This is the seventeenth in a series (of indefinite length and regularity) of examinations into different games, events and decisions that impacted Knicks history in some way, shape or form. Stories that are not as famous as, say, “The Dunk” or Willis Reed playing Game 7, but still have a place in Knicks history, especially for die-hard fans. Here is an archive of all the stories featured so far.
A couple of weeks ago, in a previous installment of Unsung Knick History (which you can read here), I detailed the seemingly minor chain of events that resulted in Rick Pitino leaping ahead of Larry Brown in the race to be the new Knicks coach for the 1987-88 season (and how the choice of Pitino over Larry Brown informed the Knicks coaching situation for more than a decade)
However, while that story was, indeed, true, do note that those circumstances only pushed Pitino ahead of Brown. There was another candidate who the Knicks wanted over both Pitino and Brown, and it was only when negotiations broke down with that candidate that the Knicks moved to their Plan B (which, due to the circumstances detailed in the previous Unsung Knick History installment, was Pitino instead of Brown).
So come find out how close the Knicks came to changing not only their coaching situation for years, but also the Boston Celtics’ coaching situation for years, as well.
The coaching landscape in the National Basketball Situation (NBA) in the spring of 1987 was very similar to the coaching landscape in the NBA in the spring of 2010 (and heck, the coaching landscape of the National Football League every single year), which is that the hottest coaching commodity was an acclaimed assistant coach for a successful NBA team. In 2010, the hottest coach on the market was Tom Thibodeau, the assistant coach and defensive maven on the Boston Celtics, who he had been an assistant for when they won an NBA title and were just coming off of another NBA Finals appearance (albeit a loss). Well, in 1987, the hottest coach on the market was Jimmie Rodgers, the assistant coach and defensive maven on the Boston Celtics, who he had been an assistant for when they won three NBA titles and were just coming off another NBA Finals appearance (albeit a loss).
Rodgers (as a quick aside, if your kid’s name is James and his last name is Rodgers, why call him Jimmy? I know it is not spelled exactly the same as Jimmie Rodgers, but it is close enough!) had a long-term connection with coach Bill Fitch. Fitch recruited Rodgers away from the University of Iowa (where he was an assistant) to become his assistant at the University of North Dakota. While there, they coached a young Phil Jackson from 1964-1967. Jackson and Rodgers became close and have remained so to this day. When Fitch became the coach of the new NBA expansion team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, in 1970, he brought Rodgers over to be his assistant the next season. When Fitch became the head coach of the Boston Celtics in 1979, he brought Rodgers with him. Fitch kept then-current Celtics assistant coach (and former Celtics playing great) K.C. Jones on staff.
After winning one title in 1981, Fitch was pushed out following the 1982-83 season, succeeded by Jones. Jones kept fellow assistants Rodgers and Chris Ford on staff. Jones is an interesting study in head coaching. He was your prototypical delegator. During his first tenure as a head coach for the Capitol (then Washington) Bullets, Jones drew a great deal of negative attention during the 1975 NBA Finals when CBS decided to do “inside the huddle” camera shots, and when they did so, they captured Jones crouching silently while assistant coach Bernie Bickerstaff diagrammed the plays and certainly appeared to be the “real” coach of the Bullets. That reputation stuck with Jones while he was leading the Celtics to two NBA titles during the 1980s, that he leaned heavily on Rodgers for technical stuff (diagramming plays, watching video, etc.) and Chris Ford for direct player interaction (Ford had played with a lot of the then-current Celtics, so he could be buddy-buddy with them). Jones was the overseer of it all. This reputation stuck with Jones once he had little success as the head coach of the Seattle Supersonics in the early 1990s, and he has not received an NBA head coaching job since, despite having two titles as a coach.
