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.

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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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