Phil Jackson: Michael Jordan's contributions will never be eclipsed

Legendary coach Phil Jackson discusses exclusively with his arrival in Chicago, coaching the game’s greatest, and Michael Jordan's defining moment.

Michael Jordan Hall of Fame

Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson
“He was perhaps the most recognizable athlete in the world for a decade,” Jackson said of Jordan. “That he brought the game of basketball and the NBA to that level will never be eclipsed. It’s a real honor for Michael to go in, and for the Hall of Fame to have him in."
(Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)

Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant weren’t the only rookies during the 1987-88 season, when the Bulls improved by 10 wins and advanced to the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

New on coach Doug Collins’ staff was Phil Jackson, who compiled a 117-90 record in five years coaching the Continental Basketball Association’s Albany Patroons.

Jackson replaced Gene Littles, who resigned on Oct. 1 to join the league’s new franchise in Charlotte and eventually became the Hornets’ head coach in 1990. By the time Jackson was hired nine days later, the team’s training camp was underway. He arrived on the second day and had no connection to Michael Jordan—who averaged 37.1 points per game the season before, his third in the league—other than observing him.

Not long after, during a coaches’ meeting, Jackson made a comment as to the qualifications of a player that his coach from his playing days with the New York Knicks, Red Holzman, had shared.

“It wasn’t about how great a star was himself,” Jackson recalled Holzman saying. “It was about how great he made the players around him.”

Collins insisted that Jackson seek out Jordan to share Holzman’s thought, and that became Jackson’s first connection with Jordan in a one-on-one situation. Looking back during a phone interview from his Montana home, Jackson called it “a weird scenario for me to have to introduce myself in that kind of a manner.”

In the end, though, things worked out just fine for Jackson and Jordan. For Jackson, the timing of his arrival in Chicago was perfect, as Jordan was beginning to peak as a player, having led the league in scoring the year before and making great strides defensively.

“I found it remarkable the attributes he had as a young player, being able to deliver night in and night out,” said Jackson. “He was sometimes even better the fourth game in five nights.”

Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson
"I don’t think anybody will ever really touch what Michael has done for the game,” said Jackson.

(Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)

After Jackson’s second season with Chicago, management decided it was time for a change, and Collins was let go on July 6, 1989. Four days later, the Bulls announced Jackson as their new head coach.

During the interview process, team owner Jerry Reinsdorf expressed concern as to why Jackson wouldn’t prefer the Knicks job, which was also open after the firing of Rick Pitino. Jackson was considered a candidate. His response was enough to convince Reinsdorf he was the right man at the right time.

“I told him, ‘I think the Knicks might be able to win one championship, but I could see multiple championships with the Chicago Bulls.’ I never believed it would be six, but maybe two or three, and even that was unheard of in those days.”

Jackson’s promotion would bring great change to the team. He has earned the nickname “Zen Master” over the years, and his unorthodox coaching techniques are well-known.

“Jackson has remained remarkably consistent -- self-possessed, focused and confident,” reads his bio on “These defining qualities have been put to best use in his role as coach. Firm but not severe, Jackson neither babies nor bullies his players. Instead he gives them the opportunity to learn for themselves how to succeed, and a structure in which they can win as a team.”

His coaching style aside, the question remained as to how Jordan and his teammates would respond to some of those “other” methods which relied on Jackson’s holistic approach.

“I think Michael thought some of the stuff was a little kooky,” Jackson admitted. “But we were trying to lift the level of our consciousness. We had dealt with the Detroit Pistons three years in a row [falling each time in the postseason beginning with the 1987-88 campaign] and had to overcome some hurdles. We needed to do something different to change the context of how we saw them. Michael understood that was what was going on. We weren’t battling the Pistons; we were battling ourselves in some respect. To get over that hurdle took some kind of a dedication that was different.”

Besides the emergence of Jordan and Pippen as elite players in the NBA who both gained valuable playoff experience in the late 1980s, Jackson identified two other factors that helped them reach the next level: relying on the team’s veteran players, including Bill Cartwright and John Paxson, and the implementation of the triangle offense.

Cartwright was a co-captain along with Jordan in the first three championships, and while Jordan was the force that drove the team, Cartwright was instrumental in keeping his teammates on the same page.

“Practices were hard and the team played hard,” said Jackson. “It was more about how to get everyone feeling like they were contributing in the way they could contribute. Cartwright was probably more important in that role, because he could play off of Michael’s drive and get guys to buy into that drive that was going to push the team ahead.

