This was not how you expected to see Phil Jackson walking away from the NBA.
After a series where he could not get his players to buy into the system, to make the extra defensive rotation, to play at their peak, then to watch the players unravel at the end and take cheap shots. You could sense his desperation in Game 3 when he went to an Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom front line — a lineup he had used for 2:19 all season long — and stood there hitting Gasol in the chest. All in vain.
Except it sort of is how we knew Jackson would leave, with a wry smile on his face and making a joke regardless of the outcome.
“All my hopes and aspirations are this is the final game I’ll coach,” Jackson said after the game. “It has been a wonderful run. I go out with a sour note after having been fined $35,000 this morning by the league. So that’s not fun and having the feeling I’m being chased down the freeway by them. As Richard Nixon says, he won’t be able to kick this guy around anymore.”
In a couple of days, even Lakers fans will calm down and Jackson will be remembered as the best of the modern era. A guy with 11 rings over two different teams, who had great players but got them to be great teammates. A guy who revolutionized coaching.
Largely because he approached coaching more like parenting. The goal was to raise an independent team that could go out on its own in the playoffs and deal with the pressures the game and opponents threw at them. That’s why the no timeouts during games. Why the calmness on the bench during games, even when his team stunk. He, like legendary college coach John Wooden, wanted to do his coaching during practices then let the players play during games.
“He was the white version of my father,” Shaquille O’Neal once said (from Alan Ross’ book Lakers Glory). “I do something spectacular, he sits there and says ‘so what?’ He doesn’t let me lose my focus. He stays on me all the time. That’s what I like. It’s what I need.”
That was Jackson’s gift — understanding players. Even Dennis Rodman. He treated each player differently, yelling at some while more gently prodding others. Just like no two children are alike and need different discipline to help them grow, so does each player on a team. Jackson got that in a way few other coaches do.
“He allowed you to have input,” former player and now Jackson lead assistant Brian Shaw said one. “I liked that about him. With some coaches it’s like, ‘I’m the coach, I’m the one with the power.’”
All that helped get players to buy into a selfless system. In the middle of the 1990s and the height of isolation basketball, the Bulls were running Tex Winter’s triangle offense, which demanded selflessness. It’s a system that is hard to learn not because of the cuts or motions, but because it is a “read and react offense.” Like an NFL offense, it’s designed to have different actions depending on where the blitz is coming from. It takes time to learn to read then make the right play, it takes time for a team to get in synch with that. It’s a thinking man’s offense when run right.
Jackson was able to get the supposedly impossible to handle modern player to buy into that. To make plays.
For all the talk of Zen and the chants in the locker room (and that did happen, as did group meditation and more) the gift of Jackson is that he got teams to buy into that. To raise his talents.
He was at times arrogant. And condescending. But he was competitive from his time as a Knick, while he honed his skills in the CBA. He figured out what could win and how that was part of who it was, then he passed it on to his players.
And they bought it. Most of the time. Jackson’s last team — and it is his last team, he is not coming back — didn’t, which is why it is odd to see him leave this way, swept out of the second round.
But he still has that smile on his face. And 11 rings.