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David Aldridge

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Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

The Zen of Ten: Jackson wins his way into record books

By David Aldridge, TNT analyst
Posted Jun 15 2009 10:47AM

ORLANDO -- If I may offer so bold a presumption, I think Red Auerbach looked down at the proceedings at Amway Arena on Sunday, with the Los Angeles Lakers getting their 15th NBA championship trophy, and with Phil Jackson winning his 10th ring as a head coach -- surpassing Auerbach's nine with the Boston Celtics -- and he wasn't as upset about Jackson's triumph as you may think.

Auerbach may have added qualifiers to his praise of Jackson -- "Phil is obviously a good coach, you don't win that many games without being a good coach," Auerbach told ESPN in 2005. "One thing, though. He's been very fortunate. He picks his spots. That's all I can say. Larry Brown doesn't pick his spots. He's a great coach" -- but the Old Man respected winning, and winning big. And no one has won as much as a head coach as Jackson, whose dominance of the NBA coaching landscape now nears two decades, spanning the Michael Jordan-Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant era.

It continues, all these years later, to be about the journey.

"I think that's really the key about coaching," Jackson said the other day, "is that you watch these young men develop from individuals and guys that are trying to find a way to make their own game happen to a team that is willing to sacrifice sometimes their own personal goals for the goals of the group. I think that's a valuable experience not only for them, but it's a wonderful feeling for guys."

Yes, Jackson has had Jordan and Shaq and Kobe as they grew into dominant superstars, but rounding their games into championship form was a never-ending battle of wills. He coaxed an uneasy peace between Jordan and the triangle offense, then found a most willing pupil in Scottie Pippen to attack at both ends of the court, mastering the offense and dominating teams with his defense. He found the right role players who could mesh with the superstars -- B.J. Armstrong, Bill Cartwright, Steve Kerr, then Darrell Walker, Ron Harper and Luc Longley, then Rick Fox, Derek Fisher and Robert Horry.

He coddled Dennis Rodman and kicked Lamar Odom in the butt, and got the most out of each.

"Phil's a man, so he knows how to deal with men," Odom says.

Is Jackson the best coach ever? Wow, how do you answer that?

It is presumptuous to say that a coach like Auerbach, with the talent Jackson has had, couldn't have won multiple championships. Auerbach proved that he could build and maintain a dynasty once, holding off the likes of Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West throughout the meat of their careers. Pat Riley had an awfully good run with the Lakers and Gregg Popovich may not be done with four rings in San Antonio. John Kundla and Larry Costello and Bill Sharman and Lenny Wilkens and Dick Motta and Larry Brown and Jerry Sloan and Don Nelson were and are pretty fair on the bench, too.

But it is equally presumptuous to assume that they'd be able to do what Jackson has done.

He took the lessons from the Knicks team on which he played and which won the 1973 title, and from its coach, Red Holzman: individual sacrifice for the good of the group. It has been the cornerstone of his coaching philosophy.

"The best way to sum it up is just that Phil's belief in his own players far outweighs that of any coach I've ever played for in terms of his willingness to allow the players to be players and make the plays," Fisher said Sunday. "... I've never coached before so I don't want to say overcoached or undercoached or over-whatever, but his willingnesss to allow things to happen and develop and grow and mature. There are not a lot of coaches in the Playoffs and Finals, when everything is on the line, that will still be playing nine, 10, 11 guys in the rotation."

At the start of this season, Jackson decided it would be better if Trevor Ariza started at small forward, and Odom -- in a contract year -- should come off the bench, sacrifice the numbers that would likely be necessary to get one last big deal. Odom was ticked off and spouted off to the local media. It lasted one day. The next day, Odom looked in the locker room, at Gasol, at Bryant, at Bynum, and realized he was about to mess up a real shot at a championship. Odom went into Jackson's office.

