Phil Jackson walked away on Sunday with an ironic smile on his face, seemingly placid and content, reminiscent of his comportment in 2004, when he hung it up for the first time, after his Lakers had collapsed like a cheap umbrella and lost the championship series in five games to the Detroit Pistons. If there's one thing we know about Jackson, he can read ... and in both instances he was able to decipher the handwriting on the wall.
We have to assume that this exit is permanent (he swears it is), and so does the 65-year-old Jackson exit having fallen short of his fourth three-peat. Of course, using falling short in conjunction with Jackson's career is just wrong, and not just because he stands 6-foot-8 and seemed taller than that when he was walking with two good hips and two good knees. Jackson won 70 percent of his regular-season games and 69 percent of his playoff games, and there is the small matter of his 11 championship rings. That makes him perforce the most successful coach in NBA history (no objective argument to the contrary is possible), and I would argue that he is also the best. (More on that later.)
Still, Jackson is the obvious starting point for the endless debate about whether great players make great coaches or vice versa. One thing you must understand is how rare it is for an NBA coach to win multiple championships. Twelve coaches have won more than one, but seven of them won "only" two. As I see it, it's possible to have done that without being a great coach, a statement for which I offer up Bill Russell, Tom Heinsohn and K.C. Jones, all of whom won two titles with Celtic teams that included Hall of Fame players. Gregg Popovich (a great coach) won four. John Kundla (I never saw him coach, but he did have some great players with the early Minneapolis Lakers) won five. So did Pat Riley (a great coach). Red Auerbach (a great coach) won nine.
And at the top sits Jackson, high on his ergonomic chair (designed to alleviate the various back and hip problems that began to plague him years ago), the elongated lord of the rings. And if you think you win 11 championships by rolling out the balls and writing "Michael Jordan" and "Kobe Bryant" on a lineup card, stop reading right now.
For a coach who achieved so much, remember that Jackson was rather lightly regarded when Jerry Krause brought him on as a Bulls assistant in 1987. (Two years earlier Jackson had been spurned for the same position, and he always claimed, more than half-seriously, that a feathered hat he wore to the interview offended the sensibilities of then-coach Stan Albeck, who didn't take him seriously.) Jackson's CV was at odds with that of most coaches, who spend summers running stations at camps and diagramming variations on the motion offense. Phil's down time had included experimenting with psychedelics, taking off on long motorcycle trips, reading off-beat fiction and being, well, comfortable in the nude when someone aimed a camera at him. (Let us all give thanks that, say, Auerbach, was never snapped in a similar state.) Jackson was such a maverick that in 1975 he wrote a book called Maverick, rather a guide on how not to have a future in basketball, which included his pronouncement that he would never be an NBA coach because he couldn't deal with the egos.
In early interviews with Jackson, I wondered if I should come armed with tidbits about Eastern mysticism and the like. But though we did talk politics, music and fatherhood from time to time, there was work to be done and basketball topics dominated. He has a great mind for the game, which runs, contrary to what you might think, to the traditional. That explains why he continued to utilize the triangle offense invented by his offensive guru Tex Winter, who began coaching in 1947, when Jackson was 2 years old. That explains why almost any protracted conversation with Jackson got around to Red Holzman, his coach when he was with the New York Knicks, the team that taught him the value of unselfishness and intellect, two qualities he valued on his teams.
When you asked Jackson a basketball question and you needed to get a basketball answer, you got it. I interviewed him a few years about his strategy on drawn-up last-second shots, and he gave me 10 minutes on the philosophy of the throw-in pass. He told me that he once contemplated making a trade (for Toni Kukoc) just to have a reliable throw-in guy.
So much ink has been spilled on the subject of what books Jackson gave his players as inspiration and motivation -- Michael Jordan got Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in the early 90s, for example, and Kobe Bryant got Montana, 1948 a couple years ago -- that one might assume Jackson's practices consisted of guys sitting around on blankets, eating 'smores and exchanging snippets from Rousseau. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jackson's teams practiced hard, practiced well and quite often practiced long. And when you did hear snippets (Jackson, alas, was a closed-practice advocate, as is virtually every NBA coach of recent vintage), it was almost always Jackson's raspy baritone, snapping at his players, urging them to get it right. "Phil has a bark to him" is the way one of his assistants in Chicago, Johnny Bach, used to put it.
True, Jackson was also a master of the psychological, a great motivator of his own team, an artful needler of the opposition, a skillful manipulator of the press. It was part of his shtick and it was important. The most successful NBA coaches are able to impart to their players the idea that they are the masters of their domain, the smartest guy in the room. Auerbach, Riley and Chuck Daly were among the masters of that aspect of the game but none was as good as Jackson, who had been raised by a Pentecostal-preaching father and a street-corner-evangelist mother yet turned into an iconoclast. He knew how to change identities on the fly, be all things to all people.
In recent years, in fact, he has become a bit of a conservative. The last time we had a political discussion he told me how much he respected John McCain and he surprised me with his support for Arizona's immigration law.
Which leads me to wonder ...
While I truly believe he's finished as a coach -- remember that the challenge for coaches who follow is not to catch Jackson; it's to come within shouting distance -- I wonder if he would consider returning as a team president, someone truly in charge. I'd like to see it happen because he still has a lot to give, and he's still the smartest guy in the room.