ORLANDO -- Phil Jackson paused before he answered. If you blinked, you might have missed the twinkle in his eye.
"That's a pretty good assessment from a guy who played 15 years or so in the NBA," the Lakers coach said in response to a question from Los Angeles Times columnist T.J. Simers, who had chummed the water by offering a verbatim quote from retired NBA center Alonzo Mourning, who said Jackson is "just showing up" and allowing Kobe Bryant to do all the work.
"Kobe is doing a lot of the work," Jackson said. "I'm just kind of sitting on my chair."
Let's face it. If the Lakers beat the Magic on Sunday and clinch the NBA title, everyone will consider it Kobe's championship, just as everyone considered Jackson's first six titles to be Michael Jordan's and Jackson's next three titles to be Shaquille O'Neal's. Jackson, 63, will pass Red Auerbach for the most coaching titles in NBA history, but history probably won't remember Jackson as a master strategist. History will remember what Auerbach once said of Jackson to current Yahoo! columnist Adrian Wojnarowski. "He's never tried building a team and teaching the fundamentals," said Auerbach, who died in 2006. "When he's gone in there, they've been ready-made for him. It's just a matter of putting his system in there. They don't worry about developing players if they're not good enough. They just go get someone else."
While it's true that Auerbach's nine titles with the Celtics came with him chomping a cigar while he made the personnel decisions, the sentiment sells short the job Jackson has done with the Bulls and Lakers. A coach does not fall butt-backward into 10 titles.
If the Lakers win this series, perhaps we need to stop considering where Jackson belongs in the pantheon of NBA coaches and start considering where he belongs in the pantheon of the great coaches in American sports. He'll have more titles than Vince Lombardi (five), Casey Stengel (seven), Scotty Bowman (nine), Woody Hayes (five) and Pat Summitt (eight). He'll be tied with John Wooden, the man every coach -- regardless of sport -- longs to emulate.
Yes, Jackson had the league's best player on his team for the first nine titles, and depending on which puppet you prefer, he might have the league's best player on his roster for this one. But Auerbach had Bill Russell and Bob Cousy. Lombardi had Bart Starr. Stengel had Mickey Mantle. Every coach who ever got one for the thumb or more had at least one of their sport's best on the roster.
Still, sometimes having the best player isn't enough. Just ask Doug Collins, the man Jackson replaced in Chicago in 1989. Or ask Don Shula, who won an NFL title with the Colts and two Super Bowls in the '70s with the Dolphins but who couldn't win a title with the greatest player he ever coached (Dan Marino).
Jordan almost certainly would have won a title or two without Jackson, but would he have won six? Could the Bulls have gotten past the Pistons or Pat Riley's Knicks for all those years without the Zen Master on the sideline? Shaq and Kobe probably would have won a ring, also, but could they have coexisted long enough to win three?
In today's game, managing egos requires far more talent than designing a halfcourt offense. While Jackson used the Triangle to maximize the success of Jordan and Pippen and O'Neal and Bryant, his greatest achievement might have been convincing some ultracompetitive millionaires to get along and trust one another.
Jackson didn't do it only with on-court instruction. While coaching the Albany Patroons of the CBA in the early '80s, Jackson convinced his players to divide salaries and playing time equally. It was the correct tack for that particular group of players, and the Patroons won the 1984 CBA title. With the Bulls, he once spliced clips from The Wizard of Oz into game film. His first time around with the Lakers, he assigned offseason reading. O'Neal got Siddhartha and Bryant got Captain Corelli's Mandolin.
These tactics don't always work. A few years ago, Jackson gave Lakers forward Luke Walton a book about rock stars who died in plane crashes. Walton cracked his coach's gift and read a few pages. While sitting on a plane. Needless to say, Walton never finished the book, so he never gleaned Jackson's message.
More often than not, however, Jackson's tactics produce the intended result. But because we don't see him stomping up and down the sideline like Bobby Knight, we assume he's letting the wealthiest inmates run the asylum. Jackson has excelled at making us believe he just sits back and allows the stars to take over. Anyone casually observing this year's Finals probably would assume Bryant calls the shots -- or at least changes the plan once he gets out of earshot of Jackson. The Lakers laugh at that assumption.
"It's ridiculous," Walton said. "His whole thing is to put us in position for the players to go out and win the game. He coaches from Day One of training camp. He teaches you how to play, how to read defenses and how to make the appropriate plays. That way, when you get into the game, he doesn't have to be up yelling and screaming all game long."
If the Lakers could just waltz out and out-talent their opponents, Jackson wouldn't have to mix and match lineup combinations so much. He wouldn't have used 12 players during Thursday's Game 4 to try to chip away at Orlando's lead. Certainly, the Lakers have superior talent -- thanks especially to the near-theft of Pau Gasol from the Grizzlies in a move Auerbach would have adored -- but Jackson always seems to know how to make his players click together.
If Jackson wins No. 10, he may not try for No. 11. He has had both hips replaced since 2006, and plantar fasciitis has put a hitch in his step this season."He hasn't said anything about leaving," Lakers forward Lamar Odom said. "But you never know."
Maybe No. 10 is a nice place to call it a career. Certainly, Jackson would have the horses to win No. 11, but he also would face the same pressure he's faced almost every season since he took over the Bulls; anything less than a ring is an abject failure.
Who knows? Maybe through the prism of time, Jackson's championships finally will appear as impressive as they really are. Maybe not. But for as long as this series lasts, watch Jackson every chance you get. He may only be just kind of sitting on his chair, but he's one of the best chair-sitters sports has ever seen.