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The Life

June 14, 2002
The Zen Master
ESPN The Magazine

Phil Jackson has a great scam going, doesn't he? He sits there in serene stupefaction while history repeatedly happens on his watch. He always seems to find himself coaching the greatest players of the era, and what's a guy to do but go ahead and win the championship, year after year?

What do you expect from the guy, an apology?

Phil Jackson
The Zen Master is better than anyone at keeping egos in line.

Jackson's detractors say it's easy to be Chief Sitting Zen when you've got Michael, Shaq and Kobe on your side. They say he needs to make a loser a winner before he can be considered one of the best coaches of all time.

Jackson's most recent title was his ninth, tying him with Red Auerbach and Scotty Bowman for the most among coaches in the four majors. Three times Jackson has won three in a row, which is both cool and coolly symmetrical. And he's always emphasized the importance of his players, both the wondrous and the marginal. He's pretty humble, in a slightly pompous sort of way.

But he can't escape the fact that he's never won a championship with a starting lineup of Bobby Sura, John Crotty, Tony Massenburg, Sam Vincent and Paul Mokeski. Auerbach is just one of the many who have downplayed Jackson's accomplishments, leaning on the old saw about great players making the coach.

Who couldn't win with Jordan, Shaq and Kobe? I don't know, but I know Jackson has. Repeatedly.

Of course, Auerbach muddled along all those years with fringe talents like Bill Russell and John Havlicek. But even beyond that, isn't there something to be said for getting great players to play to their potential? In this age of sports mega-stars, isn't it a monumental achievement to get two great players to put the team ahead of themselves, as Shaq and Kobe have done?

Maybe the establishment's problem is with Jackson, not his roster. Maybe he's perceived as a threat -- he thinks differently, he coaches differently, and he doesn't come across as a basketball lifer. He's got a lot going on, and he's not afraid to share it, and that doesn't fit the template we've created for great coaches.

And he's got great players, too. What's he supposed to do, lose?

This Week's List

Since the hard walls have proven conclusively to be unsafe, we'll go with them until further notice: NASCAR officials have decided that soft walls aren't going up at the New Hampshire Speedway until they are deemed to be as safe as possible.

Even if you think the World Cup is an item on the Home Shopping Network, get some of the flavor indirectly: Read one of the best nonfiction books written in the past 20 years, Among the Thugs, by Bill Buford, a wonderful book that is disgusting, riveting and downright addicting.

Once again, good for Phil Jackson: He has started a preliminary campaign to get Dennis Rodman into the Hall of Fame; despite everything, it's where he belongs.

Just for the heck of it: Bruce Bochte.

Nothing like a little civil obedience to ruin a good night of programming for the Fox News Network: Fans who took to the streets in Los Angeles after the Lakers' wholly unexpected win Wednesday night were, for the most part, well-behaved, by LA standards.

Then again: You would be, too, if the entire LAPD showed up in your backyard wearing as much attitude as ammunition.

Orange is the new black and video games are the new sex: This week the Washington Times had a fine story on how video games have consumed pro and college athletes so much that it affects their performance.

To that end: Texas A&M has banned them on road trips, and good for those Ag folk.

Long live Catfish Hunter! Long live John Candelaria!: On Wednesday, Mark Mulder took us back a few decades by tossing a nine-hit shutout.

It was at the Brewers, yes: But still.

When the more educated voices start being heard, you know there's a problem: Scientific experts believe baseball players when they say they aren't using steroids, because they feel there's a good chance they're using something better and far less detectable.

A good old-fashioned name-calling tirade -- yet another incremental advance for women's sports: Betty Lennox of the Minnesota Lynx was traded Tuesday, upon which she called coach Brian Agler "a liar and a con artist."

Not to take sides, but Agler might want to label this "Exhibit A" in the upcoming slander trial: The game before the trade, Betty was 5 for 22 with nine turnovers.

One thing that would have made the Finals more pleasing: Shaq's delightful grandfather should have been behind the microphone for all four games.

And yes, Kings fans: Your team was undoubtedly second-best.

A fact you can't believe somebody really kept, or looked up, or cared about: Kerry Kittles is the first player to be eliminated from the NBA Finals on his birthday.

Five guys who distinguished themselves by saying, "No, no, I'm fine with that -- you take the shot and I'll help wherever I can": Keith Van Horn, Kittles, Doug Christie, Peja Stojakovic and Chris Webber.

If it's Nets-Timberwolves: My money's on the Wolves in five.

And finally, our advance scout has this rundown of how Roger Clemens will look in the batter's box this weekend: Shin guard, face guard, elbow guard, wrist guard

Tim Keown is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at

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