Now they need him to get some good players.
Jackson was introduced Tuesday as team president of the Knicks, in the midst of another difficult season and with no easy path to a quick fix.
But Jackson has won here before, done plenty of it since and says a couple of years off have left him ready to take on what might be his toughest challenge, turning this dysfunctional franchise into a champion again.
"It would be a capstone on the remarkable career that I've had," Jackson said.
Jackson was a member of the Knicks' title teams in 1970 and 1973, and they haven't won since. He went on to win 11 championships with the Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls.
This will be his first time as an executive and the Knicks say he will be in charge of all basketball decisions. Madison Square Garden chairman James Dolan said he "willingly and gratefully" is stepping back to give Jackson the power to make the changes.
"Phil has a vision for the Knicks that I know will put us on the path for success," Dolan said.
Steve Mills will remain general manager.
"I think that we have a teamwork situation here that's going to be really quite swift and capable of making some important changes as we move forward," Jackson said.
The Knicks announced the hiring in the lobby of Madison Square Garden, with a giant "Welcome Home Phil" sign overhead and racks of his old No. 18 jersey on sale.
He signed a five-year contract that reportedly will pay at least $12 million annually. After living in California for many years, Jackson said he would spend significant time in New York, starting with Wednesday's game against Indiana.
He's got big decisions coming up involving Carmelo Anthony and coach Mike Woodson.
It's the second reorganization in six months for the Knicks, who fired GM Glen Grunwald days before the start of training camp. Mills replaced him even though he had no previous experience running the basketball side.
The deal began to take shape at a holiday party hosted by a mutual friend of Jackson and Dolan. Though Jackson quickly declined interest in coaching, they agreed to keep talking.
It will be tough for Jackson to make big changes quickly in New York, where the Knicks face with the salary cap problems. Amare Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler and Andrea Bargnani will all be in the final year of expensive contracts, making them difficult to unload. And they traded their first-round pick to Denver in 2011 to acquire Anthony.
Jackson alluded to that, saying the Knicks "were going to have to go out and work the bushes for players this next year."
But he has a vision for how he wants to do it, a change from the Knicks' way of too frequently adding big-name players who don't fit any particular style.
Jackson said he won't insist that the Knicks run the triangle offense that worked so well for him with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, then Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. But he made it clear he believes in the system's principles of passing, movement and teamwork.
But it's not just Xs and Os that have doomed the Knicks during a mostly disastrous decade. It's the policies of Dolan, who has too often involved himself in basketball decisions.
Jackson said he will be accessible and will focus on things such as "how players are treated" and "the kind of culture that's built."
"This organization has suffered in the past few years from things I think have just been created, by press, by lack of continuity, by lack of solidarity."
It wasn't like that when Jackson played in New York. Those teams not only thrived on the court but were well-known and well-liked around the city, players such as Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley and Dave DeBusschere.
"This is the best place to play basketball," Jackson said.
Jackson is marrying the daughter of late Lakers owner Jerry Buss and said he will continue to spend time in California, where his children and grandchildren live.
Jackson said he didn't know how much day-to-day work he would handle. After five knee and hip surgeries, Jackson is "not easily able to move around" on commercial airlines or scouting at small gyms.
That ruled out coaching, the job that Knicks would have loved him to do. But the work needed from the front office might ultimately be more important.
"Now to come back to where I've started in basketball, it's a great feeling," Jackson said.