Phil Jackson: The Lubricating Oil

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Phil Jackson never saw a movie until his senior year in high school. TV? His family didn't own one. Dancing? Not allowed. For a while he thought he'd follow his parents, both Assemblies of God ministers in Montana, into soul saving.

But he ended up playing in the NBA, experimenting with LSD, living in Woodstock, coaching the world's most famous athlete, moving to Los Angeles and dating the boss' daughter -- The Man's daughter? Did I mention she's posed nude for Playboy?

OK, so I may have skipped over a few details.

Zen Schmen

Somewhere in there, Jackson collected more titles than any other NBA coach all the while hearing snide comments from his peers. Arrogant. Egomaniac. Front runner.

An NBA coach read a column I wrote making the case for Jackson as Coach of the Year several seasons ago. He saw me coming toward him down a hallway the same day. His disdain was palpable. I had to be kidding, right? No, I said, I wasn't kidding. Well, then, I simply didn't know what coaching was all about.

Red Auerbach, the legendary Boston Celtics coach and architect, griped that Jackson "picked his spots" as an NBA coach. The shorthand: He had Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in Chicago, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles. Who couldn't win with that?

Auerbach's nine NBA titles -- eight of them consecutively -- was the standard until Jackson won his 10th two seasons ago when the Lakers dispatched Orlando in five games.

Jackson immediately donned a Roman numeral "X" hat. He said his kids gave it to him. Not the classiest move for sure to make it all about himself. Then again, it's not as if he lit a cigar on the bench.

The 11th title for Jackson came just a few weeks ago in a Game 7 squeaker over Red's old team, after which Jackson hopped in his car and drove to Montana to contemplate retirement.

Auerbach, who died in 2006, wasn't so insanely protective of his legacy that he didn't see the value of Jackson's approach. In fact, he allowed that Jackson was a "great coach." What a concession. You mean, Auerbach didn't have a locker room full of Hall of Famers in Boston? He won with inspiration and perspiration?

Old Red simply had more respect for coaches who took on the bigger challenge of molding mediocrity into excellence.

"He never tried building a team and teaching the fundamentals," Auerbach was quoted saying. "When he's gone in there, they've been ready-made for him. It's just a matter of putting his system in there. They don't worry about developing players if they're not good enough. They just go get someone else."

Well, now...Jackson dispelled that notion when he reclaimed a Lakers team that hit the skids in 2004-05 without Jackson and went 34-48. He rehabilitated a team that no longer had Shaquille O'Neal, mending a failed relationship with Kobe Bryant (Bryant called Jackson's triangle offense "boring"; Jackson wrote a book calling Bryant "uncoachable.")

The result? Five years later, the Lakers are back-to-back champs. If Jackson returns, he's in position for his fourth "threepeat."

Reading List

Phil Jackson's attempts to get players to think beyond basketball has led to a tradition. Every year, he goes to the bookstore and buys each player a book to take on the first long trip of the season.

Here's what he handed out to his 2009-2010 Lakers in January:
Ron Artest: "Sacred Hoops" by Phil Jackson.
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Luke Walton: "The Monkey Wrench Gang" by Edward Abbey.
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Pau Gasol: "2666" by Roberto Bolano.
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Sasha Vujacic: "Reservation Blues" by Sherman Alexie.
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Andrew Bynum: "Six Easy Pieces" by Walter Mosley.
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Shannon Brown: "Dreams from My Father" by Barack Obama.
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Kobe Bryant: "Montana 1948" by Larry Watson.
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Derek Fisher: "Soul on Ice" by Eldridge Cleaver.
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Josh Powell: "The Souls of Black Folk" by W.E.B. Du Bois.
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Jordan Farmar: "Makes Me Wanna Holler" by Nathan McCall.
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DJ Mbenga: "Monster: The Autobiography of an LA Gang Member" by Sanyika Shakur.
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Adam Morrison: "Che: A Graphic Biography" by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon.
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Lamar Odom: "The Right Mistake" by Walter Mosley.

(Note: Kobe Bryant says he never reads Jackson's suggestions)

Auerbach's gripe and the grudging applause from other coaches is understandable on some fundamental level, I guess. A coach is as good as his talent. And Jackson always had more talent than most. He's also tweaked egos, challenged convention and won more mind games with players than he lost by a long shot.

Picking his spots? Most of the coaches who found fault with Jackson would've done the same given the opportunity.

Show me a race car driver who opts to prove his greatness by choosing the slow car in the field and I'll show you a guy choking on exhaust fumes as he gets lapped.

It's more accurate to say that the opportunities picked Jackson, rather than the other way around. Who couldn't win with Michael Jordan? Try Doug Collins. Who couldn't win with Shaq and Kobe? Ask Del Harris.

