return to the sidelines, it’s questionable whether he’d be intrigued by the Knicks job. Earlier in his coaching career he hinted that he was interested in following in the footsteps of his mentor Red Holzman, but the Knicks personnel doesn’t fit his modus operandi, a young squad built around two superstars who have yet to hit their prime.

Bill Simmons of stated during a podcast last week that he “knows for a fact” that Jackson was interested in the Knicks job. Yet, Phil’s former Knicks teammates, Bill Bradley, Earl Monroe and Walt Frazier, gave MSG Network’s Alan Hahn the impression that the Jackson wasn’t interested in the job.

Of course, the Knicks will never know. The 11-time championship coach may have been chomping at the bit for a shot to return his former team to glory, but without even inquiring as to his services the Knicks opted for Mike Woodson instead. Not even a ring.

Top Ten Athlete Accessories

by Paul Knepper

At the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony on August 6th, inductee Deion Sanders concluded his speech by placing his signature bandana on his Hall of Fame bust. Throughout Prime Time’s career the all pro defensive back wore a bandana under his helmet during games and often kept it on for the post-game interviews.

Over the years, many other athletes have been known for their use of a specific accessory, something above and beyond the normal uniform, which they regularly wore either during competition or on the sidelines.

These are the top ten trademark accessories in sports.

10) Patrick Ewing’s wrist bands

Ewing took the phrase “breaking a sweat” to a whole new level. Minutes after tipoff, the Knicks center would be as drenched as Ted Striker trying to touch down on the runway in the movie Airplane! Some players use a headband to stem the flow of sweat, but Patrick opted for enormous wrist bands. One of the most enduring images of Ewing’s career is him standing on the foul line, dabbing his forehead with those gigantic bands, while the sweat continued to drip from his chin.

9) Pete Maravich’s socks

The Pistol was known for his flashy passing, infinite shooting range and dazzling ball-handling, though no description of the basketball prodigy would be complete without a reference to his floppy hair and scraggly socks. For a period during his time with the Utah Jazz  Maravich wore high socks with green, yellow and purple bands, though for most of his career he weaved his magic in raggedy loose socks that looked like they came off the feet of Woody Harrelson’s character Billy Hoyle in White Men Can’t Jump.

8)  Deion Sanders’ bandana

It wasn’t clear if Prime Time’s bandana served a purpose during the game, such as keeping the sweat out of his eyes, or was merely a fashion statement. Occasionally, Deion would change it up and arrive for an interview with a do-rag on or go Tupac style, with the backwards bandana, but he always returned to his signature look. The Hall of Fame should have left the bandana on Deion’s bust, which looks nothing like him and instead bears a strange resemblance to a mix between Vince Lombardi and Troy Aikman.

7) Jim McMahon’s shades

The colorful quarterback of the ’85 Bears developed an extreme sensitivity to light in his right eye after damaging his retina in a childhood accident. He became one of the first football players to wear a tinted visor on his face mask and often wore sunglasses on the sideline, which developed into a signature look for the rebellious signal caller. McMahon even sported his famous shades in the Bears epic Super Bowl Shuffle video (link below).

6) Bjorn Borg’s headband

Borg is probably one of the five greatest tennis players of all-time, though his personality on the court was as bland as rice cakes, especially when compared to his rambunctious rivals John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. What sports fans remember most about the talented Swede is the striped headband he wore just above his eyes to keep his long blond hair in place. The image has been imitated by everyone from Luke Wilson’s character in The Royal Tannenbaums to my lovely goddaughter Janie Paisner.

5) John Olerud’s helmet

Olerud suffered a brain hemorrhage and aneurism in 1989 while a student at Washington State University. Doctors advised the first baseman to wear a helmet in the field for protective purposes and he continued to do so for superstitious reasons long after he needed to. Over his 17 seasons in the Major Leagues, he was the only non-catcher to wear a helmet in the field.

That brings me to the funny story about Olerud and the notoriously absented-minded Rickey Henderson. Supposedly, when Henderson and Olerud were teammates with the Mariners, Rickey asked Olerud why he wore a helmet, then told him that he had a teammate the season before who also wore a helmet in the field. Olerud responded, “That was me.” Sadly, sources have confirmed that the exchange never happened, but it’s still a great story.

4) Richard “Rip” Hamilton’s mask

Hamilton broke his nose in 2002, then twice more during the 2003-2004 season, so a doctor recommended that he wear a customized plastic mask over his face to prevent it from happening again. The mask was certainly good luck, as Rip led the Pistons in scoring during the playoffs that season on their way to an NBA title. He’s worn it ever since. I always thought Jason’s mask from Friday the 13th would have been a lot more intimidating.

3) Andre Agassi’s hair piece

What makes this accessory so remarkable is that we had no idea it was an accessory at the time. Agassi’s long blond hair and his colorful clothes were the centerpieces of his rebel persona and “Image is everything” Cannon campaign. It wasn’t until the former tennis star’s autobiography Open was published in 2009 that we learned he was wearing a hair piece all along. We were duped!

2) Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ black gloves

Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos won the gold and bronze medals respectively in the 200-meter dash at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, though it was their courageous black power salute on the medal stand which lives on in the American consciousness. The black glove on their hands remains one of the enduring symbols of the African-American civil rights movement and their defiant salute was recently immortalized in the form of a statue on San Jose State’s campus.

1) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s goggles

Plenty of basketball players have competed in sports goggles, though none embraced the look or became identified with them quite like Lakers great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He began wearing his specs while attending UCLA – when he was still known as Lew Alcindor – after scratching his cornea in a game against the University of Houston.

Abdul-Jabbar and his goggles reached a wider audience through his classic role as co-pilot Roger Murdock in Airplane! (Yes, that’s two Airplane! references in one article. I don’t care if I’m dating myself, it’s arguably the funniest movie ever made.)