A CONVERSATION WITH THE FORMER BULLS HEAD COACH
The NBA at 50: Phil Jackson
Back in 1996, in conjunction with the year-long celebration of The NBA at 50, NBA Entertainment conducted a number of interviews with some of the most memorable and influential personalities of the NBA's first half-century. Now, the full, uneditied transcripts of those interviews have been made available exclusively to NBA.com. Check back often, as we'll continue to bring you the best from the NBA at 50 archives!
Today, we share an interview with Phil Jackson, conducted at the NBAE Studios in Secaucus, New Jersey on April 9, 1996.
Q: How would you sum up a job description for an NBA coach?
Jackson: I think the most important thing about coaching is that you have to have a sense of confidence about what you're doing. You have to be a salesman and you have to get your players, particularly your leaders, to believe in what you're trying to accomplish on the basketball floor. We have a statement in our organization, "It's not what you do, but it's how you do it that matters." It's not whether you run the triangle offense like the Bulls run it, but whatever you do, as long as everybody does it and executes it. So you have to be able to preach that. You have to be able to manage a group of guys. In "Casey Stengel-ese," you have to keep nine guys happy and three guys not so sure whether they're unhappy or happy or just happy to belong to a club, because nine guys are going to get to play, the 10th a little bit and the 11th and 12th will have to be balancing it off. So they can't be a disruptive force.
You have to be able to psychologically help your players, support-wise, be in touch with them, so I think managing people is very important. You've got to understand the scheduling of a season. You've got to know what an NBA player's body is going through and I think having been a player helps in that regard. You know the duress these players physically are under, what kind of travel schedule they have, the pressures they have in their home, their families and how to manipulate the season, so it's at least palpable to have a family or a lifestyle so they can continue to have a reasonable life going along at a very hectic schedule. So those are some of the things. The rest of the staff is important. Your medical staff, your trainers, general manager, all those things that support a coach are really important to have the stability of people. You have to be thoughtful about the process, understanding the immediacy of the day for coaching but seeing the long term aspect of the team.
Q: You have been called a "philosophical" coach. Is it important to get your players on the same philosophical page?
Q: You feel it's important to nurture them as people as well?
Jackson: Yeah, it's got to be more than basketball. This game can get old if it's just basketball, if that's your interest. When a lot of these young players come in, sodden with money, an agent giving them advice, wanting to spend money and wanting to have a good time, and all of the sudden, life opens up for them. Suddenly, all the other stuff that they've been doing for four years of college, if they have gotten the four years of college, falls by the wayside. And I think that a coach has to continue that learning process. Basketball is a learning process. You go through maybe five or six NBA seasons doing a lot of learning about the game. And suddenly, you realize, "I'm a pro and I've learned it and now I can subsist in this game." You've got to keep your body together. So, the sooner you can get that person the idea that they have to learn and educate themselves not only in life, but in basketball, the better you are.
Q: Is it more difficult to coach today in the NBA than it has been in the past?
Jackson: Well, I'm one of those people that disagree with the theory that now is different than before. I think that the players come with perhaps even a better attitude about their professional career than they did before. Perhaps they've been tainted a little bit because there are so many attending figures around them. Agents, you know, the whole process. Sometimes those agents go back to when the players were 14 or 15 years of age and they've been nurtured since junior high school, chased when they were in high school by colleges and agents. And suddenly, not only tennis shoe people that have attended them for years, but also, a full-time agent that's after their life, as opposed to 25 years ago when that did not happen. But the players are basically the same. Their interests are immediate. They want instant gratification. A lot of it to do with sports is basically a warrior's mentality, and I think that the warrior's mentality is pretty the same except the players now see it as a longer term process. Something they're going to do for 12 years or 10 years, as opposed to coming in and maybe playing for a few years like they did when I was coming out of college.
Q: What do you try to achieve with pregame talks?
