Can Phil Jackson Turn NY Knicks Into Winners?

The Barbershop guys weigh in on their billion dollar bracket picks, Phil Jackson's return to the New York Knicks, and whether singer M.I.A. should pay a hefty NFL fine.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, HOST:

I'm Jennifer Ludden and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Now it's time for the weekly visit to the Barbershop where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week are writer Jimi Izrael. He joins us from Cleveland. Arsalan Iftikhar, senior editor of the Islamic Monthly. He joins us from Chicago. In our D.C. studio here, Corey Dade, contributing editor for The Root, and TELL ME MORE editor, Ammad Omar. Hi, guys.

AMMAD OMAR, BYLINE: Hey.

COREY DADE: Hey.

JIMI IZRAEL: Wow, J-Lud, what's up? Where you been? Welcome, welcome, welcome back.

LUDDEN: Long time, nice to...

OMAR: This is the only place Jennifer Ludden, NPR News turns into J-Lud. Welcome to the shop.

LUDDEN: Well, I love it. Jimi.

IZRAEL: Fellas, fellas, fellas, welcome to the shop. How are we doing?

ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: Hey, hey, hey. What's cracking?

DADE: All right. What up, though?

IZRAEL: Yo, I don't know, man. It's that type of day. I got it. So let's get things started. It's March Madness, and I'm trying to keep my Larry David as in curb my enthusiasm. But, you know what? I just heard that Warren Buffett wants a piece of the action. He's giving away $1 billion if somebody has a perfect bracket? Oh, Sharkeisha. Let's hear what he's got to say about the offer. Drop that clip, please.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

WARREN BUFFETT: Nobody really knows the odds. I mean, if it was just a flip of a coin, then you could say it was something like 2 to the 63 power or something like that. But it's not a flip of a coin. You know, the number one seeded team has beaten the number 16 seeded team, I don't know, over a hundred times in a row. So you can't figure it out exactly, but it can be done.

IZRAEL: Yes, certainly, it can be done. Actually the odds of winning are something close to 1 in 9 quintillion, also your chances of flipping a coin and getting heads 37 times in a row. But A-train...

IFTIKHAR: Yes, sir.

IZRAEL: Are you going to try anyway?

IFTIKHAR: Well, I already tried, and I already got my brackets busted on the first day like 11 million people around the country. It was interesting. ESPN, after the first night of the games, said that out of 11 million brackets, there were only about 30,000 to 40,000 or 0.4 percent of brackets that were still perfect.

LUDDEN: Wow.

IFTIKHAR: After the first day, mind you. We have a whole 'nother, you know, weeks of this thing. And, you know, for most people, you know, either the University of Dayton, North Dakota State or Harvard busted their brackets on the first day. I did happen to pick North Dakota State and Harvard, but Dayton done busted my bracket. And so Warren Buffett can sleep well at night knowing that his billion dollars is going to be safe this time.

IZRAEL: Corey Dade. C-Dade, now I know you're holding, bro. Let me, let me - can you spot me, like, a million, or at least tell me who's going to take it all?

DADE: I got you, Jimi. I got you.

IZRAEL: I know you do.

DADE: You know, I - my sentimental favorite is Michigan State just 'cause Tom Izzo's teams always play hard. But because everybody at ESPN and everywhere else has already picked Michigan State to win, it pretty much dooms Michigan State not to win it all. You know what I mean? So I'm a little salty about that, but I still like them. I think Wichita State might be a team you've got to watch - not to win it all, but to get perhaps all the way to the dance. All the way.

IZRAEL: OK. Well, Ammad, not - Ammad, not that you're a betting man or, you know, but what's the best you've done with your brackets?

OMAR: I've won a couple of these bracket challenges before with my friends and...

IZRAEL: No way.

OMAR: No, yeah. I can corroborate that after the show, if you'd like, once we leave the shop.

IZRAEL: OK.

DADE: They always say that, after.

IZRAEL: Lunch is on you.

DADE: They always say it after - I picked that one.

OMAR: I mean, our salon's in Chicago. Ask those BEZ folks, they know. I've won their bracket a couple times. But I will say this - that always happened before my team, Michigan, was any good. And now that they're in the tournament, that's just throwing off my entire calculus. So last year, I had them - I picked them to lose early, so that either my brackets would be good, and I'd be happy. Or they'd win, and I'd be happy with the sports. This year, I just picked them to go all the way 'cause I want it all, and I don't think it's probably going to happen.

DADE: Yeah. Good luck with that one.

OMAR: We'll see. Warren's money is also safe from me. I lost the first game out the chute, Ohio State over Dayton. But as a Michigan fan, I was fine with that. I was like, take my billion. I'm happy. Thank you very much. I love the March Madness.

