By J.A. Adande
The true reflection of Phil Jackson’s stature in the NBA coaching hierarchy isn’t that he surpassed Pat Riley for most victories as coach of the Lakers. It’s that he no longer needs to be measured against Riley, the man who provided Jackson’s first target for coaching greatness.
For historical purposes Feb. 3, 2010, marks the date Jackson won his 534th game with the Lakers, one more than Riley. In reality Jackson passed Riley long ago, once their Bull-Knicks battles were left back in the 1990s like Cross Colours and Jackson came within range of Red Auerbach’s nine championships.
We will define Jackson by his overall number of championships much more than his regular-season victories with the Lakers.
But Riley is a part of this journey. Just as sure as Tex Winter was prodding and antagonizing Jackson alongside him on the bench, Riley was the initial figure looming in the distance. Some six and a half years ago Jackson leaned against a wall in the Thomas & Mack Center before a Laker preseason game in Las Vegas and told of the time he watched Riley receiving a coaching award at the NBA meetings in Palm Springs. Jackson was the second-year coach of the Chicago Bulls, when he was known more for his collection of suspenders than rings, and his old college coach Bill Fitch came up to him and told him he would win more championships than Riley, who had already concluded his run of four championships with the Lakers. Jackson couldn’t even fathom it.
“And he said, ‘No, believe me,’” Jackson said. “And right there I had a challenge from one of my mentors.”
“The challenge was to always climb up to that niche that Pat established as coach in the NBA. He established it in many ways: style, salary, winning, the way his teams carried themselves. He was quite an inspiration as a coach.”
Jackson and Riley are much more likely to heap praise on each other than hurl insults as they did during their Eastern Conference battles. Tuesday night Jackson lauded Riley for his ability to coach a completely different style of basketball with the Knicks than he did during the Showtime Laker days.
Jackson stuck with the triangle offense, running it through a shooting guard in Michael Jordan, a center in Shaquille O’Neal, and then a guard again with Kobe Bryant.
Riley made his name and reputation with the Lakers, going from radio analyst to assistant coach to glamorous head coach in just a few years. Jackson came the Lakers ready-made from his triumphs with the Bulls. As Derek Fisher recalled, when Jackson took over the talented but underachieving group, “The pressure was on us as players.”
They won championships his first three years in L.A., maintaining Jackson’s uncanny inclination to follow each championship with two more. Jackson said the key is remembering “it’s a long race. It’s a marathon. If you burn yourself in a 10 or 15 mile mark or a 40- or 50-game mark you’re not going to have much left at the 82 or beyond.”
That crystallizes one of the biggest differences between him and Riley. Riley treated a January trip to Milwaukee like Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Jackson would view it as a learning experience.
Jackson has always been criticized for winning only with great players (as if Auerbach won with a bunch of bums). The irony is that he won his 534th in L.A. virtually without Kobe Bryant, who had an injured ankle that limited him to five points on 2-for-12 shooting.
The Jackson-Bryant relationship has traveled great distances. Bryant was so eager to meet his new coach he came to the Beverly Hills Hilton to introduce him after Jackson’s introductory news conference in 1999. In subsequent years they clashed so much that Jackson wanted to trade him. Now they’ve formed an inseparable bond, a once-unthinkable partnership that Fisher attributes to their shared desire to win. While Kobe can now claim to have a championship without Shaquille O’Neal, he can’t claim one without Phil Jackson. They’re forever linked.
“He’s had a couple of players like that,” Bryant said.
He smiled. Having accepted a commemorative basketball from Jerry West before the game, two days after Bryant surpassed him as the greatest scorer in Laker history, he paused to savor his link to Michael Jordan, the player considered the greatest player in NBA history.
The common bond was Jackson, the new measure of coaching greatness, who now stands all by himself.