By Daniel I. Dorfman–
CHICAGO (WSCR) Seemingly every year there is a discussion about an athlete who stayed around one year too long. Willie Mays, Ken Griffey Jr. and Brett Favre are examples that come to mind. The pathetic display on Sunday by the Los Angeles Lakers was perhaps the classic example of a coach staying around one year too long, as Phil Jackson’s career seemingly came to a conclusion.
For the first time in a coaching run that started in 1990, and encompassed an amazing 11 championships and 13 appearances in the NBA Finals, the former Bulls coach saw his team swept out of the playoffs as the Lakers lost their fourth straight to the Dallas Mavericks. If it had just been a series loss, that would have been one thing. But the video that everyone has now seen, spoke for itself. Embarrassing, outrageous, pathetic. All the words apply. Ron Artest getting suspended for clothes-lining J.J. Barea of Dallas in Los Angeles, Jackson shoving Pau Gasol in Game 3 or his being fined $35,000 for criticizing the officiating – leading up to Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum taking Bill Laimbeer-like cheap shots in the fourth quarter as the Lakers were being blown out on Sunday.
Speaking of Laimbeer, how sadly ironic is it that 7,286 days before, on a Memorial Day afternoon in 1991 the Detroit Pistons, in the epitome of classlessness, repeatedly tried to hurt the Jackson-coached Bulls in Detroit’s final game of their two NBA championship stretch. Perhaps the Lakers did not walk off the court in the waning seconds of the game the way the Pistons did that day, but what the Lakers did Sunday wasn’t that far off.
In his post-game press conference, Jackson noted he was reluctant to come back for the 2010-11 season. And after watching the way he and his team performed in this series, it was too bad he didn’t trust his instincts and permanently head to Montana after the Lakers closed out the Celtics in last year’s NBA Finals.
Jackson was never the most cuddly of figures, be it here in Chicago or in Los Angeles. How familiar it was on Sunday to see Jackson stride into the press conference with that same smug demeanor that was tolerated in Chicago because he was winning championships, but was grating nonetheless. He was a great coach and he never let you forget it. Sunday, even though his team had just been trampled by Dallas, an all knowing smile never left his face. Perhaps it was just the relief that the season, and presumably his career, was over. But the arrogance was still there. And any time you paraphrase Richard Nixon, you do so at your own peril. (Jackson used Nixon’s famous line, “You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” Nixon used that line in 1962 after he lost the race for California Governor.)
Of course what happened in this series will be a tiny footnote in Jackson’s career. He will be, and should be, remembered for the 11 championships. Those titles were a byproduct of Jackson’s ability to get Michael Jordan, and later Kobe Bryant to somewhat trust their teammates or to get Kobe and Shaq to play together in the early part of this decade.
Jackson’s detractors will always point out the talent he was given, but that does not diminish his accomplishments. His ability to handle people, the adjustments he made during the course of a series and his calm demeanor should always be lauded.
That being said, what occurred in the series against the Mavericks was that much more distressing. For the most part, Jackson-coached teams always conducted themselves with class. But now there will at least be a career footnote of an ugly final series. Is the asterisk as large by Jackson’s name as it is by Chuck Daly’s, another terrific coach who was embarrassed by his team’s play? Of course not. Daly’s Bad Boy Pistons were always dirty, what happened with Jackson in this series was an aberration.
Basketball historians have already marveled at Jackson’s brilliance. But judging by what happened Sunday in Dallas, it is too bad we didn’t start reflecting on Jackson’s career one year ago.
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Daniel I. Dorfman is a local freelance writer who has written and reported for the New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer and the Boston Globe among many other nationally prominent broadcast, online and print media organizations. He is also a researcher for 670 The Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DanDorfman To read more of Daniel’s blogs click here.