Is Phil Jackson the best coach in NBA history or just lucky?
The man who’s become known as the “Zen Master” for tapping Buddhist teachings has been fortunate enough to coach the likes of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant as they grew into dominant superstars, but rounding their games into championship form was a never-ending battle of wills.
In his 2006 memoir, Jackson refers to Kobe as “uncoachable” for his tendency to try to win games as a solo artist. After breaking the late Red Auerbach’s record to stand alone as the first coach to win 10 NBA championships, Jackson paid tribute to Bryant for his maturity as he accepted his very first MVP award.
Jackson recalled a long-ago game in Toronto when Bryant engaged in a one-on-one battle with Vince Carter that “took the Lakers out of their team play”. Shortly after, Bryant told Jackson “I’m ready to be captain right now”, and Jackson replied “but no one is ready to follow you”.
Jackson learned his lessons from the Knicks team he played on, which won the 1973 title, and from his coach, Red Holzman: individual sacrifice for the good of the group. It has been the cornerstone of his coaching philosophy.
When Jackson became head coach in Chicago in 1991, there was an ongoing tug-of-war to get Jordan to sacrifice his game in order for the team to be better. The fight only ended when Jordan acted as a decoy in Game 5 of the 1991 Finals in Los Angeles against the Lakers. He passed the ball again and again in the fourth quarter to John Paxson, the open and hot shooter, whose jumpers clinched the title.
Jackson coaxed an uneasy peace between Jordan and Pippen, found the right role players who could mesh with the superstars. He coddled Dennis Rodman and kicked Lamar Odom in the butt, and got the most out of each.
No one has won as much as a head coach as Jackson, whose dominance of the NBA coaching landscape now approaches two decades, spanning the Michael Jordan-Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant eras.
PHOTO: Los Angeles Lakers head coach Phil Jackson wears a hat made by his kids to signify his record breaking 10th NBA Championship after his team defeated the Orlando Magic in Game 5 of their NBA Finals basketball game in Orlando, Florida, June 14, 2009. REUTERS/Jeff Haynes