Before The Last Dance, the last time we paid attention to Phil Jackson was when he was ousted as New York Knicks president three years ago. Was he fired? Did he quit? The official narrative: both sides mutually agreed to part ways. That’s just semantics because this represented a rare failure.
You can’t discuss the history of the NBA without mentioning Jackson. He’s on the league’s Mount Rushmore of coaches along with Red Auerbach, Pat Riley, and Gregg Popovich. Jackson brought out the best in Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, and Pau Gasol. With them, he won 11 NBA championships – six with the Chicago Bulls and five more with the Los Angeles Lakers.
No coach has been more synonymous with winning. Jackson won quickly (NBA title by his second season) and consistently (13 NBA Finals appearances over 20 seasons).
He’s arguably the greatest coach in American sports history. And yet, some people rejoiced at the end of his disastrous three-year stint with New York.
When you frequently win big, you’re going to have detractors. Jackson had his. He was occasionally viewed as a smug and arrogant windbag. He crafted an image as the Zen Master – someone uniquely qualified to mentor the biggest egos (Jordan, O’Neal, Bryant). Others viewed him as an opportunist who had the good fortune of coaching Michael, Shaq, and Kobe in their primes.
Longtime Jackson assistant Tex Winter was the brains behind the triangle offense used by the Bulls and Lakers. Jackson talked about philosophy, spirituality, and Native American mysticism. One of Jackson’s biggest rivals, New York Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy, mockingly called Jackson “Big Chief Triangle.”
So, what do we make of Jackson? Just an extremely lucky guy or a brilliant man? Maybe both. Great coaches need great players. Auerbach had Bill Russell, John Havlicek, and Bob Cousy. Riley had Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Dwyane Wade, and O’Neal. Popovich had David Robinson, Tim Duncan, and Kawhi Leonard.
Before Jackson took over the Chicago Bulls, he was your garden variety NBA assistant. He was best known for being a backup power forward for the Knicks two championship teams of the 1970s. He wasn’t necessarily being groomed for greatness.
But after the Bulls were bounced in the 1989 playoffs by the Detroit Pistons for the second season in a row, management made a coaching change. Doug Collins was fired by general manager Jerry Krause and replaced by Jackson. It surprised many because the Bulls were coming off their first trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. According to The Last Dance, Collins’ refusal to listen to his assistants — in particular Tex Winter — played a role. Collins hitched his success to making maximum use of Jordan. Jackson believed a more democratic approach was the key to winning at the highest level.
It took time — including another heartbreaking playoff loss to the Pistons — but eventually Jordan bought into the philosophy of the triangle offense. He didn’t have to do everything. When Jordan started to trust his teammates more, the game became easier for him.
The Bulls were a different team in 1990-91 when they won their first of six titles. The players were physically stronger and mentally ready – and Jackson deserves credit. To minimize Jackson’s role is to not understand how leadership works.
A coach’s job is to put his players in the best possible position to succeed. Jackson did that job better than anyone else throughout a long career. Of all his triumphs, perhaps the most satisfying was the year that didn’t result in a title: 1993-94, the season following Jordan’s first retirement.
After losing the greatest player in league history Jackson squeezed out 55 victories from that team. (Chicago won 57 the previous year with Jordan). Pippen had his best season, and the Bulls pushed the Knicks to a seven-game series in the Eastern Conference semifinals. That season proved that Jackson was highly cognizant of his players’ strengths, weaknesses, and their personalities.
The NBA is a players’ league. Jackson, a former NBA role player, understood that. His relationship with his players produced the league’s greatest modern dynasty. And his ability to connect with people served him well.
When Krause said that Jackson wouldn’t be back after 1997-98 season, Jordan said he wouldn’t play for another coach. You can’t get a better endorsement.
After leaving the Bulls, Jackson took the lessons he learned in Chicago and brought them to Los Angeles. The Lakers had two difficult personalities (Shaq and Kobe), and Jackson immediately got them to work together. Three more championships. And while O’Neal and Bryant eventually proved to be too combustible even for him, Jackson successfully worked with Kobe and Gasol to get two more titles.
When Jackson retired from coaching in 2011, he decided to forge a new path. He tried to bring his winning ways to the Knicks. But it was a job he was ill-equipped for and had no previous experience doing. It wasn’t a surprise that it was a complete bust.
That failure, however, shouldn’t tarnish his achievements.
Steve Kerr, who played for Jackson with the Bulls, might be his modern-day equivalent. Kerr inherited the talented Golden State Warriors in 2014-15, changed the offense (faster pace, more threes), and immediately turned them into a juggernaut, winning three championships. And like Jackson, sometimes people are reluctant to give Kerr credit because he has coached Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant.
He learned a lot from Jackson.
“It was so much more about people than plays,” Kerr said. “It was so much more about understanding how humans interact than the X’s and O’s. When I got to Chicago, I had never seen anybody deal with a team like that. And have such a deep sense of awareness of what makes people tick, what makes a team tick.”