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Dave McMenamin

Inside the Western Conference

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Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

Lakers' Jackson marches on toward 10th title as an NBA coach

By Dave McMenamin, NBA.com
Posted Mar 11 2009 2:30PM

LOS ANGELES -- It's not often that you see naked toes on a basketball court. So when Phil Jackson comes to the Lakers' practice center in El Segundo, Calif., wearing sandals for the team's run-through before a three-game road trip, it's hard not to notice his choice of footwear.

That's Jackson for you. All about team and ever the individual, his ensemble of sandals, track pants and NBA Finals 2008 polo shirt fits the dress code of a college student, not the head coach of the Lakers, maybe the NBA's most high-profile franchise.

There is, as there is with almost everything that Jackson does, a thought process behind his laissez-faire look. The man has 11 championship rings -- two as a player with New York, six as a coach in Chicago and three coaching here in L.A. -- yet when his team is going to work he keeps the jewelry at home and wears a shirt that is an in-your-face reminder of his team's failure in last years Finals loss to Boston.

"That's why I wear it," Jackson says. "To let them know."

Jackson, 63, has the highest winning percentage of any coach in the history of the league (.705), was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2007, is tied with the late Red Auerbach for the most championships as a coach (with nine) and, earlier this season, became just the sixth NBA coach to reach 1,000 wins. But what keeps him going in his 18th NBA season is the awareness that the Lakers' two most recent trips to the Finals came up empty.

"Very hauntingly [aware], yes," Jackson says about his 3-8 record in losses to the Pistons in 2004 and the Celtics last season. "It's not so much as chasing it, it's about the feel of defeat after you're there. You always pride yourself in getting there and taking the challenge and winning the big matchup. It's not so much about [winning championship No.] 10 [as a coach] as it is about getting rid of that dishonor."

Make no mistake about it, though. That 10 means something to Jackson. For all of his success, Jackson has received the NBA's Coach of the Year award only once, in 1995-96, when the Bulls won a record 72 games. Being the first coach to win 10 championships would quiet his detractors and cement his place in history, with or without any more personal trophies.


Always known as deep-thinker, Lakers coach Phil Jackson has his sights focused on his 10th NBA championship.
Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

And Jackson has had a few public throwdowns with his detractors. Auerbach, in fact, traded barbs with Jackson through the media, though Jackson insists that there was no malice behind it.

"I never felt that there was anything really between Red and I," Jackson says. "There was always that little, 'You're on the other side of the fence' kind of jab that Red always gave me from the time I've been a player to even when I went to a Celtics game when I was coaching in the CBA for the Albany Patroons and I had a beard and he groused about, 'Who let you in here with that beard?' But I never felt that it was any [animosity]."

Jackson wasn't aware that Auerbach told ESPN.com in 2005, "There's no question in my mind that he is a great coach. Because I've seen guys who get great teams on paper and they butcher it up, you see?"

Other than the nine rings, Auerbach and Jackson share something else -- their no-holds-barred approach to dealing with the commissioner, David Stern.

Stern used to joke with friends that he felt his real first name was "Stupid" because of all the times Auerbach addressed him that way. Jackson and Stern have had their spats, too, over scheduling, officiating, cameras in the locker room and, most recently, Jackson's reluctance to assume All-Star coaching duties.

"This is a tough league," Stern said during All-Star weekend in Phoenix. "We've got lots of unhappy people. They get unhappy if they don't get elected, they get unhappy if I don't select them if there's an injury ..."

And then came the zinger:

"Sometimes they get unhappy if I do select them -- oh, no, that's Phil Jackson."

Jackson says he goes to the press when he has a problem with Stern for a reason.

"I think you want to influence the game as much as you can and there's a certain avenue that you want to do it in ... I don't think the public forum is the best avenue all the time, but there are times when it's important to get your point across through public opinion," Jackson says. "[Gregg] Popovich has done some of that. Don Nelson has definitely been a [public] advocate for moving the game ahead."

Still, even if Jackson identifies with Popovich and Nelson, he remains a bit of an outcast in the coaching community. Here is a man who is pining to become the most successful NBA coach to ever draw up a play, yet you won't see him following the practices of his peers.

Adam Morrison, who started the season with Charlotte under Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown, noted the difference between Jackson and Brown.

"I think Larry is a little bit more demanding on his players," Morrison says. "Phil obviously is too, but it's in a different way. Phil kind of will poke fun at you and Larry will do the same, but [Brown] is more old school and will kind of get on you, which is OK, but it's definitely different.

"Some of the stuff [Jackson] says, his vocabulary is very different. Usually, you just hear 'coachspeak.' But he'll talk to you kind of as a man, but a thinking man."

Jackson has a propensity to compare players to animals, as if he's telling stories around a campfire. Jackson described Michael Jordan as having "a pit bull's mentality." He made a cameo in the 2005 film Harlem Globetrotters: The Team that Changed the World and labeled one of the Globetrotters a "jack rabbit." This season he illustrated Trevor Ariza's defense by saying, "He's a cobra out there and he just strikes and takes the ball and he's terrific at it."

Which leads to the obvious question: What animal is Jackson?