"We talked for like an hour ... one-on-one in his office," Odom recalled. "First of all, Phil's older. I would never disrespect someone who's older, who's my coach. I was raised by my grandmother. We sat down and we talked, and it was over after that. He doesn't have to get out of character or lose his self-control in order to communicate. He's always the same. We know what to expect. And that's important, communicating with so many different guys, so many different backgrounds, so many different countries."

Indeed, Jackson can talk politics, music, religion, all the big ones, as easily as basketball. He doesn't hide when he's mad very well. And he can be condescending in the extreme. But he's also one of the most interesting guys in his profession, well aware that there's a big world out there that doesn't involve breaking down inbounds plays. He has overcome a latent shyness, once detailed in his autobiography, Maverick, when he was so nervous at a neighbor's house he couldn't ask to use the bathroom until it was ... too late.

That kid grew up to stare down monstrously talented, incredibly egotistical players like Jordan and Bryant, and get them to fall in line. He crushed Bryant, calling him "uncoachable" in his last book, The Last Season, a summary of the 2003-04 season written after Jackson had been forced out of the Lakers job.

But after a year's sabbatical -- which coincided with a downturn in Laker fortunes -- Jackson was back. He rebuilt his relationship with Bryant, and saw Bryant assume the same leadership role that Jordan had 15 years ago. The epochal players of their generation, doing the same thing for the same coach.

"I'm not quite sure how he did it," Kerr said by telephone Sunday night.

"He's really, really smart, and he's got an amazing manner," Kerr said. "He's very, very confident in himself and his ability. The one thing about him is that he is in command. Even the superstars sense it."

It wasn't always that way. That's one of the reasons I think Auerbach had more respect for Jackson than he let on.

Red knew that he wasn't always Red Auerbach. There was a time that he was scuffling and trying to make a name for himself, in the 1940s, as a young coach in Washington, D.C. He wouldn't have survived the early pre-Russell years in Boston if not for the patience of owner Walter Brown, that he didn't always get it right (Red, initially, had no use for Bob Cousy), that it took the stars aligning in just a certain way for Russell to be traded by St. Louis to Boston in 1957. And only after that, after a decade of struggle, with the greatest winner in the history of the game on his side as his partner, was Red able to put his stamp on pro basketball.

So Red no doubt knows that there was a time when Phil Jackson wasn't Phil Jackson, but just a former role player on a championship team trying to break into the coaching business. A guy who needed someone to give him a chance to show what he could do. When his playing days ended with the New Jersey Nets in 1980, and after a stint as the Nets' color guy on TV, Jackson had a wife and four young kids in the house and needed to start making some serious scratch.

So he went to Albany, New York, in 1983, at the behest of a guy named Jim Coyne, who was president of the CBA's Albany Patroons. Coyne offered $25,000 to Jackson to replace Dean Meminger as head coach. Jackson jumped at it.

"You know, I had a private business at the time I was in, a partner in a business, and that was a very difficult time," Jackson recalled. "I'm making this explanation probably a little bit larger than possible, but interest rates were anywhere from 15 to 18 percent during this period of starting a new business, and so after running the business for almost a year, the opportunity came for me to coach. It was a part-time, four-and-a-half month, five-month operation, and it was something that could help with our business problems, and my partner was fully capable of running it by himself. This was an opportunity for me."

That was the first bit of luck. The next came four and a half years later, during which time Jackson had established himself as a pretty good coach (the Patroons won the CBA title in 1984 and made the playoffs each of the following three seasons), but was still a long ways from his goal of getting to the NBA. He made no secret of that desire; every year, according to accounts in the Albany-Times Union, when his one-year contract would expire, Jackson would talk openly about leaving. But he couldn't get a shot.

It was only after Gene Littles left the Chicago Bulls for an assistant's job with the expansion Charlotte Hornets in 1988 that Jackson got his chance, as an assistant to Doug Collins with the Bulls. It was ironic that then-GM Jerry Krause picked Jackson for the gig, considering he had basically sabotagued an earlier job interview in Chicago with then-coach Stan Albeck, famously wearing a plumed hat to his interview.

