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State of Phil Jackson

I hate the Lakers. Shaq’s monotone voice is almost as bad as his acting career. Kobe tries to imitate Mike in every way (except for his commercials, which—as of recently—thankfully don’t let him talk). I’m just envious of Rick Fox’s marital status. I can’t stand watching the triangle offense. Most of all, I hate the idea of watching Mark Madsen wave a towel and receive a second ring when Patrick Ewing and Charles Barkley will never see one.

But despite all my unbridled anger and rage, I have to sit in wonder when I watch Phil Jackson.

Seeing Phil Jackson go for his third three-peat in as many tries on Wednesday (yesterday) during the NBA finals, trying to tie Red Auerbach for the most NBA championships as a coach, had me shaking my head in amazement. He recently tied Pat Riley’s record for career playoff wins. One should be hard-pressed to find anything to criticize about Jackson’s talents as a coach, and yet there always seems to be controversy surrounding him.

From the outside looking in, NBA fans see Jackson sitting on the bench. He hardly ever leaves his seat, he rarely talks to the referees, he doesn’t call timeouts when the other team is on a run, and he has the same look on his face whether Shaq is pounding the glass or pounding down the Krispy Kremes on the bench. Clearly, he does not share the same coaching style or mentality of other NBA coaches.

There are some critics (most notably Auerbach himself) who look at Jackson and claim he’s a good coach, but say he doesn’t deserve to be considered with the greatest. The argument goes like this: He has ridden two of the most dominant players to ever play the game to—assuming they defeat New Jersey this year—nine championships. He has had the best player to ever play basketball and arguably the most physically dominating player ever. How could he lose? What has Jackson done that those players couldn’t do by themselves?

The bottom line is, that argument is irrelevant. You win with good players. That certainly isn’t a secret. Auerbach had Bill Russell, Bob Cousy and John Havlicek. It’s ridiculous to think that any coach could make a team win a championship with a bunch of bad players. And as far as I know, Jordan was a superstar (although maybe he was still developing) when Jackson took over in Chicago, and Shaq was still 7’1” and 315 pounds when Jackson arrived in Los Angeles. They both got their rings only after he became their coach.

A coach like Larry Brown builds a team up from the bottom, and they develop into a contender, usually just about the time that he leaves. Jackson has never tried to do that. He’s the sort of coach that takes a team over when they’re near the top, not the sort who develops it from infancy. Who’s better? Who cares? They both do something well, which is what they are hired to do. In the long run, greatness is usually measured by championships. No one is going to knock a guy with nine (or more) rings by saying he should have built a team from the ground up.

Considering that Jackson looks to have about as much concern with the outcome of the game as the stock quotes, you have to wonder how his teams wins. There’s the claim that he brings the “attitude of winning” and the fact that he is a master at motivation. Others think that he is able to make players get along and that he places emphasis on team defense. Some argue that he is a master of adaptation and that he helps players understand themselves within basketball with his Zen philosophies.

Jackson likes to combine elements of Eastern, Western and Native American philosophies with his style of coaching in order to help establish a spiritual sense of team. He has been known to lead the Lakers in pregame meditation and visualization exercises in order to mentally prepare them. He made Shaq read Nietzsche. He made Kobe read Corelli’s Mandolin in order to teach him the importance of selflessness. His quirky approach of coaching only seems to add to the debate over whether his untraditional style of motivation is reason for the championships or if it just drops the mantle of responsibility on the shoulders of the team’s megastar.

And then there’s the possibility that he is the devil.

Logically, it’s the only explanation. Before Jackson arrived, the Lakers already had four all-stars in Nick Van Exel, Eddie Jones, Kobe and Shaq, and most of their key role players (notably Derek Fisher and Rick Fox). Despite having a superior team on paper, they couldn’t get by the Utah Jazz in 1998. Granted, Kobe was just coming into his own and Shaq hadn’t developed into the pure shooter that he is now, but no one stepped up.

Under Jackson, you can’t hold them down. Last year Derek Fisher couldn’t miss from three-point range in the playoffs. Robert Horry hits game winning threes all the time and no one can stop Rick Fox from looking pretty—and I don’t mean in the basketball sense. These players never performed as well as they do under the tutelage of Jackson, which can only mean that they have, in fact, sold their souls to Jackson in order to obtain basketball superiority. Or that Jackson’s system makes the whole team better.

When it comes down to it, all the evidence is there. Even though my hatred for the Lakers sometimes deludes me into thinking Phil Jackson is the prince of darkness, even I can recognize what he has done. He made a group of talented ball players the best they could be in nine out of 11 years his coaching career.

—Jan Thomas

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