Jackson: My philosophy is that you don't motivate players with speeches, you have motivated players that you draft. That's where they come in and those are the guys that are competitive. You can not teach competitiveness. Now occasionally, it's important to get a focus on a game, as to what's important in that game, be it that a playoff game has more intensity. But the players understand that. That's what they are. These are young men that are bred and built on championship desires. And when you draft winners and have winners in your organization, like the Bulls have been fortunate to have, it's like turning them loose in a ballgame. So a lot of it has to do, in my aspect of motivation, with trying to get a focus, trying to find players being aware because the energy's going to be there. But when they step on the court, they have to have the full capacity of all of their senses so that they could be aware of all the things that are happening, not just their own desire and energy, because these are high energy games.
Q: So focus is sometimes more important than any particular strategy?
Jackson: Yeah, that's it. A lot of times a silent moment is sometimes how we start out. Let's take a few deep breaths, be quiet and settle in, be quiet, until we can still ourselves a little bit and listen. Stop the inner motors from working in the mind. It's sometimes the best way to start out a pre-game talk for me.
Q: What about when the team is in a huddle?
Q: What's the most rewarding part of the job?
Jackson: I think the most rewarding part of the job, and I think most coaches would say it, is practice. If you have it, a very good practice in which you have 12 guys participate, and they can really get something out of it, lose themselves in practice. I think those are the most rewarding times.
Q: You try to get them all back to that focus?
Jackson: That's it. It's refocusing the group, it's getting the team re-energized and getting back to the basics of what basketball's about and it's about just playing and enjoying the game. When they do that, they kind of exercise their basketball spirit. It makes for good teamwork and it makes for better game coming up the next one around the bend.
Q: Did that need for teamwork lead to the now-famous triangle offense with the Bulls?
Jackson: Well, the understanding behind that was that we were isolating Michael (Jordan). We've been, "Okay Michael, here's the ball, you take over. You'll go one-on-one and beat this team." And in reality, when you're running an offense that has a system involved in it, everybody is an integral part of it, and it's very easy to drop the ball onto somebody else's shoulders, someone that's as talented as Michael Jordan. But the reality was we needed a five-man offense out there because the defense was coming to Michael in twos and threes almost and tripling, and we weren't getting ourselves involved in the team offense. So, I didn't want the players to just isolate him. Include him in the offense, include yourself in the offense when he touches the ball.
Q: What was the chemistry like when you played for the Knicks?
Jackson: Well, it was an interesting mixture of players because we had a number of players who competed so dramatically against each other in the college level. In the case of Cazzie Russell and Bill Bradley, two players of the year in '65-66 and subsequent years, both being draft picks, both were competitive against each other, both on and off the court. After Bradley joined the basketball club in his rookie year in the middle of the season, in mid-December, it was a process then over the next six years of a development of a team. And in the process, some players had to be broken away from the group. The trade of Walt Bellamy and Howard Komives for Dave DeBusschere, in the next year, really solidified the team. And in the process of doing that, I think the leadership that we had, with Bradley as a subtle leader, the leadership of Willis Reed emerged and the team became a unit, with the unselfishness that Red Holzman preached.
Q: When Willis Reed got hurt [in the 1970 Finals], was it the collective will of the team that helped beat the Lakers?
Jackson: Well, there was no doubt about it the fact that it was a "David vs. Goliath" type of attitude. Willis was 6'8", 6'9" and stretching it against one of the greatest scorers in the game, a seven-footer in Wilt Chamberlain. And the ball in those days was regulated where you couldn't double-team a center. You couldn't double team, although you could sink in his lap as long as you weren't illegal on defense. But we didn't double-team and rotate like the NBA basketball in the '90s. So isolation is really what everybody thought NBA basketball was about. You couldn't help and we had to have Willis basically on Wilt. He'd had a 40-point night against us in the sixth game against Nate Bowman and they had won again out in the Forum to tie the series at 3-3, so Willis just said, "I'm gonna play regardless." And I think the city of New York just took it on that they were going to be the sixth man in that game and they were because of the energy that was behind that game. When Willis walked on the floor with a couple of minutes left in warm-ups and took a shot or two, and started the game and hit the first basket, the crowd provided the energy. It looked like L.A. was moving in slow motion and the Knicks were moving in high speed. And I've seen that before in seventh games, been on the back end of that before in seventh games. There's nothing like the energy that a crowd gives a basketball club.
