Happy Birthday, Phil Jackson: The Ultimate Zen Master Highlight Reel
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Jackson is set to celebrate his 68th birthday on Tuesday, Sept. 17, and in the case of the Zen Master, the question comes to mind: What do you do for someone who seemingly has it all?
Outside of the Los Angeles Lakers’ head coaching job, there’s very little you can give to a man who won better than 70 percent of his career games (68.8 percent in the playoffs) and has 11 championship rings to show for it. But that’s why we’re going to flip the switch and reflect on what the all-time great has given us throughout the years.
Jackson is one of the most accomplished people in the history of The Association, and it begins well before he became a head coach.
In 1967, the then-21-year-old was drafted by the New York Knicks. He was never a superstar, but he developed into a significant backup who was highly valued by fans.
During the 1970 Finals, Jackson obtained his first title; albeit from the sidelines. He sat out the year following back surgery, but he would earn another chance to contribute a few seasons down the road.
In 1973, the Knicks returned to the Finals, this time with Jackson on the floor. At 6’8”, the power forward averaged 8.1 points and 4.3 rebounds during the playoffs, and he posted a playoff-career-high 1.1 win shares, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
Jackson retired in 1980 as a member of the then-New Jersey Nets, but while retirement typically signifies the end, Jackson began down a path toward greatness that few will ever follow.
Let the Coaching Begin
Jackson’s time as a player taught him how to make a group of stars work together. Players such as Walt Frazier, Willis Reed and Earl Monroe—among others—helped create those talented Knicks teams, and the big man on the block was one of the glue guys who kept things in order.
Is Phil Jackson the greatest coach in NBA history?
Before transforming into the ever-popular NBA coach we know him as today, Jackson spent time with the Albany Patroons of the Continental Basketball Association. During his stint with the team, he earned Coach of the Year honors once and secured a championship in 1984.
In 1987 he accepted an assistant’s job for the Chicago Bulls, and just two years later he took over as head coach for Doug Collins.
The First Three-Peat
Jackson’s inaugural season saw the Bulls reach the Eastern Conference Championship. They were stopped by a Detroit Pistons team that physically smothered its opponent, and while it was noble to fall to that squad, the Zen Master wasn’t satisfied.
In 1991, Chicago rallied and won 61 games during the regular season. It was utilizing the triangle offense—a set designed to negate defenses that were focused on Michael Jordan—and it made the Finals for the first time in franchise history, taking down the Los Angeles Lakers.
When 1992 came around, the Bulls had made a name for themselves, and once again, nobody would get in their way.
The team won a remarkable 67 games that season, and like the year before, Jordan had taken home the league’s MVP award. If anybody doubted that the 2-guard was the NBA’s most valuable player, he showed what he was capable of in the Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers.
After Jordan scored 35 first-half points in Game 1—including six three-pointers—the team went on to win the series 4-2. Portland had been the best squad out West the past two regular seasons, but not even it could take down the now back-to-back champs.
Jackson’s third championship put him in exclusive company. Scouring the record books, you’ll see that no team had completed a three-peat since the Boston Celtics had won eight straight titles between 1959 and 1966.
Eight in a row is an accomplishment Jackson never saw, but his first three-peat was just the tip of the iceberg of what was yet to come.
The Second Three-Peat
Following the retirement of Jordan, critics had the firepower they needed to claim Jackson’s success was based on star power. The team lost in the Eastern Conference Semifinals two years in a row, and upon Jordan’s return, the team would make its way back to the promised land.
But let’s ask the cynics one simple question: How many teams can win big without superstars? As the game has evolved, megastars have taken over. Every team needs talent, but at the same time, every team needs a leader to help the roster coexist.
During the 1995-96 season, the Bulls proved they had both when they set an NBA record with 72 wins en route to another title.
Jackson and the Bulls followed up their 72-win season with 69 victories in 1996-97. They went 39-2 at home, and that’s with Dennis Rodman missing 11 games to suspension.
The Bulls defeated the Utah Jazz 4-2 in the NBA Finals, which ended up foreshadowing what was to come the next year.
In 1997-98, Chicago entered the playoffs for the last time as a crew led by Jackson, Jordan and Scottie Pippen. It went out in grand fashion, as Jordan’s now-famous series-clinching shot is the last memory we have of the team that dominated the '90s.
The Bulls defeated the Jazz 4-2 for the second year in a row, giving the coach his sixth championship in just eight seasons.
The Third Three-Peat
Following a short-lived retirement in 1998, Jackson was back at it.
Like Jordan before him, the ultra-successful coach temporarily retired, only to make a monstrous comeback. He sat out the 1998-99 season, but by the time the 2000 Finals rolled around, the Zen Master was doing what he did best—winning championships.
Like the Bulls before them, the Los Angeles Lakers had two undisputed stars in Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. Yes, Jackson once again had the perfect blend of star power and role players; but once more, he had what it took to get the eclectic group to jell when it mattered most.
After winning a first title with L.A., the team’s regular-season record fell to just 56 wins in 2000-01. An 11-win drop sounds like a problem on the surface, but a 15-1 record in the postseason put all worries to rest.
In 2002, Jackson won his third straight championship for the third time in his career. Call it a third three-peat if you want, but the reality is this: Jackson’s return to the NBA set him up to win his fourth, fifth and sixth consecutive championships.
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That type of showing is virtually unmatched in NBA history, and it’s the reason we have such fond memories of Mark Madsen to this day.
Two More Just For Fun
In 2004 and 2008, Jackson did the unthinkable: He lost in the NBA Finals. Matchups against the Pistons and Celtics proved to be too much to handle, but as we’d come to expect, the man at the helm wasn’t ready to throw in the towel.
A return to the Finals in 2009 saw the Lakers defeat Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic. More significantly, it saw Jackson pass the legendary Red Auerbach as he became the only coach to win 10 championships.
The following season proved that Jackson only knows how to win in bunches. He exacted his revenge against the Celtics, taking down Boston in an epic seven-game series.
The championship was his 11th total, and his fifth as a Laker—a mark that tied him with John Kundla for the most titles as a member of the franchise.
Jackson has enough accolades to last a lifetime. His 11 championships as a coach more than complement his two as a player, and his Coach of the Year award in 1996 was beyond deserving—and should likely be accompanied by more.
He’s hands-down one of the most accomplished coaches in league history, and yet, there’s a voice in every fan’s head whispering that he might not be done just yet.
Jackson made headlines when Mike Brown was fired after one season in Los Angeles. The former head coach was considered the favorite to earn the job, but Mike D’Antoni was ultimately chosen—not the 11-time champion.
But while the coach will forever be known as a leader on the court, he’s found ways to entertain us in his time off.
11 champ;ipnsikp[ ringhs— Phil Jackson (@PhilJackson11) March 27, 2013
Jackson became an instant favorite in the digital world when he got with the times and joined Twitter. His first tweet had people talking for the wrong reasons, but as it turned out, the man behind the keyboard knew exactly what he was doing.
Whether you’re a fan or not, most reasonable basketball minds recognize Jackson for his importance to the game.
If his career proves to be over, as he’s indicated it is, according to Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times, what a ride it was. His accomplishments speak for themselves, and the Zen-like nature in which he approached each challenge is just as intriguing as the final results.
That said, if someday we’re fortunate enough to see him back on the sidelines, the rest of the league had better watch out.
Throughout his time in the NBA, Jackson has had his cake, and it's safe to say he's eaten it too. On his 68th birthday, that fact should be no different.
We may not know what comes next for the Zen Master, but at this stage in the game, we'll let him blow out his candles in peace, waiting to see what the next chapter holds.
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