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Tuesday, June 3, 2008
Coaching comparison: Red vs. Phil

By Bruno Altieri
ESPNdeportes.com

BUENOS AIRES -- The NBA archives have many legendary pages. Dusting off those old books and reviving its most celebrated stories brings out memories from the long, forgotten past.

Today we remember those who were --to many observers -- the two greatest coaches in American basketball: Arnold Jacob "Red" Auerbach and Phil Jackson.

Auerbach and Jackson were successful in two different eras. During the 1950s and 1960s Auerbach made the Celtics one of the most winning franchises in the league's history, first as coach and then as president. Meanwhile, in the 1990s when the NBA was becoming a marketing machine because of satellite TV, Jackson dominated with the Bulls and then later took the Lakers to championship glory.

Step by step, we will now compare several dimensions of both coaches:

Phil Jackson
The "Zen master" has been a dominant coach wherever he's gone.
1. Personality:

The arrogant image projected by Auerbach, embodied by the courtside ceremony of lighting a cigar after each victory in the Celtics' dynasty years, turned him into one of the iconic figures of the league. But the truth is that this perception of arrogance was just a facade. His players loved him and accepted everyone of his requests without complaints because of his overwhelming personality.

"Red Auerbach convinced his players to always love him," said Earl Lloyd, the first African-American player in the NBA. "All they wanted was to please him."

Auerbach might have been loved and hated, but nobody remained indifferent in his presence. It was usual to see him arguing heatedly with fans and even with other coaches and managers, incurring in actions that made him famous for his fines and suspensions. But beyond his emotional side, which undoubtedly was his trademark, his most notorious feature as coach was his mastery for strategy and the psychological control he executed over his players.

Loyalty was his most outstanding value. He kept many of the same players until the twilight of their careers, and perhaps for the same reason he never left the Celtics since his arrival after a stint with the Washington Capitals.

RED'S GREATNESS

Bailey Howell anecdote on Red Auerbach.

"One night, during a severe snow storm in Boston, (player-coach Bill) Russell was unable to make it to the stadium. Then, Red became the substitute coach for the night.

"A few minutes into the game, I failed a couple of consecutive shots that I would normally score. My head was playing games with me.

"Red asked for a timeout and said, 'Howell, forget those missed shots. I am the one who has to worry about your shots. You need to remember that if you have shots like those from here on and you don't take them, then you'll be sitting in the bench next to me.'

"I went out and started asking for the ball, I thought I was hot and that's how the ball started to go in. He was a true master in the art of driving people, a master of sports psychology."

--Ken Shouler, ESPN.com.

On the other side, Jackson has always been, in his own way, a psychological trainer. Known as the "Zen master" for his ability to get into the minds of his players. His influence of oriental philosophy comes from his devotion to the book titled "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," by Robert Pirsig. Jackson has also managed to apply to his players spiritual techniques of Native American tribes, as indicated in his book "Sacred Hoops."

Jackson had his share of controversial motivational sessions though. One extreme session took place in the 2000 playoffs against the Sacramento Kings, when he compared, through the use of pictures in the dressing room, a tattooed Edward Norton from the film "American History X," with Jason Williams and coach Rick Adelman with Adolph Hitler. Adelman said Jackson had "crossed the line" with those references, but nevertheless, the Lakers made it to the Finals and won the championship that season.

Determination, focus and confidence were the qualities that took Jackson to the top as a coach. He never told his players exactly what to do, instead, he gave them the chance to learn and solve issues on their own. Although his behavior has been catalogued by many as "eccentric" -- that is, due to several questionable attitudes -- he has not been known as an end of the road coach.

2. Strategy:

Auerbach, between the 1950s and 1960s, revolutionized several aspects of basketball. His first contribution was to apply a system of team play that many coaches copied in the following years through the concept of the sixth man. He wanted to employ a key replacement player for those occasions in which his rivals were wearing out. Offensively, he established the fast break and counter attacking techniques for those occasions in which the balance of the rival was not adequate. On defense he developed what we know today as the 'face to face' in man-to-man guarding tactics.

On the sidelines he was quite a character. He would continuously wave his arms, jump up and down and pull his hair. And that's how he endured more fines than any other coach in the league's history. He was a radical innovator. His recipe for the game was improved as the years rolled by with an optimum physical conditioning job, a work ethic that had only progress in mind, a winning mentality and a rigid discipline.

Perhaps one of the most revolutionary aspects of his game might have been the pressure he applied on his rival, rotating 10 to 12 men every game in order to wear his opponents out. He took this concept from the team work that Old Red always preached under the roof of the mythical Boston Garden.

Red Auerbach
Red Auerbach was the father of the fast break.

