Art of a three-peat
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Phil Jackson’s not back in the NBA quite yet, but he’s keeping an eye on it. And when I caught up with him the other day, he happened to mention that annual poll from the league general managers, surprise, surprise, selecting the Miami Heat to win its third consecutive championship.
Phil knows championships, and he told about a bunch of those this year with his bestselling book, “Eleven Rings”.
But while others have collected many rings over the years, no one knows three-peats like Phil. No one else has ever done it three separate times, and with two different groups of players.
And as Jackson wrote quaintly in “Eleven Rings”, the 2001-02 season in Los Angeles wasn’t going to be easy.
“Three-peats never are,” he offered.
“I see Miami is projected to win in that GM poll,” Jackson said from his home in Los Angeles, where he’s decamped for the winter. “It’s still a matter of doing it.”
This season it is for the Miami Heat, who host the Bulls Tuesday in the season opening game after the Heat’s ceremony for winning the 2013 championship.
But now the serious stuff begins.
And the Heat thought that was all over.
But this business of winning that third straight has only been accomplished by Red Auerbach’s Celtics (actually eight), Jackson’s Bulls and Lakers and the Minneapolis Lakers before the shot clock.
Pat Riley’s Lakers failed in 1989; Chuck Daly’s Pistons failed after 1990; Rudy Tomjanovich’s Rockets missed after 1995, and Jackson couldn’t do it with his Lakers after 2010. It’s a true sports rarity.
It’s also why the Bulls among so many other teams this season believe they have a strong chance to win the title. Not because the Heat isn’t a great team. But there are complications of the human mind and spirit that clash with the body and basketball that make winning that third straight among the most difficult feats in sports.
“They’ve still got to deal with (Dwyane) Wade’s knee and will LeBron (James) be able to clear people out with that off arm like he’s been able to do the last three years,” quipped Jackson offering his little tweak for his old buddy Riley and the Heat. “Can (Chris) Bosh sustain it, a one trick pony type guy. The bench now has changed with (Mike) Miller gone. (Ray) Allen is a year older. All those things.
“Still,” Jackson added, “They have the horses. They have a good chance.”
That, of course, is a big part of it, really the biggest as Jackson had Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen for all six with the Bulls and Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant for all three with the Lakers. When it was just Kobe with Pau Gasol two wasn’t enough.
But Jackson says the biggest enemy of three-peat hopefuls is boredom.
He wrote in “Eleven Rings” that, “Life in the NBA can be a stultifying, mind numbing experience, particularly when you are on a long road trip.”
So it often rests with the coach to be creative and vary the routine. Jackson famously introduced his yoga and tai chi sessions and side trips on occasion. It was somewhat simpler, Jackson related, in 1997-98 for the Bulls as it was the so-called Last Dance as players united around a last run and final journey together.
But the 1992-93 season showed more struggle with the Bulls failing to have the best regular season record and then finding themselves trailing 2-0 in the conference finals.
Of course, leave it to Phil. He likened the Lakers 2001-02 season to the novel, “Oblomov”, about a young man who lacks will power and spends time laying in bed.
But Jackson also noted success like his Bulls and Lakers teams had can breed overconfidence, a flip-the-switch mentality that they could ride to a higher level just by deciding it was time. It doesn’t work that way.
Jackson said there are various vital elements, like improving the bench, which Miami appears to have done, and not using the same formula.
“You’ve been there, you’ve done it. Sometimes it’s hard for guys to maintain focus after getting the first two. You rest on your laurels,” said Bill Wennington, who played for the 1996-1998 champions. “You think you can just do it, but you are older and your bodies change a little.”
Wennington said his body was more beaten down from the grind of the three seasons and long playoffs that third year.
“Phil was great that third year,” recalls Wennington, “telling us to smell the roses.”
Stacey King, also a Bulls broadcaster like Wennington, was part of the 1991-1993 champions.
He said the long playoffs leading to a short summer catch up with players, and the summer before that third season Jordan and Pippen played for the Dream Team to complicate matters more.
“It’s the mental grind not only to avoid injury, but every game is a Super Bowl because it’s that team’s game of the year,” said King. “The Heat get that. You can’t take nights off. Bad teams look at your games like it’s their playoffs. It’s a mental grind.”
King also says the me creeps in as some players begin to look for endorsement deals and ways to get their credit.
“But you win by being unselfish,” King noted.
Bill Cartwright, who now is in private business after leaving coaching last season, talked about the reserve changes from year to year. He noted adding to the bench with different players helped the spirit of the team.
“You bring in Bobby Hansen, who makes a big shot for you, B.J. (Armstrong) comes in with a bigger role. The list goes on and on,” said Cartwright. “Credit to guys like Jerry (Krause), Jim Stack and Clarence Gaines for not sitting still. And then especially later when they were able to add guys like Bison Dele.
“There’s also that hunger,” noted Cartwright. “It’s fine to win two. We’re coming to practice every day basically working on the same stuff. Do you have the guys with that hunger to still want it as much or more?”
Steve Kerr, who played on the 1996-1998 teams and will be broadcasting the opener for TNT Tuesday and in Chicago for Derrick Rose’s first home game Thursday, said all those teams you’ve beaten the last few years have been studying and building to match you.
“For Miami, it’s Indiana and Chicago figuring out how to beat you, watching those films. They’re hungrier. It’s human nature,” said Kerr. “You can feel the pack creeping up on you. And you feel like you’re running on fumes you’ve been at it so long.
“Everyone’s so excited the first time,” said Kerr. “It’s brand new. We kind of did it again without too much difficulty. The third year there’s, ‘Here we go again.’ It gets tougher to rev up the engines.”
But it can be done.
“Winning,” Jackson wrote, “is about moving into the unknown and creating something new and growing as a team.”
The pursuers are closing in. Will the Heat have a closing kick?