“The job of the coach a lot of times is trying to motivate, Jackson added. “When you don’t have to motivate a team to play with the push that they already have internally, then the rest of it seems to fall into place fairly easily.”

With help from assistant coach Tex Winter, an influential coach who spent 15 seasons at Kansas State and was named coach of the year in 1958, the process of educating the Bulls on the triangle had begun. Jackson called the implementation of the triple-post offense a “natural thing,” having played it as a senior at North Dakota for future NBA coach Bill Fitch.

Jackson cited the lack of a point guard along the lines of Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas and Kevin Johnson as one of the main reasons for the new offense.

“Tex’s contention was that the offense having a two-guard system would take care of that problem,” he said. “The toughest sell was to get Michael to buy into the fact that the ball was going to change sides and there wouldn’t be plays ran for somebody; rather it was done through defensive reads that dictated how we were going to play.”

Beating the aforementioned Detroit team was another motivation, and when the teams met during the 1991 postseason, Chicago finally cleared that hurdle, sweeping the Pistons, 4-0, en route to the first championship. Despite a difficult learning curve, the triangle’s focus on teamwork and on-court chemistry would play a significant factor in all six of the team’s titles.

When Jackson left the Bulls after the so-called “Last Dance” in 1998, Winter remained, but only for one additional season. The two would team up again in Los Angeles in 1999, and three consecutive NBA titles for Kobe Bryant and the Lakers would follow using the same system.

Upon Jackson’s arrival in Los Angeles, he got Michael and Kobe together. Jordan was retired at the time; it was prior to his two-year stint with the Washington Wizards. He was hoping Kobe could understand how Michael approached the offense.

“There is a time and a place for you to step into your own game and dictate terms, which you can do inside of this offense,” said Jackson. “But you’ve got to wait; you’ve got to bide your time and wait for the appropriate moment to take control of the game which you can do because of the spacing.”

Jackson said Michael was very helpful with Kobe, who only half-jokingly told Michael, “I still think I can take you one-on-one.”

“There was still a competitive edge between the two of them; a master and the apprentice, so to speak,” said Jackson. “I know that Kobe has relied on his conversations with Michael over the years, whether they were about me, the offense, or how to approach the game in certain situations. Michael has been very helpful to him and I know Kobe has a great respect for Michael.”

Jackson, for the most part, stays away from the Kobe versus Michael debate. But the coach with an NBA-record ten championships was clear about his opinion on Jordan’s contributions.

“I don’t think anybody will ever really touch what Michael has done for the game,” he said when asked if Kobe or LeBron James could ever vie for Jordan’s “best-ever” title. “They may be able to break a record he had or maybe win more championships. Michael was 28 when he won his first championship, and LeBron could win one before he reaches that age and have a chance at winning more than six. But Michael’s image as a player will always stand and his greatness will never be superseded.”

For Jackson, Jordan’s defining moment came during the team’s first championship run in 1991. After losing the series opener in Chicago, the Bulls won four straight games to defeat the Los Angeles Lakers, 4-1, in the Finals. During the fifth and deciding game, the Bulls faced a resilient Lakers team on their homecourt.

“We got stalled,” he recalled. “The Lakers were damn sure that Michael wasn’t going to beat them and stacked their defense against him. When I called a timeout, we talked a little bit about it on the bench. I asked him to tell me who was open because of how they were crowding him. He said Paxson. He knew it. I said, ‘OK,’ and that’s all I had to say.”

Jordan promptly fed Paxson for several jump shots, who connected on four-of-five down the stretch and finished with 20 points in 33 minutes.

“He was content to know that he was going to beat this team by being the provocateur and setting up his teammates,” Jackson said. “That was the defining moment, his transition from being a great scorer to learning how to beat teams without having to score. He knew we’d win championships because of it. It was a changing moment for him.”

As Jordan prepares to head to Springfield for induction ceremonies September 10-12, Jackson, a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame’s Class of 2007, is looking forward to the moment.

“He was perhaps the most recognizable athlete in the world for a decade,” he said. “That he brought the game of basketball and the NBA to that level will never be eclipsed. It’s a real honor for Michael to go in, and for the Hall of Fame to have him in. They may have to make another building or build a new wing to highlight all of the things that Michael was able to do over his career. I’m very, very happy for him and very, very happy for the Hall of Fame.”

Michael Jordan | Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame | Class of 2009


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