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The Zen Master…

Assuming that this was the end – and I generally believe that an athletic lifer has left the sport when they start tossing roses onto his casket – Phil Jackson’s career finished not with a fight, nor with the bells ringing in victory, but with a sad, effeminate whimper.  Whether or not you thought the Lakers were poised to win a title this year, I doubt anyone expected a four game sweep at the hands of the Mavs.  In years past, Kobe’s Lakers would have beaten the Mavs simply by glaring at them prior to tip off.  That was not the case this year.  The resolve of the Lakers was so low, that they allowed an opposing team to shoot 60% in an elimination game.  Worse, they allowed two bench player to shoot 15 of 16 from behind the three point line.  15 of 16.  That’s a pathetic job of closing out from a team that typically demoralizes three point shooters.

The Lakers thought they would beat the Mavs, because they were the two time defending champs and the Mavs were, well, the Mavs, a team known for choking.  Yet, it was the Lakers who choked, who quit, who took to cheap shots, rather than hard play.  And, because of that, a man whose teams had won an NBA record 11 Championships makes the long, slow, walk to the arena’s door; not on top of his sport, but behind the sweep of a broom.

There is no doubt that Jackson leaves the game as an immortal.  He already resides in the Hall of Fame and his mug would certainly be carved into any mountainside discussion of the greatest NBA coaches.  Yet, it might be that he resides all the way at the top of the mountain.  When you are assessing the greatest coach of all-time, you have to put Red Auerbach first, simply because he was so much more than a coach.  Coach, GM, team President, Red was all of those things, but having said that, it’s unfair to penalize the Zen Master because he coached during an era when – generally – coaches coached and GMs GMed.  If we look only at what they did as managers of men on the court, then I think the case for Phil becomes far more pronounced.

In an age of ever encroaching parity, Phil Jackson didn’t just win more titles than any coach in pro-basketball history, he won more than any coach in any sport, ever.  John Wooden won 10 NCAA titles in 12 years, a feat both impressive and unimaginable in today’s NCAA, but 10 is not 11 and Wooden coached in an era, where – frankly – the talent pool of college basketball was not quite as fluid as it is today.  Besides, that’s college athletics: of the pro coaches, Red and Scotty Bowman both won nine titles.  Extremely impressive feats, but two shy of Phil.  Baseball’s best (Joe McCarthy and Casey Stengel) have seven and they both managed the Yankees.  George Halas and Curly Lambeau both won six titles, but that was before there was a big bowl of super… For all of the romantic waxing, sports is a bottom line endeavor and nobody’s bottom line has as many titles on it as Phil’s…

I would pick him as the best because he implemented a system that meshed Jordan’s considerable talents with the rest of the team; because he convinced Shaq that in June you needed to amp it up to a fifth gear (and in exchange allowed Shaq to spend November and December in 1st); because he found a use for Bill Wennington, Will Purdue, Luc Longely and every other 7’0 unathletic white guy who should have been destroyed in the NBA.  I would support his candidacy as the best because when Dennis Rodman was going from culturally queer to iconoclastically irreverent, Phil found a way to keep the Worm in the game; I would pick him as the best simply because he convinced Kobe to pass, and then convinced him again four days later when the Black Mamba forgot; I would pick him as the best because when the greatest player of all-time retired (for the *cough* first time), Phil’s team won 55 games.  Take any team in the NBA, remove their best player and ask them to win 55 games next year.  They wont – and I can assure you that whoever that “best” player is, he isn’t Michael Jeffrey Jordan.

Now, Phil’s detractors will site that iconic name and argue that he won 11 championships because he had the very best players, but you and I both know that’s stupid.  In 39 combined seasons without Phil as their coach, the five best players that the Zen Master led (Michael, Scottie Pippen, Shaq, Kobe, and Pau Gasol) won a combined one title.  ONE.  And that one came with Pat Riley at the helm.  You cannot win in the NBA without great players, but great players do not win in the NBA without a great coach.  Do you know how many different coaches have led their teams to NBA titles over the last 25 years?  Eight.  Twenty-five years, eight men: Jackson, Doc Rivers, Gregg Popovich (4), Pat Riley (5), Larry Brown, Rudy Tomjanovich (2), Chuck Daly (2), and KC Jones (2).  That’s it, that’s the list.  You could argue that Rudy T and Jones were merely good, not great, but I think at that point you’re pretty much splitting hairs.  The rest though are exceptional coaches.  You must be an exceptional coach to win a title in the NBA, you must be a really exceptional coach to win four or five like Pop and Riley, but to win eleven?  That’s phenomenal greatness.

So Phil walks away as perhaps the greatest coach in NBA history.  Of course, as I said at the start, athletic lifers rarely leave until Death’s clammy fingers forces their hand, and Phil, well, for all his talk of Montana, Phil is a lifer.  Basketball is in his blood.  So I for one wont be surprised if a year from now he’s smiling away beside James Dolan, discussing how the Knicks need to bring defensive intensity back to Garden…

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