Suns News

Cartwright Talks About Jackson Retiring From Lakers

Cartwright won three rings playing under Jackson in Chicago.
(NBAE/Getty Images)
By Stefan Swiat,
Posted: May 12, 2011

Even though one rival coach is closing the book on his legendary career, there is one member of the Suns’ organization that was present to help him write many of the chapters.

Phil Jackson, who leads all coaches in career titles, announced that he is retiring as Lakers Head Coach this season. If Jackson remains retired from the game (he's given himself some wiggle room), it will mark the end of a storied NBA coaching career that began when Jackson was an assistant with the Bulls in 1989.

Suns assistant coach Bill Cartwright, who won three NBA Championships under Jackson as a player and captured two more titles with him as his assistant coach, counts Jackson as one of his greatest coaching influences. As a player, Cartwright recalls Jackson exposing him and his fellow teammates to yoga, meditation and specifically selected reading material.

“You learn a lot of different things when you play for him,” Cartwright said. “His big thing was being able to free and expand your mind, while just trying to make you more of a well-rounded person. And I believe by doing that, he would get closer to guys.”

Cartwright believed that Jackson created an “atmosphere of learning” as a head coach, becoming renowned for inviting meditation experts like George Mumford to practice and encouraging his players to follow current events. And while those unique tactics received a great deal of media attention, they were all invoked to accomplish one thing, win basketball games.

After Doug Collins was replaced by Jackson as Bulls head coach, the “Zen Master” went right to work in implementing his vision of what the Bulls should be. But without any prior experience as an NBA head coach and a number of radical ideas up his sleeve, Chicago didn’t exactly become a juggernaut when Jackson took over.

Jackson replaced the Bulls’ traditional play calls with the “triangle offense,” which wasn’t a move that particularly scored with everyone.

“We put in Tex Winter’s offense and that didn’t go over with - I’m not going to tell you with - but his initials were Michael Jordan,” Cartwright recalled. “Then halfway through the season we played Denver on the road, and we carved them up with the triangle. Then after that game, No. 23 was ok with it.”

The Suns’ assistant coach said that it was and still is highly unusual for an NBA team to run a system offense like the “triangle.” According to Cartwright, in order to run a system like that properly, teammates have to become completely unselfish and trusting of one another.

“It’s a great system that’s predicated on this notion that the more you pass the ball, the more you get it back,” Cartwright said. “Not only do you get it back, but you get it back in a better spot.”

The offense was a part of Jackson’s greater vision of how a team should function.

“His greatest attributes as a coach was that – to borrow Phil’s analogy - he saw a basketball team like a band,” Cartwright said. “If there are too many solos, it’s bad. Every now and again you can have a solo, but it’s all about playing together, everybody playing their role, having an understanding of their role and recognizing the value of their role.”

It’s that quality that Cartwright has tried to pass along to his players in his coaching career.

“Lots of guys have this vision of how they should be playing, and it’s not until they give up on themselves and give to the team that they get acknowledged for it,” he said. “Maybe you get fewer minutes and fewer shots, but the role that you play is one that nobody else can do, and it’s one of the reasons why we’re going to win.”

What Cartwright finds so interesting about Jackson’s story, was that there almost wasn’t one. Before arriving in Chicago, Jackson found himself bouncing around the minor leagues of coaching professional basketball.

Although he was once a popular player for the Knicks, Jackson’s phone wasn’t ringing off the hook with NBA coaching offers. But Bulls GM Jerry Krause, who always followed him and took in interest in him, asked Jackson to join the Bulls’ coaching staff and assist Collins.

Reportedly, Jackson was close to walking away from coaching at that point in time.

“If it hadn’t been that phone call at that point in time to Phil, there would not be a Phil Jackson,” Cartwright said.

Now after 11 NBA Championships and becoming the Lakers’ all-time leader in coaching wins, Jackson is sailing off into the sunset. Cartwright believes that his former coach is retiring because he’s not only mentally and physically tired, but because he’s in a good place mentally.

“I think he’s going to take some time off to evaluate what in the world he’s going to do," Cartwright said. "He’s at a point where he needs some time off mentally and physically. He has a bad back, hip and knee. But he’s in a good place right now mentally, because he likes spending time with his grandkids.”

The former All-Star center says that he could see Jackson doing a number of things in the near future, including writing. After Jackson has had some time to unwind, Cartwright plans to visit his former coach in L.A.

Although Cartwright has heard the argument that Jackson was only successful because of his propensity for having at least one the NBA’s best players on his roster, he’s not buying into it. He cites critical adjustments he made during pressure situations, his handling of unique personalities like Dennis Rodman and his ability to get the most out of his players as evidence to the contrary.

“He’s the best coach of all time,” Cartwright said. “The proof is in the pudding. When you have a guy that has that many rings on different teams with different personnel, I don’t think you have to sell that.”

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