In any event, at the time that the Knicks were looking for a new coach, Rodgers definitely had the reputation as “the guy behind the guy.” The Chicago Bulls, who finished the 1986-87 season as 40-42, showed some interest but ultimately decided to stick with their current head coach Doug Collins. The Knicks, however, were a lot more interested. So interested that they approached the Boston Celtics for permission to offer Rodgers the job. However, as it turned out, Rodgers’ reputation as “the guy behind the guy” was true in Boston, as well, so they suddenly were quite protective of their assistant coach (who they had in previous years allowed to interview for head coaching jobs). Alan Cohen, vice chairman of the Boston Celtics, said about Rodgers, “The Celtics do not view Jimmy merely as an assistant coach. When he held that title only, we allowed him to discuss coaching openings with the Nets and other teams without any thoughts of seeking compensation. But since then, he has become our player personnel director, and we consider him as a member of our executive committee.” While that was true (that Rodgers had recently been named player personnel director), it also definitely sounds like a bit of a line.
As it turns out, the Celtics wanted a first round draft pick in exchange for Rodgers. It is unclear what the meaning of their offer was – was it a genuine offer or was it an attempt to keep the Knicks from getting Rodgers? In either event, the Knicks countered with offering a third-round draft pick instead (the Knicks’ initial offer was to pay for the moving expenses of whoever the Celtics hired to replace Rodgers!). The New York Rangers had just recently given up a first-rounder to the Quebec Nordiques to hire their coach, Michel Bergeron, so the Celtics figured the same offer would be fair to get Rodgers (of course, Bergeron was the head coach of the Nordiques and not an assistant). Ultimately, the Celtics felt that the Knicks just were not making a serious offer. Eventually, the talks died down and the Knicks moved on to Pitino.
As you might imagine, Rodgers was furious. He was quoted after, “It’s something I don’t feel very good about. I can’t explain what happened. Someone other than me will have to do that.” The Celtics were in a bit of a bind. They knew that they were eventually going to lose Rodgers now, so they had to decide if they were cool about that. The other shoe dropped in the middle of the Celtics playoff series against the Knicks in 1988 when K.C. Jones announced that he was retiring at the end of the season and that Rodgers would take over as head coach of the Celtics. Many people believed that Jones was effectively pushed out in favor of Rodgers, but Jones denies these claims to this day, insisting that he felt that he had achieved enough as Celtics coach (winning two titles) and that he wanted to spend more time with his family while helping to guide the Celtics from the front office. In addition, he specifically noted the fact that he felt bad for Rodgers missing out on his opportunity the previous year, feeling that Rodgers had earned his chance. There’s also something to be said for the fact that the Celtics were clearly an aging team and perhaps Jones figured it best to get when the getting was good.
Anyhow, Rodgers took over as head coach for the 1988-89 season and promptly lost Larry Bird for basically the entire season. The Celtics finished 42-40, with the Knicks winning the Atlantic division for the first time in eons. The next season, with Bird healthy (well, healthier), the Celtics went 52-30 and won the division once again. However, the Knicks once again crossed paths with Rodgers’ fate as they upset the Celtics in the first round of the 1989-90 NBA Playoffs (do you think that was the greatest moment in Stu Jackson’s professional history? Or do you think it was giving the Knicks all those suspensions in the 1997 Playoffs? I bet it is a close call for him). The Celtics fired him and all of his staff, except Chris Ford, who replaced him as Celtics coach. After a disastrous season and a half coaching the Minnesota Timberwolves, Rodgers became an assistant coach for his old North Dakota pal, Phil Jackson, in Chicago, and was a big part of the Bulls’ second three-peat. When Jackson returned to coaching in Los Angeles, he tried to get Rodgers, but Rodgers was firmly retired. So Rodgers retired with six rings as an assistant coach – not too shabby!
For what it is worth, the first rounder the Celtics wanted ultimately was traded in the Charles Oakley deal. It was #11 in the draft and resulted in Will Perdue for Chicago.
Thanks to the New York Times’ Sam Goldaper for the choice quotes!
If you folks dig these stories, you’d probably also get a kick out of my Sports Legends Revealed site. There is an archive of the ones about basketball here. I also have one Sports Legend featured every Tuesday at the LA Times.
If you have any suggestions for future Unsung Knicks History pieces, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org! I’d prefer you share your suggestions via e-mail rather than in the comments section, so we can keep them a surprise! Thanks!