NBA History: Phil Jackson Leaves Lakers, Legacy of Near-Perfection

Euno LeeCorrespondent IMay 9, 2011

As a coach of the Bulls and Lakers, Phil Jackson never sought to transcend the sports world; instead, he satisfied himself with sitting on top of it.
As a coach of the Bulls and Lakers, Phil Jackson never sought to transcend the sports world; instead, he satisfied himself with sitting on top of it.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

In any sport, the idea of any team winning an NBA Championship, a World Series, a Stanley Cup 11 times in 20 years is ridiculous.  Winning 70 percent of your games (in the NBA, that's averaging 57 wins a season) for the entirety of your career is ludicrous.  In any sport, winning back-to-back-to-back championships is a historic accomplishment; the idea of doing it three separate times, is absurd.

So call Phil Jackson ridiculous, call him ludicrous, call him absurd, but the only thing completely deserving of the three prior adjectives is this statistic alone:

Phil Jackson won NBA Coach of the Year once.  In 1996, when the Chicago Bulls won 72 games en route to his fourth NBA Championship.  

Phil Jackson's genius has been taken for granted; Jerry Krause himself won NBA Executive of the Year twice during Jackson's tenure, and the prevailing sentiment has been (and unfortunately, will be) that Jackson simply inherited great teams; Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in his first six championships, Shaquille O'Neal, Pau Gasol, and Kobe Bryant for his next five.

In this age of information overload, it's amazing how those of us in the sports world tend to take Jackson's accomplishments for granted, whether it's for the reasons stated above, or for the fact that oftentimes, it is difficult to gauge the gravity of history being made while it's still in the making.

If Phil Jackson steps down for good after this game and never returns to coach in the NBA, consider history made.

Even if he steps away for good tonight, Phil Jackson will retire as the greatest coach in the history of American sports.  Phil Jackson's quirks and eccentricities are far too numerous to list here, but the Zen Master found a human dimension with his players that most professional sports coaches the world over can only dream of achieving.

He understood that having the proper tools to succeed (Jordan, Pippen, Kobe, Shaq) were only part of the equation—the next part was drawing out threads of effort, and weaving those efforts and dissonant personalities into a patchwork worthy of a champion.  Phil Jackson inherited talented players; talented players with a multitude of problems.

No man in history has done a better job fooling casual basketball fans into thinking that basketball is a one-man game.  The Jordan Bulls. The Shaq Lakers.  The Kobe Lakers. The truth was, and is, that no single player moves farther than the four around him, and Phil bamboozled us into thinking these players did it by themselves by bringing the best out of each and all of his players.

Phil Jackson found a way to harness the pathological competitiveness of his stars and create an elegant synergy with the other eleven players, and that human aspect was the difference.  Who would have known that the greatest NBA player of all time was one "Michael, who's open?" away from his first NBA Championship?

Let us not forget the historic implications of Phil Jackson's departure.  No one understood the post-modern implications of optimizing individualism within the team dynamic better than the Zen Master.  If we should ever remember anything about him, it shouldn't be that he cared about his players and bought them books, or that he walked away and has a chance of coming back within the next two years to coach the Miami Heat

If we remember something about Jackson, it should be this: in all his years, Phil Jackson cared about winning more than anything else. If Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant were neurotic competitors, Phil Jackson was psychotic enough to transcend and empathize with their competitiveness, and achieve the career, the rings, and the legacy that makes him the greatest leader of any professional sports team, ever.