He is the Alexander Graham Bell of the NBA.
Now, before you go assuming I'm a Phil Jackson fan, let me explain.
There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that says Bell came into the patent office in 1876 lugging his invention, the telephone. He sat down with the device on his lap, waiting for his appointment.
A few minutes later, a gentleman by the name of Elisha Gray came in with his attorney and sat down in the crowded lobby, across from Bell. On his lap was…another telephone.
The two men stared at each other's inventions, then at each other.
And then they called Bell's name.
That part of the story may be a myth. This part is not: Alexander Graham Bell's appointment was earlier than Elisha Gray's. His patent was the fifth filed on that February day. Gray's was the 39th.
Had Gray made his appointment one day previous, it's his name we'd be force fed in grade-school history class.
Bell was a bright man, no question. But there were other bright men. Bell happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Phil Jackson didn't have the telephone. Instead, he had the aforementioned Jordan and Bryant, two of the greatest players of all time, dropped into his coaching lap. Nay, three, when we include Shaquille O'Neal.
As a matter of record, Jackson, who has more NBA jewelry than carpal digits, may be the lord of the rings. But as a coach, I say he's merely the king of being in the right place at the right time.
I say the Phil Jackson effect is nothing more than opportunism.
Let's start with the teams he's coached.
Jackson was preceded as coach of the Chicago Bulls by Doug Collins. The Bulls improved by 10 wins in Collins' first year as head coach. His second year, they improved by 10 more.
In each year, the Bulls got one round further in the playoffs than they had before, first bowing out in the first round, then in the second and finally in the conference finals.
They were on their way up. Moreover, they were not very deep. Their top scorers for Collins' last season were Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Bill Cartwright and Horace Grant. After that, you were looking at guys like Craig Hodges and Sam Vincent.
In other words, Collins was achieving these improvements with an incomplete roster.
A week before before Collins was fired, the Bulls picked thrice in the first round of the NBA draft. Their first two picks, Stacey King and B.J. Armstrong, were sixth and eighth in scoring, respectively, for the team the following year, Jackson's first year.
You think Collins wouldn't have improved on his record with those guys added to the fold?
The way Jackson tells it, Collins, his former boss, had yelled too much at his players, so they were nervous to think for themselves. I admit that Collins is vitriolic and mercurial. But somehow the idea that he was so Mike Rice-like that the team responded like abused children is difficult for me to swallow. After all, they did make the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since...well, since they were in the Western Conference (that's not a misprint).
But in Jackson's account, it was him riding in on a white horse, getting the players to remember how to trust their natural instincts, that made the Chicago Bulls who they were. He would have us believe he was Bagger Vance to a team who'd lost their swing.
Whatev, Phil. I say for some reason, Collins' relationship with Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf had soured, and the notoriously cheap Reinsdorf simply chose an assistant off Colllins' staff to replace him. Which makes you the luckiest duck since Lana Turner chose the Top Hat Cafe on Sunset to grab a Coke.
I say Jordan was going to win multiple championships eventually. I've never seen a player more destined for the Larry O'Brien Trophy than he.
I say the supporting cast had gotten better. And I say had the Bulls kept Collins, they would have just as much bling. And Jackson would have much less.
Because he wouldn't be out just the Chicago rings. He'd be out the LA ones as well. After all, it was Phil's vaunted stature more than anything else that landed him the plum job of coaching Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. And once again, the timing was impeccable.
Del Harris, while not a coach of Collins' stature, had acquitted himself well in stops with the Houston Rockets and Milwaukee Bucks. Moreover, he had guided the Lakers to a 61-win campaign in 1997-98, the last full season before his firing.
Yes, his team was off to a 6-6 start the following year. But it was a strike-shortened season, and every team was struggling to get back into game form after the drastically abbreviated preseason. Had the Lakers brass shown some patience, instead of rushing to fire Harris, there is every reason to believe that the trajectory of the Lakers under him would have mirrored the one it took under Jackson.
But let's say for the sake of argument that there was something Jackson brought to both teams that transformed them, something no one else could provide.
All right then: What was it?
Some say it was mindfulness: the notion of noticing one's thoughts and feelings, rather than being them. It's a concept of which I am a big fan.
Call me crazy, but when I watch MJ's Hall of Fame induction speech, or any press conference Kobe and Shaq ever had, I hear competitiveness, but I don't hear mindfulness.
So what else could Jackson have brought?
What about the vaunted triangle offense? It used to be mentioned so often and in such hushed and reverential tones by broadcasters of Lakers games, one would think they were talking about the lost Ark of the Covenant.
Time to pull the curtain back on the great and powerful wizard and demystify the triangle offense.
The word is it's so complex. Really? The triangle is composed of a center in the low post, a forward at the wing and a guard in the corner. That leaves the remaining two players on the weak side to play their own two-man game. Yes, there's more to it than that, specifically a great deal of motion, but that's the essence in a nutshell.
Put it like this: Even Avril Lavigne wouldn't call that complicated.
Here's what the triangle offense demands: a player on the post who will draw double-teams, and a player who can direct the offense. On Chicago, those players were Jordan and Pippen, respectively. On Los Angeles, they were Shaq and Kobe.
With players like that, nothing's really complicated.
And if the triangle offense were really the key to winning a championship, why isn't anyone else running it? It's been around since the '40s. In all that time, don't you think teams would hire consultants to figure it out if the scheme meant winning it all?
There is one more quality Jackson has been lauded for: his wisdom. Jackson is practically canonized by so many fans and media, to the point that he has the reputation of being a modern-day Siddhartha.
So was it Jackson's wisdom that made the difference?
Well, first you have to point out to me exactly what that wisdom is. I don't know if something's wrong with the audio on my TV set, but whenever I watched a Phil Jackson press conference, he sure comes off less like Siddhartha and more like a petulant whiner. Much more often than not, Phil's pressers were glorified gripe-fests about some aspect of officiating.
It's probably unfair to expect the meaning of life from Jackson. But giving credit to the other team after a loss...I don't know, is that too much to ask from such an alleged sage?
From what I've seen, yeah it is.
A real sage would see himself as he is: a competent and hard-working coach who inherited great teams and rode them to the top.
Jackson has never once taken a bad team and turned it into a good one. He's never even taken a team without two superstars past the second round. He lost in the conference semis both years of MJ's first retirement, and with Kobe as L.A.'s lone superstar, Jackson's Lakers teams won 45 and 42 games. Some might recall that before the Lakers traded for Pau Gasol, Kobe was at the end of his rope with frustration about his team's failures.
Modern-day sports history, though, has been reduced to a bottom-line mentality. As Al Pacino said so presciently in And Justice For All, winning is everything. Regardless of the truth.
What is the truth?
The truth is, if you want Jackson to agree to coach your team, make sure your team is already great (note to the current Lakers: you don't qualify). Otherwise, the Phil Jackson effect will be that he won't take the job.
Come on. And risk being exposed?
Jackson may not be the greatest coach the game has ever seen. But I guarantee you he's smart enough that if he does come back to coaching, it will only be in the right place at the right time. That's Phil's championship formula.
Or said more artfully, that's how you ring a Bell.
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