All Right, Fine, Phil Jackson Is One of the Greatest NBA Coaches Ever

The legendary Bulls and Lakers leader's new book finally enlightened me to Jackson's lifelong dedication to the game—and to the logic behind his pop-Zen mumbo-jumbo.
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AP / Chris Carlson

Last week at a signing for his new book, Eleven Rings, The Soul of Success, a fan asked legendary Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson for a prediction in this year's NBA finals. The NBA's "Zen Master" didn't miss a beat: "The San Antonio Spurs will beat the Miami Heat," he said.

Then he added, with typical self-deprecation, "At least, that's what I think." The Spurs beat the Heat 113-77 last night to take a 2-1 lead in the series—so if the momentum continues, he could be right. And who would bet against the NBA Finals prediction of a man who's won 11 Finals titles of his own?

Well, until recently, I might have. Like many basketball fans, particularly those of us on the cynical Eastern seaboard, I'd always had trouble understanding why some people regarded Phil Jackson as one of the greatest coaches—maybe the greatest—in pro basketball history. Red Auerbach, who took the Boston Celtics to nine championships, and Pat Riley, who won four with the LA Lakers and Miami Heat—those guys were coaches: tough, relentless, foul-mouthed (the TV cameras never did close-ups on them when they were angry, but you could still read their lips), old-school fundamentalist disciplinarians.

But Phil Jackson? He was a big cosmic muffin, an air-brained hippie spouting pop-Zen nonsense, who had an ego as big as those of the movie stars sitting courtside at Lakers games.

Or, that's what I thought until I actually read Jackson's book. What should have been evident just from his record was that he knew the game at least as well as any of his rivals, and even if his methods were, let's say, unorthodox, Eleven Rings makes clear that Jackson's unwavering commitment to basketball excellence—and its results—can't be denied.

No megastar basketball coach ever had stranger origins than Phil Jackson. He was born in Deer Lodge, Montana, which scarcely qualified as a town, and grew up in not-much-larger Williston, North Dakota. His parents were Assemblies of God preachers; his dad sermonized on Sunday mornings, and his mother, descended from a long line of Mennonites, took the pulpit in the evening. The Jackson household was so strict that Phil's brother once told a sportswriter that the young Jacksons excelled in sports because it was the only time they could have fun—so Jackson was an all-around athlete, playing football, pitching on the baseball team, and throwing discus in track and field. But basketball was his first love, and he led his team to two state titles. Jackson mentions that he didn't see his first movie until he was in high school—a particularly odd fact coming from the man who would one day coach Hollywood's team. Curiously, he never addresses in Eleven Rings whether the circumstances of his youth led him to Eastern philosophy and the nickname "Zen Master."

Jackson very nearly pursued baseball instead of basketball; several major league scouts worked their way up to North Dakota to watch him play. One of those scouts passed his notes on to a former college baseball coach, Bill Fitch, who was working for the Atlanta Braves. In the spring of 1962, Fitch took a job as head basketball coach at the University of North Dakota and dropped in to watch Jackson play some round ball during his junior year. He decided Phil was good enough to deserve a scholarship.

Jackson succeeded at UND, and the team earned third- and then fourth-place finishes in the NCAA's Division II tournament. He impressed a New York Knicks scout and was chosen as a second-round pick in the 1967 draft. Though never a star in New York, he was a superb defensive player who could do certain things—such as passing—very well. He came away with two championship rings (1970 and 1973). Jackson's ring total as a player and coach are easily an all-time NBA record, and he would have been fully justified in calling his book Thirteen Rings.

When it came to coaching, Jackson paid his dues—maybe more than should have been required. He worked for years in the Continental Basketball League and for National Superior Basketball of Puerto Rico. Though he constantly put out feelers for an NBA job, no one seemed interested. Exactly why isn't clear, but rumors flitted through NBA offices that Jackson partook of banned substances and was, well, a bit flakey. It's easy to see where at least one of those rumors got its start: Visitors to his offices were often greeted with the lilting sounds of the Grateful Dead, and Jackson liberally quotes from Jerry Garcia's lyrics in Eleven Rings.

Still, he got a job as an assistant with the Chicago Bulls in 1987 and within two years, at the age of 44, was named head coach. Over nine seasons, he coached the Bulls through six championships and often made sportswriters chuckle at press conferences by quoting Lao Tze and Sitting Bull, insisting that there was something spiritual about his "triangle offense" (a teamwork strategy perfected by Kansas State coach Tex Winter, which maintains spacing between players, each of whom can pass to any of his four teammates so that the team can react to any move by the defense).

Over the course of his NBA career, Jackson coached some of the biggest names in modern basketball history—and if you're a coach with superstars like Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O'Neal, and Kobe Bryant on your roster, you should, of course, win championships. A few championships, perhaps. But Phil Jackson didn't win a few championships—he won 11. That's more than any NBA coach ever, and his win-loss percentage, .704, is also tops in the game.

Coaches who win more than one title generally have at least one superstars on their teams—and usually have a few. Auerbach had Bill Russell and Bob Cousy, and Riley had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson, and even casual basketball fans would recognize the names of another three or four players in those lineups.

And if there's one thing we ought to know about the modern NBA, it's how toxic team chemistry can become with a high number of superstars on the roster. Jackson's job was to keep all those star players from antagonizing one another and teach them to play as a team instead. Jordan couldn't stand Pippen (who could?), Kobe resented having to share the glory with Shaq—and even earning jewel-encrusted championship rings together couldn't create harmony between them.

A lot of us dismissed him. We should have known better.

But apparently all of those Buddhist sayings, or koans—such as "The soul of success is surrendering to what is," words he repeats in Eleven Rings—really did mean something. What that "something" actually was is harder to discern; as Buddhist author Lafcadio Hearn once put it, "A Zen koan cannot be analyzed, only intuited." Eleven Rings makes a convincing case that Jackson believed in something, though, and even if he couldn't make his players like one another, he made his players believe. And that's what counted. (Not that they all bought into Jackson's ways, of course; Bryant, who was interviewed for Eleven Rings, calls his former coach's style of basketball "boring." But to my knowledge, he hasn't offered to return any of the rings.)

A lot of us dismissed him. We should have known better. A coach doesn't earn repeated successes in professional basketball without a steel-trap mind and a dogged dedication to the game. If his first tenure with the Bulls didn't make a convincing-enough case, his second incarnation with the Lakers, which produced five more championship victories, should have. He has 11 rings, and it shouldn't have taken a book by that title to convince me.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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