By Brad Thompson–
CHICAGO (WSCR) The Lakers uncharacteristic early exit from the playoffs on Sunday was an unlikely end to Phil Jackson’s career. Regardless of whether Jackson appears courtside again, he is the greatest coach in American sports history. Period.
For all the doubters or retractors of Jackson’s greatness, who argue that he won because he was dealt one of the best hands in sports history, I couldn’t disagree more. That said, I’m not arguing for a second that Jackson didn’t have elite players. Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant are two of the best to ever play the game.
Jackson won with great players, not simply because his teams had great players. One thing I know for sure is that you can’t win without good players, but having All-Stars doesn’t guaranteed that you will win. One reason that Jordan, Pippen and Bryant became so dominant was because of Jackson’s tutelage and approach to the game. Hearing Bryant talk about Jackson after the Lakers Game 4 loss speaks volumes.
“I grew up under him,” said Bryant. “The way I approach things, the way I think about things, not only basketball, but in life in general, a lot of it comes from him because I’ve been around him so much,” Bryant said. Jackson molded two of the leagues best, both on and off the court. He was able to get the most out of them, while incorporating their individual style of play into a team concept.
Jackson’s finest quality was his tremendous ability to manager people and personalities. In today’s NBA, with huge egos everywhere, is there a more important quality a coach can have? He has the unique ability to stroke, massage and manipulate some of the NBA’s most prolific egos in just the right way. Besides the obvious two, Jordan and Bryant, think of the dynamic personalities that Jackson won with during his 20 year career in the association – Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O’Neal, Dennis Rodman and Ron Artest just to name a few.
The critics of Jackson say that his superstars were primarily responsible for his championships. There’s no doubt that the combinations of Jordan and Pippen and O’Neal and Bryant led to rings, but don’t underestimate Jackson’s impact. He orchestrated and was the conductor of those title-winning teams.
Jackson tops a list of outstanding coaches that includes Red Auerbach, John Wooden and Vince Lombardi among others. Each of these highly successful coaches had teams that were full of phenomenal players. Lombardi’s Green Bay teams were stocked with Hall of Famers. The Wizard of Westwood had two of the best college basketball players of all-time, in Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton. Red Auerbach’s Celtics championship teams were loaded. Nine of Auerbach’s players were inducted into the Hall of Fame. So it’s not like the other coaching giants that Jackson is compared with didn’t have their share of game-changers.
The Zen Master utilized techniques and strategies that were non-traditional. He remains an interesting man who incorporated unusual methods, such as Eastern philosophy, to motivate and inspire his teams. Jackson was a master of psychology and his smug smile personified the feeling that he was always in control. Jackson constantly manipulated the officials and press to his advantage. He played mind games with opposing players and coaches. And, most importantly, he won.
The numbers put him in the most rarefied of air. Jackson won 11 NBA championships. He ranks first in NBA history in the following categories: championships (11), playoff wins (229), playoff games (333), playoff winning percentage (.668) and regular season winning percentage (.704). Teams coached by Jackson won an incredible 25 consecutive playoff series from 1996-2003. The only profession coach that comes close to Jackson’s numbers is Auerbach. And only five coaches in NBA history have won more than two championships – Jackson, Auerbach, John Kundla, Pat Riley and Gregg Popovich.
Dallas’ second-round sweep of the Lakers goes down as the only playoff series sweep that a Jackson coached team has ever experienced. It was an unfitting way for the Zen Master to go out.
It could be said that the Lakers and Jackson went out because they didn’t have the star players to continue their championship run. And maybe Jackson is doing what he has always done – leaving because he knows his team doesn’t have the firepower to win a title next season. But just because he’s been smart enough to put himself in positions to be successful doesn’t mean that he isn’t worthy of being called the greatest coach ever. And that’s exactly where he belongs, regardless of who played for him.
Do you agree with Brad? Post your comments below.
Brad M. Thompson, a former college football player and coach, made his return to the Midwest in 2009 after fighting wildfires out West. He earned his master’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and covers the Big Ten Conference and Chicago sports. Follow him on Twitter at @Brad_M_Thompson. Find more of Brad’s blogs here.