Q: How did the team find that inner strength to overcome and to win?
Jackson: It was resolve, I think, resolve and the bond of strong will was really the glue that held them together. They had real good defensive instincts, and Red Holzman taught defense from the 94-foot level which really wasn't a common thread of pro basketball at that time. Chicago and New York were basically the two defensive stalwarts of the NBA, and offense was really the proponent of the game at that time. 120 points, 115 point games were not unusual. From that standpoint the team was very unselfish, because they knew they were all good offensive players. But they had to bond together defensively, which was really what the key was to this team becoming very, very good. And I think players were basically given moments to play because of their defense. I, for one, knew that I wasn't a great offensive NBA player. Dean Meminger, another member of the team that came off the bench, was a very good defensive player. We knew that we played because of our defense and knew that that's what held us together, the fact that we shared an offensive philosophy. Get the ball, hit the open man, keep moving, don't stand still, that was a proponent also an extension of our defensive philosophy.
Q: How was the game changing through the 70s?
The NBA was not really looked on as really a serious pro sport. Baseball had a great pension. Football was just becoming a strong force in the professional ranks. And suddenly in the late 60's, basketball took off and salaries doubled and suddenly guys came out of college and wanted to play pro basketball instead of forfeiting it and going to an industrial league and having a future as a career businessman. So, it became something that was chosen and really made a professional choice to play basketball. Guys took their summer off and played basketball. Dave Cowens, his first couple of years, came to the Rucker League, came to the Baker League. Bill Bradley, after being at Oxford, a Rhodes scholar, came back and played summer basketball so he could become a professional ballplayer to the standards that he felt he had to play. And before that a lot of people did what I did. They went back to graduate school. Terry Dischinger became a dentist. I was working on a Ph.D. in psychology and going to three years of summer school during my professional career.
But, people saw that it was going to be a television sport. It was going to be an entertainment sport. And actually in the 70s, Sports Illustrated said, "Basketball is the sport of the 70s," and it died a little bit in the mid-70s for whatever reason. Whether bringing together both leagues, the ABA and the NBA, and there were just too many teams suddenly for people to stay attached to, or whatever happened to the league, it died a little bit. But the energy was there in the early 70s, with Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) coming into the league, and really great players like Doc (Julius Erving) coming into the league and playing NBA ball. It had a great future but it was marketing, I think, a lot of it. And there's also a generation that had grown up with basketball, that loved basketball, that made it a spectator sport.
Q: Was there a culture clash between the NBA and the ABA?
Jackson: There was. There were a lot of guys that forfeited their college education, and when they did that, they went to the ABA because they were doing a lot of hardship drafting early. Spencer Haywood was one of the first ones. Doc was another one who came out and George McGinnis was another one who came out. As a consequence, the ABA had kind of a renegade attitude, a kind of loose, fast-flowing offensive game that people played. It was an eight-team league, a 10-team league, and a six-team league suddenly. It was a lot of teams moving around, but it had some very talented young players in the league. And when they joined with the NBA, they brought in four very unusual and different types of teams to the league. There were also a lot of players, Moses Malone as one of them, a premier player, who came in without a team to go to. He was moved around successively through a few teams and finally ended up in Houston. So, we were inundated with some players and I think it changed the game significantly in that time. The three-point line became a status of part of our game which dramatically changed our game. Different types of defense came from the ABA including the double teams, on the post, jump and rotate on screen and rolls. That really changed the format of how we played basketball and I think a lot of good ideas came from that union.
Q: How did team-oriented NBA players feel about the individualism of the ABA players?
