Inspired by Holzman, Jackson Arrives in Springfield
Posted Sep 7 2007 5:01PM
SPRINGFIELD, MASS., September 7, 2007 -- The journey to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and basketball immortality didn't begin with the Albany Patroons or even the Chicago Bulls for Phil Jackson. It actually began some 38 years ago as a player with the New York Knicks.
"The pivotal moment in my life was when I was injured, a career type of ending injury with a spinal fusion, necessary for recovery," said Jackson this morning at the Hall of Fame press conference. "I missed the championship season in '69-70, which was the first championship the Knicks had won. During that period of time, Red took me under his wing, he didn't have an assistant coach, he made me his assistant coach and taught the game to me and taught me a lot about the game and encouraged me to go into coaching."
The phenomenal success Jackson has enjoyed coaching at the NBA level – nine championships, the fastest to reach 900 victories among the many highlights --- was no doubt aided by the brilliant play of future Hall of Fame players Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, an innovative offensive system (the triangle offense) but ultimately a lot of credit goes to his steadfast belief in the total team concept.
"I never consider myself to be an X and Os guy as far as a basketball guy," said Jackson. "Tex Winter, my assistant coach and colleague for the last 20 years, really loved the details and execution of basketball and would sit with me and we would do film sessions and we would do planning together. But the reality is basketball is based on chemistry, guys who want to play together, want to share the work together, want to sacrifice for each other and learn how to do that. I recognized that at early age and that was really a part of what I was participating in when I was a New York Knickerbocker player and that's what I took away from that experience."
Jackson's unique ability to handle players, create a positive environment and maximize performance was no doubt inspired by his former coach.
"He always believed in what was called the middle path," said Jackson of Holzman. "I appreciated that, his ability to handle players, particularly a team that was full of college players of the year. Cazzie Russell and Bill Bradley were both competing for the same job, but the ability for both of them to play as a team directly reflected [Holzman's] ability to handle people and make them play as a group.
"That ability to handle people probably was the trademark that I learned more than anything else. He treated the superstars and role players very much in the same manner."
Before Jackson coached his first game of his inaugural season with the Bulls in '89-90, he sat down with Jordan and informed him that the team was going back to a system of basketball instead of individual sets. Jordan called it an equal opportunity offense but Jackson assured him his teammates would know how to get him the ball at the right time. Even though the Bulls started 0-3 that season, Jackson didn't waver and neither did Jordan. The rest is NBA history.
"Phil really tried to get us all on the same page, get our minds working together," said Pippen, who played nine seasons under Jackson. "He would gather us into a room and ask that everyone be quiet and just try to pull us in. Another time we had a yoga instructor who would sort of lead us through some of the mindfulness of studying about yoga and how it's good for the brain, the relaxation of it and things that you can hear, that you can get into this moment before you are able to hear these things. It was just a way of us really aligning ourselves to come together and be at peace and get our minds and everything working together as one. We always used that technique as part of calming ourselves down."
Even today, Jackson's former teammates still marvel at this Maverick's unlikely road to NBA coaching greatness.
"No, I wouldn't have predicted it," said Hall of Fame guard Clyde Frazier who made the trip up to Springfield to support his Knick teammate. "Phil really didn't like the rules and regulations at the time so I never saw him conforming to the team concept like that. Not that he didn't know the game, I just thought he had other interests."
What Frazier does see are the similarities between Jackson and his former coach.
"Phil is a players coach, I see a lot of Holzman's philosophy in him where he lets the players have an impact on what's going on and that's what Red used to do with us. Phil knows it's a players' game and that's what Red realized. He knows that if the players are happy that they'll perform better."
While Jackson admits to being a great benefactor in inheriting talented players over the years, highlighted by Jordan and O'Neal, it's also important to note their championship résumés before his arrival.
"It's interesting that both Michael and Shaq had been in the NBA for six years before Phil became their coach and neither had won a championship," said Charley Rosen, longtime friend, co-author of two books with Jackson and former assistant coach when the Patroons won a CBA title in '84.
"One of the most difficult tasks in the NBA is to coach a great team, a team that is supposed to win because there are so many egos, strong egos, battling against each other and because expectations are so high. How do you get these guys to play hard all of the time? How do you get them to practice hard all of the time? How do you get them to pay attention to drills in practice? Phil was able to do that."
How would Jackson, who once drove the Patroons van while filling out The New York Times crossword puzzles, describe his journey to Springfield? A Long Strange Trip? Try a meteoric rise.
"It's been like a comet," said Jackson. "The success of the teams I've coached has been just phenomenal. I've heard people say that I've been the luckiest coach that's ever been in the NBA and I would probably have to agree with them. I've been in the right spot at the right time."
And now a spot officially next to his mentor and former coach, Red Holzman, in the Basketball Hall of Fame.