Instead of building the team around an outstanding player, Auerbach focused on putting together a team that worked as a whole unit, with the idea that a single sporadic absence would not break the nucleus. It was clear that Bill Russell was the main component of his teams (in which he won 11 out of 13 championships he started, a record that no one has been able to match), but he also counted on stars such as point guard Bob Cousy, shooting guards Bill Sharman, Tom Heinsohn, Sam Jones and defensive specialist K.C. Jones, among others. In all, he coached a total of 11 Hall of Famers.

Auerbach was the model and guidance for the young coaches making their way up in the NBA. Jackson took many of his concepts and used them in his own teams. But Jackson always had star-studded teams. In Chicago he had Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, in Los Angeles he first coached Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, followed currently by Kobe and Pau Gasol. Perhaps the greatest virtue that the Zen master has is his ability to turn superstars into team players. And although many people have labeled him as an opportunist who arrives to franchises that are already filled with great players, truth is that both the Bulls and the Lakers, in their pre-Jackson eras, were not fine-tuned into championship-caliber teams.

His job, therefore, consisted in putting together teams that could revolve around only one or two fundamental players. Tex Winter, an assistant with the Bulls and one of the designers of Chicago's triangle offense, a move created by Sam Barry in the University of Southern California, had a lot to do with Jackson's success as a coach.

Jackson always had stars, but he always knew how to maximize the potential of everyone of his players. This is a quality Jackson and Auerbach had in common. Jackson emphasized the defensive work of Pippen and Jordan, and offensively, his triangle offense consisted in the constant movement of his players in order to generate a wide variety of passes and shots. Of course, as in every radical change, this took a while to become noticeable. However, once Jackson's style was fully developed, the Bulls became an indestructible force. With the Lakers, it all came down to organizing players and focusing on the team's defense. It was a very talented group, but also very disorganized. The arrival of a man with a talent like Jackson's brought along the success that had been denied to the franchise for quite a long time.

3. Achievements and Results

Auerbach won nine titles as the coach with the Celtics between the 1950s and 1960s -- including eight straight from1959 to 1966 -- and put together the Celtics that went on to win seven more championships between 1970 and 1980. Before arriving to the Celtics, in his debut season in the NBA, he led the Washington Capitols to a 49-11 record in 1946-47, taking the franchise to the semifinals.

He won 938 games to become the winningest coach in NBA history until Lenny Wilkens beat him in 1994-95. His regular-season record was 938-479, and in the playoffs he was 99-69. He reached victory number 1,000 in the NBA with the Celtics on Jan. 12, 1966 against the Los Angeles Lakers. The veteran coach was named Coach of the Year in 1964-65 and he made it into the Hall of Fame in 1968. To honor him, the Celtics retired his jersey with the No. 2 on its back prior to the 1984-85 season.

Among other things, Auerbach recruited players such as Kevin McHale and Robert Parish and Russell to the Celtics, as well as legendary Larry Bird, whom he drafted a year ahead of time in order to make sure he would wear the Boston jersey.

He had a fundamental social influence in American sports too and was an innovator in many senses. He became the first coach to draft an African-American player and the first one in NBA history to have five African-American players starting a game in the same team.

Phil Jackson, on his end, has nine titles as a coach, six with the Bulls and three with the Lakers, with the chance of adding a fourth crown this season with L.A., which would make him the winningest coach in the history of the League with 10 NBA championships.

He coached the Chicago Bulls between 1989 and 1998, and conquered six trophies during two separate consecutive streaks (1990-91, 1991-92 and 1992-93, and then 1995-96, 1996-97 and 1997-98). Later, with the Lakers, he also won three straight titles (1999-2000, 2000-01 and 2001-02).

Jackson, Coach of the Year after the 1995-96 season, leads the NBA in playoff winning percentage. Among his merits there's the ability to coach stars such as Jordan, Bryant and O'Neal, among others. He has a 976-418 regular-season record, with a 70 percent winning percentage. In the playoffs, he is 191-80 for a 70.5 percent winning percentage. In 2007, Jackson was enshrined into the Hall of Fame.

Final Thought

It is impossible to determine who is the greatest coach in the history of the NBA, which is therefore not the purpose of this analysis. These two coaches had many things in common: team work, psychology as the motor of a collective action and of course, the amount of titles that each carries on their shoulders. Red Auerbach died in 2006 at 89 years old and left a legacy that remains with the Celtics. Meanwhile, Phil Jackson is currently coaching the Lakers and has a good chance to reach his 10th title as a coach. The history of the NBA has enough space for these two masters, two coaches who wrote their own story with their talent, sacrifice and hunger for victory.

Bruno Altieri writes for ESPNdeportes.com.