LUDDEN: Hey, Jimi, can we just note you said, you know, giving away his money. Warren Buffett's not going to give away - I mean, this is kind of a marketing thing, right? There's this Quicken Loans catch where you have to, like, register to take part in this and...

DADE: Right.

LUDDEN: ...Owned by Cleveland Cavalier's owner Dan Gilbert. I mean, he's not going to lose much.

IZRAEL: Yeah, he's not going to lose much. And, well - but the good thing about Warren Buffett is he's obviously starving to keep his name in the papers, so you know what? He's found yet another way...

IFTIKHAR: It's working.

IZRAEL: Yeah, yeah.

OMAR: He's already got me hooked on it.

DADE: If it ain't broke...

IZRAEL: Well, you know what? Let's move it to the pros. Phil Jackson was welcomed back to the New York Knicks where he played as a rookie. He was named team president this week. Here's what he said about moving from an outspoken coach to an executive who may be expected to keep his mouth shut. Drop that.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

PHIL JACKSON: Well, I'll try to monitor my blabbermouth, as my fiance, Jeanie Buss, says. It's gotten me a number of fines from the league office. I certainly don't want to get anymore of those. But, no, I really will hopefully have an open attitude towards speaking.

IZRAEL: Thank you for that. You know, Corey Dade, coaches don't win games, teams wins games. And we're talking about this like he's going to, you know, bring his Zen with him and, like, and just cast it over the team and make something happen. But as it happens, not for nothing, Jackson won 11 championships as coach of the Lakers and the Chicago Bulls. Does he have something like that kind of magic left for the Knicks?

DADE: I mean, you know, obviously we'll see, but, you know, if history is any indication, you know, former coaches generally suck as team executives. I mean, that's the truth.

IZRAEL: OK.

OMAR: Pat Riley begs to differ, but all right.

DADE: Pat Riley and Don Nelson are - and Red Auerbach in a different era...

IFTIKHAR: Celtics.

DADE: ...They're basically the three exceptions. And beyond them, you know, everyone else has been fair to bad. Now, you know, he is saying - Phil Jackson is saying that he's going to keep Carmelo - Carmelo Anthony as the linchpin. But he, you know, that team is loaded - overloaded with big contracts from, you know, Amare Stoudemire on down. He's going to have to gut that team. And the thing is, you know, when you're a team executive, you have to get your hands dirty.

You have to basically get in the trenches. You've got to, you know, scour the Earth for talent. You've got to be traveling all the time. That's not something Phil Jackson wants to do. Phil Jackson is not somebody who gets his hands dirty. He comes in, he does his Zen thing. He is used to managing players and their egos. He's not the guy who rolls up his sleeves and gets dirty. And, you know, in New York, you've got to get dirty, man. You've got to get in the trenches. You know, it's New York, baby.

IZRAEL: No, yeah. New York, New York, there's no place like ohm. All right. So Arsalan, Arsalan, A-train, weigh in here, man.

IFTIKHAR: Well, you know what's interesting is the fact that, as Corey mentioned, Phil Jackson is going to be in the front office. He's not going to be the head coach. And, you know, some of the whispers around the league have been that he's going to bring somebody in like Steve Kerr, for example, to possibly coach the New York Knicks, which I don't think is as much of a game change from their current coach, Mike Woodson. I think that if he had come as the head coach, you know, then he'd have more of an impact on the, you know, day-to-day, you know, winnings and losings of the New York Knicks. I think in terms of having influence in the front office, like Corey said, he's going to have to deal with, you know, free agents.

He's going to have to deal with salary caps. He's going to bring the personnel in, but I think the problem that the Knicks have, and I think Corey and Ammad can attest to this, is that - is not a lack of talent. You know, they have Melo. They have Amare. They have talented players, but to get them to play together in a cohesive, team unit is something that has been the major challenge for the New York Knicks. And I think Phil Jackson, if he was on the bench, might have had more of an impact than he might have in the front office.

IZRAEL: Ammad? You know...

OMAR: Yeah. I mean if Phil...

IZRAEL: Yeah. Go ahead, man.

OMAR: Yeah. No, I was just saying if Phil Jackson could hire himself then he - as coach, he would probably be - you know, that's be the best move he could make as president. But, you know, it's interesting, Corey said that he doesn't like to roll up his sleeves, and I get that as far as being as a president - team president goes, but as a coach, that's what he was all about. You know, he had this triangle offense which, in his book, he referred to as a five-man tai chi and it's all about Zen philosophy and Buddhist teachings and Lakota tribe, you know, thought.

IZRAEL: Whatever, man. Pass the rock, B.

OMAR: But I'm saying - no, what I'm saying is he won't be able to get into that nitty-gritty from the front office. You need a coach who can instill those philosophies, and I don't know if he's going to have it. And the bottom line is, as talented as they are, they don't have the people that match up with LeBron James and Kevin Durant. So...

