Phil Jackson and Sam Smith's relationship dates back to coach's early CBA days
By Adam Fluck | 08.29.2012
Over two decades before the Bulls won their first NBA championship, Phil Jackson and Sam Smith crossed paths in New York City.
It happened in the late 1960s when Jackson was a young forward with the New York Knicks. He lived in Lower Manhattan and after most games he’d take the subway home from Madison Square Garden. Smith, who grew up in Brooklyn and worked for an accounting firm in the city at the time, regularly attended games and happened to ride the same train as Jackson one night.
The two talked briefly, and while Smith remembers the encounter, Jackson understandably does not. But Jackson and Smith would meet again, the next time being in the early 1980s when Jackson was head coach of the CBA’s Albany Patroons.
Smith was hired by the Chicago Tribune in 1979, and after covering local politics and business initially, he was moved to sports where he wrote features for the Sunday paper’s magazine insert. He was tasked with doing a story on Carl Nicks, a product of Chicago’s South Side and a teammate of Larry Bird’s at Indiana State. Nicks’ Billings Volcanos were playing Jackson’s Patroons, and after the game, Smith approached Jackson in the lower levels of the Washington Avenue Armory, Albany’s sports and convention center. Though neither could have known at the time, it was the beginning of a professional relationship that would last until Jackson’s retirement in 2011. The two have remained friends.
Being from New York and basketball were obvious common interests between the two men. But to Jackson, it was more than that which allowed them to remain connected over the years.
“We have had similar experiences in our political life that we’ve shared with him working on the Hill,” Jackson said during a phone interview from his northwest Montana home of Smith, who worked in Washington D.C. as a political reporter before joining the Tribune.
“There is a dimension to Sam that is deep and interesting,” Jackson continued. “He’s always had a great manner in going about his work that I thought was considerate, yet not conciliatory. He dug for information, yet he always knew what was on and off—what territory was easy to cover and what was difficult for a person on the inside to disclose.”
In 1987, the Bulls hired Jackson as an assistant coach on Doug Collins’ staff and Smith began covering the team full-time. The timing couldn’t have been better for both men, as Michael Jordan had just finished his third season in which he averaged a career-best 37.1 points per game. Jackson joined a talented staff that would become his own two years later. And Smith was tasked with writing about an athlete who would go down in history as one of sports most well-known. In addition, Jordan was extremely accessible to Smith and the media during his early years.
“The interesting thing about that period of time was that Sam was around at the end of when the NBA teams were taking commercial flights,” explained Jackson. “The writers used to fly a lot on the same planes as teams. He was there as we waited to board and the opportunity was there to converse. Sam got the benefit of the camaraderie that went on between the coaches, players and journalists that ended in the very early 1990s.”
Eventually, media availability became an option generally only before or after games and scheduled practices. There was a much more formal, organized feel to when journalists could interview players with rules and restrictions attached. But Smith, having spent time around the team, Jackson, and his staff before then, was a major beneficiary of the original set up.
“My assistants, Jim Cleamons, Johnny Bach and Tex Winter, were all gracious with their time as far as pointing out basketball information and insight, stuff that gave Sam some insight not only into what we were doing, but basketball in general,” recalled Jackson.
Before the access became limited, though, Smith had begun work on his first book. His intent was to chronicle the Bulls’ 1990-91 season with a focus on Jordan, detailing the dynamic that existed between the budding superstar and his teammates and coaches with a behind the scenes feel. He spent countless hours around the team and its coaches, staying after practices to talk with players at the Multiplex in Deerfield and catching up with coaches in hotel lobbies on the road.
That season, the Bulls won their first championship, winning 15 out of 17 games in the postseason and defeating Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals. But the story that Smith told in The Jordan Rules wasn’t always a flattering account of Jordan. It depicted him as being especially tough on teammates whom he had yet to fully trust. Whether it was on the practice floor or during games, the book told how Jordan made life difficult for the other players on the team and its coaches. When the book was released, a storm of controversy accompanied it with respect to the picture it painted of Jordan.