"A fox," says Derek Fisher, who has played for Jackson for seven of the nine seasons that Jackson's been in L.A.. "He's really sly. He doesn't make a lot of noise when he's around. He just kind of comes and does what he wants to do and needs to do and then he disappears back out into the woods. He's just chilling amongst the trees."


From his ever-changing facial hair to his gravelly voice, Jackson poses an distinct presence on the Lakers' sideline.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

On appearances alone, Jackson is an iconic figure. It's easy to picture him on the bench with his pinkies stuck at the corners of his lips, whistling for his team's attention. He changes his facial hair more often than Wooly Willy and owns more funky glasses than Elton John, but everybody knows Jackson. He's an imposing presence with his 6-foot-8 frame and distinctive, gravelly voice.

It's what lies under the surface, though, that makes Jackson the intriguing figure he is.

From his triangle offense and reluctance to call quick timeouts, Jackson's coaching style is one of a kind. He has found that barking instructions over the course of a season that can stretch to more than 100 games eventually gets old. His style is far more cerebral than confrontational. He hands out reading assignments, splices movie scenes into film sessions and calls out players in the press. At the beginning of the season, he engaged in a war of words in the Los Angeles newspapers with forward Lamar Odom.

But ask Odom now, with the Lakers holding a league-best 50-13 record, how he would describe Jackson and he says: "Quiet. Personable. Sarcastic. Funny. Motivating."

In years past, Jackson has given his teams a mantra for the season. With the Bulls in 1997-98, when it was apparent that the team was going to be dismantled the following season, Jackson told the team it was "The Last Dance." In 2003-04, when the Lakers welcomed future Hall of Famers Karl Malone and Gary Payton to the fold at a discounted price, the rallying cry was "Whatever It Takes."

This season has been all about erasing the stain of last year.

"This year we've had one thing," Jackson says. "'One More Win' is the only thing that's been kind of repetitious about what we've been doing. We're just trying to go get one more win every night and try to get that focus in."

While one more win in the Finals would validate Jackson as the most accomplished coach in the history of the Finals, it would also redeem the current crop of Lakers.

"He's been in it for a long time and I think if anybody knows that opportunities like this are fleeting and that they don't come around as often as you might think [it's him]," Fisher says. "He more so impresses on us to take advantage of it. Just don't let it go by and look back and wonder, 'What if?' or woulda coulda shoulda. I think it's been a good message so far for us this year."

In The Shawshank Redemption, Morgan Freeman's character, Red, describes Tim Robbins' character in a way that could aptly fit how Jackson is seen by many.

"I could see why some of the boys took him for snobby. He had a quiet way about him, a walk and a talk that just wasn't normal around here. He strolled, like a man in a park without a care or a worry in the world, like he had on an invisible coat that would shield him from this place."


Jackson doesn't identify his coaching with the stars he's coached (such as Kobe Bryant), but instead with the reflection of his philosophies.
Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Jackson has taken some flak, from the criticism that he has won only because he had Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant to the jabs about the throne-like seat he occupies on the sidelines, a seat that is designed to alleviate pain in his hips.

Jackson shrugs it all off. And how does he think a coach should be judged?

"Cotton Fitzsimmons, when somebody asked him that about me, said it's usually how he handles his first firing," Jackson says. "The funny thing is that everybody thinks that I've never been fired from a coaching job. But the reality is, yes, I was fired from a coaching job in Puerto Rico.

"I had just gotten my whole family there. I have five kids and all of them were down there in Puerto Rico and we were living in a hotel and I think it was only seven games into the season and they fired me. But, the team I took over [after that] was 10 kilometers away -- six miles away -- and we went to the finals. So I actually ended up [passing Cotton's test] before he even knew about it. "

For his part, Jackson sees one main way to judge a coach.

"You see the impression that he has on the team that's on the floor," he says. "You see [Scott] Skiles move around to different places and you see that tenacity in defense, the taking the charges, the variety of things like that that are a part of what he does.

"Obviously I've been attached to this triangle offense through Tex Winter, but it's actually ball movement, player movement and guys playing together. That's what we really try to get accomplished."

Whether the Lakers win another championship or not this season, it's becoming clearer that Jackson isn't long for the NBA. "I have a contract through next year, so one more year, that's really all I'm anticipating to do," Jackson says. "The game and the economy I think are going to be married to each other over the next couple, three years so I think it's going to be interesting to watch how that happens and even be a part of it if one has to be."

And if he does walk away from the game in 2010, he seems prepared. There will be more time for girlfriend Jeanie Buss (the owner's daughter), his five children, his grandchildren, his summer home in Montana, his trips to Australia to see friend and former player Luc Longley, maybe another book or two from his journal that he still keeps "on a biweekly basis" ...

"The balance has always been there for me," Jackson says. " I got a note from [former Marquette University coach Al] McGuire before he passed away and it said, 'If you can't get it done in eight hours, you ain't gonna get it done.' So that was one of the things that I try to remember about basketball. I've always had outside interests. That's been no problem."

Still, before his life inside the basketball realm ends, Jackson has plans for a few more wins. Ideally, that would include16 of them in the playoffs, leading to a 10th NBA title as a coach.

That's what keeps Jackson coming to work, sandals and all.

"He wouldn't still be working if he didn't care a lot about what happens," Fisher says. "He doesn't need to be here. He's here because he wants to win. He wants to be the best."

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