DADE: And Indiana.

OMAR: ...He's going to need to find one of those super superstars in this day and age to win a title.

IFTIKHAR: Well, what - you know, what's interesting also is the fact that because Steve Kerr actually played for him on his championship teams for the Chicago Bulls, he might sort of be the coach puppet sort of like Erik Spoelstra is to Pat Riley in Miami.

OMAR: Yeah.

DADE: Coach puppet, oh.

LUDDEN: All right, we've got to keep moving on here, guys. Let me remind people they're listening to the weekly Barbershop round table with writer Jimi Izrael, commentator Arsalan Iftikhar, journalist Corey Dade and Ammad Omar. Jimi.

IZRAEL: J-Lud. Thank you, thank you, thank you so much, Jennifer. All right moving to the football field. Hike. Who remembers this Super Bowl performance?

(SOUNDBITE OF SUPER BOWL HALFTIME SHOW)

IZRAEL: What? What is that? That doesn't ring a bell. It might have sounded like someone's ringtone on the bus, but I - it doesn't. No, I don't got it, but as apparently - evidently it's Madonna, Nicki Minaj and M.I.A in 2012. But you might recall there was some kind of uproar when M.I.A flipped off the camera...

DADE: Yeah.

IZRAEL: ...During that performance.

OMAR: Could not hear it, but OK.

LUDDEN: You had to be there.

IZRAEL: Now as it happens - yeah, right. Two years later, the NFL wants her to pay $16.6 million for the offense. A-train, that's kind of steep, what do you think? Should she pony it up, as if?

IFTIKHAR: Yeah, good luck with that one. I think she's more...

IZRAEL: Right.

IFTIKHAR: ...Likely to send over 16 million paper planes to Roger Goodell than she is to drop $16 million. I don't think it's going to happen, end of story.

IZRAEL: Yeah, OK. Corey Dade, personally me, I just think the size of the fine is supposed to be a deterrent for future acts, so they won't get up there and try these antics. Now that's what I think it's about. But, you know, parents - a lot of parents - parents were upset because, you know, they watch the game with their kids, and you and I are both parents. As a dad, do you think this fine is silly, though?

DADE: Yeah, the fine is not going to happen. I mean, that $15 million, the NFL's I going to collect on that...

OMAR: Sixteen.

DADE: Excuse me, the $16 million. Yeah, the NFL is not going to collect on it. It is, like you said, a deterrent. To me, it's an interesting test case for the NFL because it is the most aggressive sports league at protecting its own brand and bullying players and their partners into compliance. And so, you know, when you look at, you know, this - what I wonder is if M.I.A signed any kind of contract that had a morals clause that expressly forbid her from making any kind of profane gestures. And, you know, I love M.I.A's counterargument here. What's interesting is she's saying that there's no way the NFL can back up this sort of, quote-unquote, wholesome brand claim when its players and coaches routinely flip off each other.

IZRAEL: Right.

DADE: And the NFL can sit there and say well, we fine them when we see it. But the truth of the matter is this is something that the NFL is, you know, almost like, you know, it's like the S.S. coming in as storm troopers and clamping down on anything that they deem as sort of morally, you know, abhorrent.

LUDDEN: And didn't she also say you guys are the ones - you have this five second delay.

DADE: Exactly.

LUDDEN: You didn't use it.

IZRAEL: Well, Jennifer, not for nothing, I know it says in my NPR contract that I can't reveal my chest, so I mean...

LUDDEN: ...Which would go over really well on the radio.

IZRAEL: You know what I mean? But anyway, Ammad...

OMAR: It would debilitate the rest of us, so you know.

IZRAEL: Ammad, go ahead, man.

OMAR: Yeah, I mean, Corey brings up a good point. I don't know if there was anything written into her contract or not, but yeah, good luck collecting that. And the other thing is they said, you know, they're fining her for the ad revenue that they would've lost out. How long did she have the middle finger up for? Was it up for, like, a good 45 seconds?

IZRAEL: 60 seconds.

OMAR: Yeah, right?

IFTIKHAR: As long as a GoDaddy commercial.

OMAR: It kind of sounds ridiculous on the surface.

DADE: Flag on the play.

OMAR: Right. Pretty much.

IZRAEL: Indeed.

LUDDEN: All right. Well, we have just a few moments left. I want to pivot back to the basketball court for our last topic. NBA commissioner, Adam Silver, announced this week that sponsor's logos could appear on player's jerseys in the next few years. So, I don't know, I guess what logo do you guys want to see? Ammad.

OMAR: Well, since we're talking about the Knicks. Joe Boxer brings you the New York knickerbockers. That could be fun. No. No. Hit and miss? What about the Weather Channel for the Thunder? I don't know. I'm out. You guys are the comedians, sorry. I'm the news man.

