It had all the makings of a hot take extravaganza. Instead we got the muzzled versions of two of the most colorful and outspoken individuals the NBA has seen over the past three decades.
Not that those of us in attendance at Monday’s American Express Teamed Up event were really expecting the main attractions to fire from the hip. We just secretly hoped they’d live up to their reputations. And, for the most part, one of them kind of did.
A couple hundred lucky individuals assembled in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood for the corporate affair—thrown for card members and their corporate pals—got a chance to listen to Shaquille O’Neal and Phil Jackson intimately reminisce for over an hour about the good ‘ol days. And they did. Rather entertainingly at times.
ESPN’s Hannah Storm served as the moderator, peppering the two with questions about their battles during the three-peat run with the Lakers from 2000-02 and a few random thoughts about today’s NBA.
That’s when you hoped Jackson would revert back to the Phil Jackson of old, tweaking and teasing his adversaries. Or at least Twitter Phil Jackson. Please, please, please, Phil, let it rip.
But a mellowed out Jackson was on full display as the Knicks president kept it close to the vest when commenting on other teams as well as his current one.
There were times when he shocked us all in a practice situation, especially when he showed up nude with just his shoes on.
When asked about the Warriors, the same squad he took a not so veiled shot at last spring, he unequivocally praised them. (Then again, how can you knock ‘em these days?) Prime Phil Jackson would have found a way to tweak them, take them down a notch. When talk turned to Klay Thompson, Jackson compared him to Scottie Pippen which may or may not have caused one audience member’s wooden chair to spontaneously collapse. You think free agent Phil Jackson dares to utter their names in the same sentence? Come on, son.
Eventually the controversial hire of Jeff Hornacek, who just last week was finally introduced as the Knicks' new head coach, was broached and Jackson kept it general. When Jackson talked about the Triangle, his much-maligned offensive strategy, he only spent about two minutes on it, painting the broadest strokes possible about its benefits. With an audience expecting fastballs, Phil swerved and threw a steady diet of off-speed junk.
O’Neal, meanwhile, was predictably more lively. Ever the extrovert—dropping F-bombs and calling out members of the audience—O’Neal regaled the crowd with the story about the first time he met Jackson as his coach, who immediately commanded him to lift a log out of a freezing cold pond. Then there was the time O’Neal thought Jackson was burning marijuana during one of the Zen Master’s first meditation session. "No Shaq, that's the cousin of cannabis," Jackson told him. Soon enough, Shaq was snoring. And then there was the time Jackson convinced O’Neal to listen to his every word in order earn league MVP honors.
“I met with Phil and he was like, ‘Look, I heard some of your albums, they’re pretty good,’” O’Neal joked. “No more movies, two or three commercials a year, listen to me and you do this you’ll get MVP. I hadn’t had the MVP before so I said, ‘Alright, I’ll do this.’ I would have been the first unanimous MVP if it wasn’t for that idiot Fred Hickman.”
Jackson wasn’t completely robotic and managed to have some fun at O’Neal’s expense, recalling how he tried to motivate the big man to follow in Wilt Chamberlain’s footsteps and play every minute of every game before the 1999 season. About half a dozen games in, O’Neal sent John Salley into the Jackson’s office to tell him to give Shaq a breather. Or the times—yes times—when O’Neal would go streaking.
“There were times when he shocked us all in a practice situation, especially when he showed up nude with just his shoes on,” said Jackson.
“I don’t remember,” O’Neal grinned.
Those were the stories that made the event enjoyable, but was the night unforgettable? Not really. It could have been had O’Neal been the O'Neal that rarely holds back as a broadcaster (or human) or if Jackson had reverted back to the Phil whose press conferences over the years created more firestorms than a Meek Mill diss track.
The pair could eviscerate just about everyone in the league without batting an eye, but Monday wasn’t the right the time or place. Disappointingly, a lot of us deep down knew that going in. It was all smiles, good times, and great vibes. Fitting for a Zen Master and a 44-year-old kid trapped in 7’1” behemoth's body.