Phil Jackson was given a rousing welcome home by the Madison Square Garden crowd and the gift of a victory by the New York Knicks, whose future he now oversees as the team's new chief of basketball operations.
Jackson, a player on the last two Knicks' title teams dating back more than 40 years who went on to win 11 NBA crowns as head coach of the Bulls and Lakers, watched from a midcourt seat as the Knicks posted their seventh consecutive win by beating the Indiana Pacers 92-86 on Wednesday (local time).
When the huge TV screens that hover over the court showed a closeup of Jackson in the stands during a first-quarter time out, the packed Garden crowd erupted in an ovation and the 68-year-old with 13 NBA rings stood to acknowledge the cheers.
"They went crazy, we expected that," Knicks guard Iman Shumpert said about the fans' reaction. "The great thing is we won the game."
The victory improved the Knicks to 28-40.
The Knicks' resurgence has given them an outside shot of earning one of the eight Eastern Conference playoff seeds after stumbling through a miserable season that led owner James Dolan to coax Jackson out of retirement to try to fix the Knicks.
The six previous wins in their current, desperate run were registered against weak teams, but Wednesday's triumph came at the expense of the Eastern Conference-leading Pacers, who eliminated New York during last season's playoffs.
Jackson, whose five-year contract will pay him a reported US$12 million a year, figures to make moves to reshape the team and his presence was certainly felt in the Garden, both in the stands and in the clubhouse.
"With a guy like that around, it creates a winning mentality," said Amar'e Stoudemire, who scored 21 points against Indiana. "It creates an atmosphere that's pretty golden."
Stoudemire, who has become a force on the floor since recovering from knee injuries that have limited his play time the last couple of seasons, said he enjoyed Jackson's moment.
"It was beautiful, a standing ovation which was well deserved. It was awesome," he said.
Carmelo Anthony, last year's NBA scoring leader, led the way for the Knicks with 34 points and handed out five assists, bringing a smile to Jackson, who puts a premium on team play.
"It's simple," said Anthony. "If a man is open, you pass him the ball. My teammates made shots and I found them. The game is simple."
Anthony said he did not feel any additional pressure playing in front of Jackson, just the urgency to win every game for a chance at the playoffs.
"Hard times call for desperate measures," he said. "Right now our backs are against the wall."
The Knicks trail the seventh-seed Charlotte Bobcats by 4-1/2 games and the eighth-seed Atlanta Hawks by four games, while the Pacers, who are trying to stay ahead of the Miami Heat to hold homecourt advantage in the playoffs, slipped to 50-18.
New York has been playing better defense and moving the ball around - two tenets that Jackson stressed as the league's most successful coach.
"That's how we should play the game," said Stoudemire. "We got to move the ball, It's something that's definitely contagious. Players really get the confidence and are going to shoot the ball well. The more it happens, the better we are.
"It's brilliant. We're playing great basketball on both ends of the court. We're getting stops, the ball is moving, we're scoring at a high rate. It's great basketball."
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