When Jackson became head coach in Chicago in 1991, there was no guarantee that he would succeed where other good coaches had failed -- in getting Jordan to sacrifice his game in order for the team to be better. It was a fight that only ended when Jordan -- as recounted in Sam Smith's seminal book, The Jordan Rules -- acted as a decoy in Game 5 of the 1991 Finals in Los Angeles against the Lakers. He passed the ball again and again in the fourth quarter to John Paxson, the open and hot shooter, whose jumpers clinched the title.

In doing so, he legitimized what would have been openly laughed at had he not been successful. He handed out books for his players to read on the road and he broke up the monotony of film sessions by splicing in clips from movies. He talked about meditating and living in the moment and breathing and visualization, tapping into spirituality and the strength of the wolf, and the wolfpack, stories and philosophies that Native Americans cherish but that many others in the "modern" world dismissed.

"I think it takes a little time for new guys to accept it and believe it, " Kerr said. "But it's such a part of who he is. It's genuine."

He has had his detractors. Krause, the man who brought him into the league, had a bitter falling out with Jackson as the Bulls captured their six championships, and all but threw him out as the dynasty wound down. Jeff Van Gundy mockingly called him "Big Chief Triangle." And Auerbach zinged him on more than one occasion.

I think part of it was the whole Knicks-Celtics thing. But part of it, I think, was that Red was a needler, a kidder, sarcastic, old school. He liked to poke Jackson, to try and burst the air of pomposity that occasionally comes from the Zen Master. But I think Red appreciated Jackson more than he let on. He knew the reality of coaching, that it's only when the players let you coach that you can do your thing.

Jackson had to change, too. He did a lot more yelling early in his Bulls days, played the alpha male to the hilt. Now he's a grandfather, with serious heart issues in his past and bad hips and knees that require him to sit on a padded chair on the bench. He dates the owner's daughter, Jeanie Buss, who just happens to be the team's president -- and, technically, his boss -- and lives on the beach a few minutes from the Lakers' practice facility.

"He's changed, he's mellowed a great deal," says Lakers assistant coach Jim Cleamons, who's been with Jackson for each of the 10 rings with the Bulls and Lakers.

"Those that don't believe me, they should have been with us our first couple of years," Cleamons said. "We rarely got a day off. But he's always been very cognizant of the players, their contribution to the effort and what they're giving. Early on, the early days, pushing them to do more. Sometimes that wasn't easy. Coaching is never easy. Because players have a particular mindset, and coaches have another. And that's probably why he's been able to do as well, because he bridges that gap very well. Because he understands. I think through his injuries as a player and the times, when, you know, back in the olden days when travel wasn't as convenient as it is now."

He doesn't call timeouts much during games because, like John Wooden, he thinks the coaching should be done in practice. During the games, the players have to figure things out for themselves, operate in the heat of an 11-0 run, get the game under control without looking to the bench for help.

"It's one word -- preparation," said Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who played for Wooden at UCLA, for Riley in Los Angeles and who has worked with Bynum as a big man coach and observed Jackson closely for the past couple of years.

"Everybody has to be ready and undertstand what they need to do," Abdul-Jabbar said. "You have to be prepared mentally and the group has to be prepared, collectively, mentally, to get certain things done, and to make sure that they don't leave anything out. That's what Coach Wooden's main objective was. He always felt that he did his coaching in practice, and he made sure to the greatest degree possible that we understood what we needed to be doing."

How long this will go on is up to Jackson. The Lakers' owner, Jerry Buss, basically has him on a year-to-year contract now, and has told Jackson he can coach as long as he wants. Jackson has one year left on his current contract, and he hasn't yet said what he'll do afterward. In pursuit of meaning in his life, it is not hard at all to envision him walking away, and spending his remaining years walking the earth, like David Carradine's Caine in Kung Fu. Or living the life of a beach bum with Jeanie and whichever grandkids come to visit. Or running for Congress.

Or sticking around to win three or four more.

Is he the greatest coach ever? If he isn't, you tell me who is.

Red would give him his due, probably, one way or another.

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