LUDDEN: They already do this - the WNBA, I did not realize, already does this. And they're pretty big, some of these logos.

OMAR: The interesting thing to me is in Europe and, like, England they've been on the shirts of soccer teams forever, but they never will rename the stadiums 'cause those are the sacred cathedrals. Here it's the opposite, and I feel as if in American sports - we all know it's a cash grab. This is probably going to happen sooner rather than later, and I'll bet you it will spread across all sports in the next 15 years.

IFTIKHAR: What's really interesting is - getting back to Ahmad's point about, you know, soccer jerseys - the Dubai airlines Emirates has Fly Emirates on Arsenal's jersey, A.C. Milan's, PSG and Real Madrid. So I think if NBA markets open up, we're going to see a lot of Fly Emirates jerseys around the league.

IZRAEL: Well, I'll tell you what, I'll tell you what - if a paternity testing service advertises on the back of these brothers, you know, they're going to clean up.

DADE: Well, to that point, I can see this is going to be the controversy. I'm already - I'm predicting it now, GoDaddy.com is going to have an ad campaign on the back of jerseys saying who's your daddy, which is a whole big hot mess waiting to happen.

LUDDEN: Did we see anyone protesting this, though?

IZRAEL: Yeah.

LUDDEN: Is there going to be a backlash before, you know?

OMAR: There will be the sports purists.

LUDDEN: I mean, you guys all say it's just, like, a done deal.

IFTIKHAR: No, it's going to happen.

LUDDEN: Really?

OMAR: It's going to happen. I think, if you would ask...

IZRAEL: I mean, it's kind of cash grabby, but, you know, what's America without greed?

OMAR: Exactly. What's American sports without cash grabbiness? That's what it's all about, right?

LUDDEN: All I can say is if it goes - if it does spread and they have, like, the Dustin Pedroia Legos or Stephen Strasburg Legos - I can hear my kids begging already.

DADE: Oh yea.

LUDDEN: All right. Well, guys, this was fun.

IZRAEL: It was fun. You've got to come back. J-Lud.

IFTIKHAR: Always is.

DADE: J-Lud.

OMAR: J-Lud.

LUDDEN: Well, we've got a - we got - will it? OK. Wait, we've got a little more time, I'm told. OK. But aren't there going to be people who maybe refuse to buy these? You know, like, luddites like me?

OMAR: Maybe, but they're saying - I think -and I don't have this fact in front me, but I think Adam Silver projected that this could bring in up to $100 million a year for additional revenue to the NBA. And if that starts coming in, you can bet that's not going to stop. And it's only going to spread to other sports.

DADE: Well, it won't matter. Whatever revenue brings in - whatever revenue comes in that's additional from sponsors is going to more than offset the drop off in sales.

OMAR: Right. The 4 percent of fans who still think this is a pure game, and they're in it for the love of sports, yeah.

LUDDEN: And there - this is on the field? I mean, this is just - I mean...

OMAR: I mean, we're bombarded with advertisements everywhere when we watch a pro game. What's one more?

LUDDEN: Yeah. It's true.

DADE: You know, it is sad to see. I mean, you know, the uniforms, for a purist, they're sacred. They're sacred, you know.

LUDDEN: Yeah, little kids wear them. They want them for Christmas, I mean...

OMAR: But this was the same argument we had over stadiums in America 10 years ago, and that's no longer sacred. The Super Bowl was just at MetLife field, and it's all fine.

DADE: But the difference is when you leave the stadium, you no longer see the name anywhere, whereas these jerseys are everywhere. Think about how iconic the Boston Celtics jersey is, for example. When you start seeing, you know, the Home Depot logo stamped on that bad boy...

OMAR: But that's what they said when they moved from the Boston Garden to the TD Waterhouse, whatever it is.

IFTIKHAR: Right. But we still call it the Boston Garden...

DADE: Exactly.

IFTIKHAR: Let's be honest. As a Celtics fan, we call it the Boston Garden.

DADE: The TD Garden. You still got the parquet floor there, you know.

LUDDEN: All right. Well, we will wait and watch. Jimi Izrael is a writer. You can find his blog at JimiIzrael.com. Corey Dade is a contributing editor for The Root. Ammad Omar is right here, an editor with TELL ME MORE. And Arsalan Iftikhar is the founder of the Muslimguy.com and senior editor for Islamic Monthly. Thanks all so much.

OMAR: Thank you.

IFTIKHAR: Peace.

DADE: Yessir.

IZRAEL: Yep.

LUDDEN: If you can't get enough Barbershop buzz on the radio, look for the Barbershop podcast in the iTunes store or at NPR.org. And that's our program for today. I'm Jennifer Ludden. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African American Public Radio Consortium. Tune in for more talk on Monday.

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