Jackson: The best or most fortunate?

Phil Jackson won 11 NBA titles as a coach.
Phil Jackson won 11 NBA titles as a coach.
Posted: May 10, 2011

The most successful head coach or manager in U.S. professional sports history just smiled when someone asked if it was, for sure, no kidding this time, the real end of the road for his career.

"I haven't really answered that, have I?" Phil Jackson said. And then, in his typical and somewhat maddening manner, he answered it and he didn't.

"All my hopes and aspirations are this is the final game that I'll coach," Jackson said, as if someone with a machete will show up at his Montana doorstep one day and lead him back to an NBA arena and force him to coach again.

After winning 11 NBA championships as a coach, what is there left to prove, other than that you could perhaps win 12 if you hung around and directed another very talented team? The numbers ceased to mean anything a long time ago, and Jackson's legacy is unshakable.

He would have preferred a better exit than the one that arrived on Sunday as the Lakers were swept out of the conference semifinals by the Dallas Mavericks. After 20 seasons as an NBA head coach, his last coaching move was a timeout with less than three minutes remaining in a game his team would lose by 36 points. He used that opportunity to remove the players who didn't deserve to endure the ending and then he sat back, folded his arms, and let the rest of it go by.

The question will be asked whether Jackson really was the best coach in any sport, or merely the most fortunate. The list of coaches who could have won championships with Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant is probably not a short one. The list of those who would have won 11 of them, however, in the span of 20 seasons, isn't quite as long. Somewhere along the way, Jackson did more than roll out the ball and watch them play.

In his nine seasons with the Bulls and his 11 seasons with the Lakers, none of Jackson's teams ever had a losing record, and 17 of the 20 teams won at least 50 games. Those are remarkable numbers and, for some, will add further weight to the notion that Jackson was blessed with push-button rosters. It's one thing, however, to have the fastest car on the track, and it's another to maneuver it through traffic and actually get the win. No one has ever been better at that than Jackson.

Most remarkable is that Jackson was not some coaching prodigy whom everyone knew would craft a Hall of Fame career. He was viewed as kind of a loopy hippie from North Dakota after his playing days with the Knicks and Nets were finished. He wanted to coach, but the NBA wasn't ready to hire someone whose favorite book was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainance, and who studied American Indian religions and rites.

He coached in the Continental Basketball Association and in the Puerto Rican professional leagues - and all he did was win - and finally Chicago GM Jerry Krause hired him as an assistant to head coach Doug Collins. When the Bulls lost in the 1989 conference finals to Detroit and were chafing under Collins' hyperactive style, Jackson got the head coaching job, but no one knew if that move was going to work.

Jackson didn't change his methods for anyone. He gave the players books to read that he selected specifically for each one, and he held team meetings that were more like encounter sessions, and he talked a lot about collective energy and positive will. If the players rolled their eyes on occasion - and they most definitely did - they still stayed with him.

As a coach, Jackson was a defensive genius, and it didn't hurt that he had some of the greatest defensive players of all time on his teams. He was secure enough to adopt an obscure offensive system - the triangle offense of coach Tex Winters - as his base offense, and to allow the credit for success to be spread around.

He limps away now at 65, a standard retirement age, dragging his arthritic hips and fused spine. Jackson doesn't figure to slide into the TV analyst role. More likely, he'll go home to Montana and disappear for a while. Maybe quite a while.

"The Lakers are going to survive," he said on the way out the door, and that was a deadpan acknowledgement that the elite usually remain elite no matter who is pushing the buttons.

The best guess in Los Angeles is that assistant coach Brian Shaw, who has the prerequisite good relationship with Bryant, will succeed Jackson. Good luck with that. It didn't work out very well for Tim Floyd in Chicago.

Following a legend is difficult, almost as difficult as becoming one. Phil Jackson always made it look easy, though, as if what will happen is what is supposed to happen and we should all just make peace with that. It was either Buddha or Red Holzman who said that first.

But winning 11 championships in 20 seasons isn't supposed to happen. Jackson had to make it happen and he did. He takes his leave wearing the same inscrutable smile, and he might just be the best ever, even if after all these years it's still difficult to say exactly why.

Bob Ford: Coaching Champions

The 12 coaches in NBA history who have won at least two titles:

11       Phil Jackson

Chicago Bulls (1990-91, 1991-92, 1992-93, 1995-96, 1996-97, 1997-98); Los Angeles Lakers (1999-2000, 2000-01, 2001-02, 2008-09, 2009-10)

9       Red Auerbach

Boston Celtics (1956-57, 1958-59, 1959-60, 1960-61, 1961-62, 1962-63 1963-64, 1964-65, 1965-66)

5       Pat Riley

Los Angeles Lakers (1981-82, 1984-85, 1986-87 1987-88); Miami Heat (2005-06)

5       John Kundla

Minneapolis Lakers (1948-49, 1949-50, 1951-52, 1952-53, 1953-54)

4       Gregg Popovich

San Antonio Spurs (1998-99, 2002-03, 2004-05, 2006-07)

2       Bill Russell

Boston Celtics (1967-68, 1968-69)

2       Red Holzman

New York Knicks (1969-70, 1972-73)

2       Tom Heinsohn

Boston Celtics (1973-74, 1975-76)

2       K.C. Jones

Boston Celtics (1983-84, 1985-86)

2       Chuck Daly

Detroit Pistons (1988-89, 1989-90)

2       Rudy Tomjanovich

Houston Rockets (1993-94, 1994-95)

2       Alex Hannum

St. Louis Hawks (1957-58); 76ERS (1966-67)

Contact columnist Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com and read his blog at http://


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