Jackson: Well, I think we were real curious to see them. Part of our exhibition seasons had included ABA/NBA games that were very spirited exhibition games. Kentucky, they had great teams. There had been some New York Nets teams that had had some good runs. The Denver Nuggets at that time had had some good teams and we had opportunities to play them in the exhibition season. We knew there were legitimate teams and there had been some wins, some losses. Indiana had had some real good teams that had won in the ABA, and every year they would come against us. We won the championship in the NBA and we played Indiana, that won the championship in the ABA, in an exhibition.
We felt that it was a legitimate league and the players were legitimate players, it was just that they weren't all good teams. There weren't so many good teams. There was just a handful of good teams and then a lot of guys, as you said, were individualistic players. When they came to the NBA, there were a lot of people who were ready to challenge them. But they didn't come in mass group, a lot of them came in sporadically and either left the league or changed leagues and moved back and forth. And they were adapted into the league, but I still think there was this kind of free-flowing nature that came with them. The run-and-shoot type of game that came with them. So there's a little bit of different philosophy that joined the NBA at that time.
Q: Michael Jordan represents the best of both, as far as team play and individual ability, doesn't he?
Jackson: Well, you know we always felt Michael has had great instincts, first of all. Probably that starts in the parental type atmosphere of a home. And secondly, at North Carolina, with James Worthy and Sam Perkins and the variety of good players that were there. Michael learned from Dean Smith that the group is stronger than the individual.
Q: How has Michael changed the league?
Jackson: I think he's had a big effect on the young players that have come out of college and have seen his individual prowess of what he can do. I think it stretches the imagination, as probably Julius Erving stretched Michael's imagination and his basketball inventiveness. I think that these are the things that make for greater players. My generation saw (Elgin) Baylor and (Jerry) West and Oscar Robertson as the proponents of what's new and what's going to happen in the game. And my generation provided Earl Monroe and Jimmy Walker, who showed new dribbling and skill, and Pete Maravich. And I think Michael has done that. But also, the attitude and the courage that he's come in with, I think philosophically and psychologically, has been real good. A solid person, a person that values education and family, those things have really helped in our league.
Q: How hard is it for Michael to maintain focus with all of the demands he faces?
Jackson: I don't think that's a problem, because I think one of the things that anybody whose been around Michael or the Bulls, or seen him up close realizes, is that this man can concentrate at a very quick pace. He can be at one place dealing with media. He can be dealing with a celebrity, he could be meeting a mayor before a possible game. But gametime comes and the focus is there and it's quickly done. He's able to get his mind on the spot, at the moment of that point. There are different levels which he goes into that and I think that's real important. And sometimes he brings it to a practice the day before a big game and lets everybody know that this is a big game, let's get ourselves focused on this big game. That starts 24 hours before the game, it's not just that it starts in one minute. But the fact that you bring that focus to your game quickly is the thing that makes him great.
Q: What is the biggest challenge for the players who have and will follow Michael into the NBA?
Jackson: Well, the challenge for them is to be themselves. The players that are coming up cannot emulate anybody because you can't follow in anybody's footstep. You can see what they've done before, that's a good model, and use it as kind of a forerunner. But I think that the thing young ballplayers have to realize is the amount of commercial things, the amount of excesses that are from the outside. One of the things that Michael has always done is never interfered with practice. Basketball is the priority. That's what's gotten him to the place where he's at, so basketball remains the priority. There's never been any excesses that interfere, where I have to say, "Oh well, you can miss the bus. Oh, practice, forget about it," or, "Shoot, on a day of a game, a commercial." No, those things all are put aside and fit in somewhere else offseason, in-between practices, on days off. So that the priority remains the same, basketball comes first.
Q: What's the best part of basketball?
Jackson: Well, the best part of basketball, for those people on the inside, is the bus going to the airport after you've won a game on an opponent's floor. It's been a very tough battle. And preferably, in the playoffs. And that feeling that you have, together as a group, having gone to an opponent's floor and won a very good victory, is as about as high as you can get.
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