The Man in the Panama Hat

Teams weren't lining up to hire Jackson early in his career after he retired as a player (He won two titles with the Knicks as a gritty, long-armed defender who played hard and smart). The book he wrote in 1975 -- Maverick -- in which he revealed his experimentation with LSD, probably didn't help.

That counter-culture image followed Jackson to his first NBA interview. For the occasion, he wore a Panama hat with a macaw feather. Chicago was looking for an assistant to head coach Stan Albeck. He was, to put it mildly, a casual job seeker.

When Sports Illustrated NBA reporter Jack McCallum wrote about Jackson after the coach's first NBA title with the Bulls, he related how Jackson felt the need to tell Albeck about the legend and meaning of the feather in his hat.

"His eyes glazed over very early in the interview," Jackson told SI.

And, no, he didn't get a second interview.

When his detractors sniff that Jackson never paid his dues, it's a matter of definition. He coached in Puerto Rico during the summers. After his rejection in Chicago, he returned to Albany of the Continental Basketball Association where he won a title while trading in a short commute to live with his family in a holistic community near Woodstock.

It's not too difficult to get the reputation for being "different" in a clubhouse or locker room. If you can knock off a crossword puzzle or two, you're typecast as cerebral. If the puzzle is the New York Times and it's Saturday, you're viewed as a possible consultant for the next Shuttle launch.

(Former Cleveland Indians pitcher Charles Nagy once told me how he got chosen to be the team representative in the player's association. "I made the mistake of wearing glasses to the ball park one day," Nagy said. "They thought I looked smart." He was half kidding. I think.)

Jackson wasn't just a bookworm as a player and coach. He wasn't just curious. In the NBA mindset, his interest in Eastern philosophies pretty much made him a meditating lama compared to those around him. A coach who considers author Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance a spiritual manual is going to be met with a full eye roll if he tries to apply any of that to life in the NBA.

"Like Lubricating Oil"

When Jackson got a second call to interview in Chicago a few seasons after he failed to land the assistant job, GM Jerry Krause told him to lose the Panama hat. He fit the mold better. He got hired as Collins' assistant and took over when the Bulls felt a coaching change was necessary.

Collins believed Jackson campaigned for the job behind his back, even pretending to embrace Tex Winters' triple post "triangle" offense. Maybe he did. But it would've made no sense for Jackson to simply espouse the triangle to get the job. The greatest player in the world, Jordan, didn't especially care for it.

Through gaining trust in Jackson, Jordan came to trust the triangle. Jackson's offense was Winters' offense. His defense was assistant John Bach's defense. But the team? The team was always his in Chicago. It was no different in either of his tours of L.A. though Kobe Bryant put that to the test.

At the time of the Sports Illustrated profile of Jackson, the coach's wife, June, said, "Phil's like lubricating oil. He keeps everything moving."

Not the highest coaching praise perhaps but surely the most accurate.

Living in the Moment

It's well chronicled that Jackson won with Hall of Fame talent like Jordan, Pippen, Shaq and Kobe. (And an All-Star in Pau Gasol).

In winning 11 titles, Jackson massaged egos big and bigger. He reached the straightest of arrows and the oddballs alike (C'mon down, Ron Artest).

Jordan and Bryant, two of the strongest personalities in the game, came to embrace Jackson's ways. All that living in the moment stuff that so many of Jackson's peers thought was bunk? Jordan epitomized it, recognizing how his energy had to fit in the flow and not necessarily steer the action.

Bryant was slower to come around. He may not yet "get" Jackson the way Jordan did. There's no debate, though, that Bryant has become a walking advertisement for what Jackson has always considered his mission when it comes to dealing with players: "to strengthen the muscle of their mind."

Bryant is lobbying for Jackson to return. So is Lakers' guard Derek Fisher who recently told ESPN.com that he can't believe Lakers ownership is even floating the idea of a paycut for Jackson after consecutive titles.

"In terms of my feelings about him: He's remarkable," Fisher said. "It's sad to me when you think about what he's accomplished in his career, that he still always has to deal with these type of scenarios where there's a question of whether or not he's the best person for the job, or he's not really coaching because of the players that he's had.

"He's just a remarkable human being in terms of his approach to managing and coaching the team. I think not even just the Lakers, but the NBA as a whole, would lose a big part of what this game has been about the last 20 years if he's not back. If he's not back, it changes the whole landscape."

Jackson will turn 65 in September. He fought kidney stones and a bad hip last season. He walks like the Tin Man left to rust in a monsoon.

Eleven titles as a coach. Two as a player. How can that be an unlucky number when it's also been his yellowbrick road?

Bud Shaw is a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer who has also written for the Philadelphia Daily News, San Diego Union-Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The National. You can read his Plain Dealer columns at Cleveland.com, and read all his mental_floss articles here.

June 30, 2010 - 9:21am
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