“I knew it was going to be controversial and Sam had kind of warned me,” said Jackson of The Jordan Rules. “It was an inside look at the team and about the dynamics and the characteristics of our leader, Michael Jordan. Not everybody was going to be happy with it, I knew that.
“A lot of it rang true; a lot of it, of course, was taken to the extreme perhaps,” Jackson continued. “But a lot of it was a really good portrayal of the team, how the team was going, and also the influence that this terrific player had on basketball.”
Between Jordan’s spectacular abilities and the emergence of Scottie Pippen, the Bulls were poised to make a long run. But without Jordan coming around to rely on his teammates, it is possible the Bulls would never have gotten to that point. Jackson believes Smith’s book played a role in Jordan backing off his so-called supporting cast, as well as allowing the coaches to more effectively restore a level of order and maintain control of the team.
“That was probably a part of the dynamic,” said Jackson. “There were a lot of things that contributed to that. I think one of them was Michael playing in a system in which he had to form-fit himself into a group. He had to start trusting his teammates, which came from the appreciation of their individual skills and abilities. Finally, some of the shine came off the idolatry and the unbelievable press Michael got his first four or five years of his career where he could do everything from sew to cook.
“I think it gave him more of a humanistic appreciation. It brought his star down to a level where he was a human being who was extraordinary in every sense of the word athletically and was driven by an incredible amount of competitive drive to win a championship. I think that was probably the defining message that came from that book.”
Jackson, an author in his own right, admits that he has read The Jordan Rules. And he even went as far as to say he’s a fan of the book.
In the end, Smith’s work didn’t derail the Bulls’ run as some thought it might, nor did it sour his relationships with players or coaches.
In 1998, after Jordan’s second retirement and Jackson’s first, as well as a trade which sent Pippen to the Houston Rockets, an NBA lockout ensued. Jackson by then had retreated to his home in Montana and he invited Smith to visit.
Smith spent several days with Jackson late that fall. They toured the area and visited Flathead National Forest, though Jackson regrets he wasn’t able to get Smith to a golf course.
“It wasn’t the best of times weather-wise for Montana, but he came out and we went out to a couple meals, sat around and conversed,” said Jackson. “Sam had a chance to see what brought me to this area to relax and retreat from the hustle and bustle of the NBA season. He appreciated it.”
At the time of this writing, Jackson was back in Montana, this time following a second retirement after 11 seasons with the Lakers and five more NBA championships—a total of 13 total for his career counting the ones he won as a player.
Smith, of course, is still a journalist, but no longer with the Tribune, having written exclusively for Bulls.com since the fall of 2008. Jackson said he reads Smith’s columns from time to time and enjoys keeping in touch with him, especially throughout the course of the NBA season.
“The Bulls allow him a great amount of freedom to write what he feels about the team and the direction in which the team and league is going. I think that’s nice,” said Jackson.
“But I very rarely contribute to anything he writes,” Jackson continued. “Once in awhile, he’ll do a retrospective and ask for my opinion, but a lot of times we just share information about what’s going on in the league and what’s going on inside the game. He updates me on things that I probably ignore or don’t pay attention to now that I’m retired. It’s a fun back and forth that we have and it works well in email. But he always gets out to L.A. once or twice and we end up having lunch or dinner, whenever we can find time to share.”
With the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame set to honor Smith with the 2012 Curt Gowdy Media Award, Jackson took a few moments to look back on his friend’s career. He calls the recognition that The Jordan Rules received “one of the defining moments” for Smith, adding that the number of years he served as president of the Professional Basketball Writers Association—four terms in total—was also a remarkable accomplishment.
“This is definitely an honor to be recognized by the Hall of Fame for his contributions to the game,” said Jackson.
As for how Smith got there, Jackson believes it’s something other than the writing itself that sets him apart from his colleagues.
“I think it’s the personality he brings to it,” said Jackson of Smith. “He has a deprecating way of approaching the players and I think they respect that. He’s not a guy that’s going to try to do a gotcha question or something that goes out of character. There’s a respect between professional journalism and a player that players recognize. I think his colleagues recognize that too. He has a good, deprecating sense of humor and I think all of these things contribute to what’s made him a popular journalist.”