Friday, September 7, 2007
Less has been more on Zen Master's road to Springfield
By J.A. Adande ESPN.com
Phil Jackson enters the Basketball Hall of Fame this weekend, and to understand how he coached his way there, it might help to familiarize yourself with the concept of "antimatter" -- that is, to realize that the opposite of something is still something, not nothing. That way, it makes sense that some of his best coaching moves come from not coaching, that the best way for players to appreciate him is to not play for him.
Phil Jackson has had one heckuva career. Take a look for yourself with our Zen Master timeline.
For a man with such an immense ego, the irony is Jackson has derived so much success by taking himself out of the equation. He realizes coaching isn't about getting the players to do what you want, it's about getting them to want to do what's right. He always put the game above himself, placed his trust in the players more than his ways.
Opposing coaches might wonder why he doesn't make an adjustment while they run the same play successfully against him time after time. Fans get agitated when the other team runs off 10 consecutive points and Jackson steadfastly refuses to call a timeout, sitting as motionless as if he were modeling for a Buddha sculpture.
Jackson always believed that during times of duress, if the players discovered their own solutions they would benefit in the long run. He was right.
What is the essence of coaching? Getting the most out of your players and putting them in position to win. You won't find a coach or manager who did that on a more consistent basis than Phil Jackson.
Jackson's big number is the record nine NBA championships he shares with Red Auerbach, but here's the telltale stat: Only once has Jackson lost a playoff series in which his team had home-court advantage. That means that nearly every time they were supposed to win, they did. A grand record of 35-1 when starting at home. His squads almost always maxed out, even these past two Lakers first-round departures, who traveled just as far as they were built to go.
Sure he's had great players, most notably Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in Chicago and Shaq and Kobe in L.A. But Auerbach coached 10 future Hall of Famers in Boston, so he wasn't exactly doing it with scrubs.
And if the best talent always guaranteed the best results, Marty Schottenheimer would still be coaching the San Diego Chargers. Why didn't the 1991 Portland Trail Blazers or the 2002 Sacramento Kings win championships? Oh, that's right, Rick Adelman was coaching them.
Another sign of Jackson's success: the way his critics keep turning into allies.
Pippen was once so furious at Jackson for calling a final play for Toni Kukoc that he refused to go back in the game with 1.8 seconds remaining. Yet Pippen stayed and flourished under Jackson in Chicago for the next four seasons, and spent later seasons with the Rockets and Trail Blazers yearning to join Jackson in L.A. He eventually worked at the Lakers' training camp as a special assistant.
With the Bulls, Jackson used to pick on Horace Grant. That's one reason Grant took extra pleasure in beating the Bulls after joining the Orlando Magic as a free agent. But where did Grant choose to play the final season of his career? With Jackson and the Lakers.
And then there's Bryant. In 2004 he said he didn't care whether Jackson came back to the Lakers, then said he didn't care for Jackson as a person. These days, reunited after a one-year interlude featuring Rudy Tomjanovich and Frank Hamblen, Bryant calls Jackson "the greatest coach of all time."
Phil and Kobe have learned to see eye-to-eye.
When players see the alternative usually involves more stress and less winning, they realize they're better off with Jackson. That's why these days you'll hear Bryant praise Jackson for "his understanding of the game, his understanding of unit cohesiveness, his patience. I think all of those things, the little intricacies of the game that he's really picked up, that a lot of coaches and players don't really understand, he's mastered. It's separated him from the pack, in my opinion."
Jackson can do X's and O's. But he isn't the best at it. And it's not what he does best. Sometimes less is more.
There's even a success story behind the "1" in that 35-1 playoff record with home court that came in the 2004 NBA Finals, when the Los Angeles Lakers lost to the Detroit Pistons in five games. Given everything else that was going on with that team -- a superstar guard who was facing a sexual assault charge and was clashing with the superstar center who was unhappy because the contract extension he wanted wasn't forthcoming, an injured power forward who was contemplating retirement, a disgruntled point guard who felt lost in the system, not to mention Jackson's own uncertain status beyond the final game -- in retrospect it's a wonder that team even reached the Finals.
The way it got there was typical Jackson. In the conference semifinals against San Antonio, Tony Parker destroyed Gary Payton in the first two games, driving by him at will for easy layups as the Spurs won both. The players, led by Payton, begged Jackson to change their approach. He capitulated. For the rest of the series the Lakers packed in their defense and dared the Spurs to beat them from the outside. While Jackson cringed at every open 3-pointer the Spurs launched, the strategy ultimately paid off as the Lakers won four straight games to move on to the conference finals. How many other coaches would have rigidly stuck with their own plans as the ship slowly sank to the bottom of the ocean?
He has shifted series around with his own ideas before, including hounding Magic Johnson with Pippen in the '91 NBA Finals and moving Shaq to the high post to help the Lakers get back in the 2003 series against the Spurs. But this time it was the players' turn.
That series also showed Jackson's unusual motivational tactics. Down 2-0, he went around the room, brought up all the players with undetermined contract status beyond that season and told them another loss would be the "death knell" for that ballclub as we knew it.
The players talked about how much that realization of their athletic mortality hit home. That little motivational ploy wasn't as celebrated as Jackson's sudden team excursion on the Staten Island Ferry between the first two games of the 1994 Eastern Conference semis, but it got better results (the Bulls lost the next game after their New York Harbor field trip).
We've all heard about Jackson's offbeat methods. The team yoga workouts. The book assignments. The movie clips spliced into video sessions. (Last season's choice was "Hustle and Flow." When asked what message that was supposed to provide, Jackson said: "It's hard out here for a pimp." If you think I'm ever erasing those words in Jackson's voice from my recorder, you're nuts.) It all adds to the Jackson mystique.
"He did it with a different style," Magic Johnson said. "That whole Zen thing. I love him because he never gets too high, he never gets too low."
The goal of Buddhism is nirvana, a state of being that's devoid of wants and fears, the extinction of the individual consciousness. There's that notion of nothing again. For Jackson, it might be more of a means than an end. He might not have reached nirvana, but he has made it to Springfield, Mass. He's the "Seinfeld" of the sidelines, turning the concept of nothing into success.
J.A. Adande joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.