When Phil Jackson left the life as an assistant coach in the National Basketball Association for a head coaching job with the Albany Patroons in 1982, he knew there were no guarantees that he'd ever get back to the big time.
But after five years and one Continental Basketball Association championship, Jackson thought his coaching career had hit a dead end. He had gone so far as to quit the Patroons and take a test to see what other professional interests and proficiencies he might have.
The answers showed that Jackson should go back to school for a graduate degree in counseling or law. Nowhere did it say that he should wait forever for a chance to coach in a league in which he had played for 13 seasons.
"I had just gone to file for unemployment," said Jackson, 45. "I hadn't gotten an assistant coaching job with the Knicks with [Rick] Pitino. I had made up my mind that I couldn't go back to the CBA. There are certain limits of productivity that you reach. It was time to get on with a career. I was trying to find something that would inspire me."
Jackson, though, couldn't get the game out of his system, so he called Chicago Bulls general manager Jerry Krause to ask if any scouting assignments were available. Krause, who had interviewed Jackson for an assistant's job, told him that any move would be done within the Bulls' organization. The next week, assistant Gene Littles left for Charlotte and Jackson was hired.
He spent two years under Doug Collins, who coached the Bulls to their first Eastern Conference final in 1989 before getting fired because of a personality conflict with Krause. Krause thought that his relatively young team needed a more steadying influence, a coach who spent as much time teaching as coaching.
Jackson, whose philosophies about the game were derived from playing under Red Holzman with some of the great New York Knicks teams in the early 1970s, has proven to be the proper choice. The Bulls went 55-27 in his first season, losing in seven games to the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference final. Chicago set a team record with 61 victories this season.
"If Phil isn't Coach of the Year, there shouldn't be a vote," Krause said.
Few of his players have watched tape from Jackson's playing days. Known as "The Human Coat Hanger" because of his wide shoulders, Jackson, 6 feet 9, had an unorthodox style. "Very interesting," said Bulls forward Horace Grant, who has seen films from Jackson's career.
Those who have watched Jackson in his first two seasons in Chicago see a lot of similarities to Holzman, who turned the Knicks from doormats to dominant in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when New York won two world championships.
It was during Jackson's second season with the Knicks, which he spent recovering from back surgery, that he first began to think about coaching. Holzman, a master at pulling individual talents together in a team concept, was a perfect role model.
"We verbalized most of our game. It was a concept type of thing rather than drawing plays on the board," said Jackson, who spent 11 seasons with the Knicks. "We really deal in concepts with this team."
Like those Knicks teams, Chicago's success is built about its defense, which finished behind Detroit and Los Angeles in points allowed (101 a game) but led the league in scoring margin (nine points a game).
Jackson has proved to be as good a listener as a teacher. When the Bulls were struggling to find an offense that consisted of more than Michael Jordan going one-on-one, Jackson turned to assistant coach Tex Winter, whose triple-post set has helped give Jordan and Scottie Pippen more room to operate.
"A lot of young guys wouldn't have used something that old," said Winter, who used the offense at Kansas State during the 1950s and wrote a book on the subject back in 1961. "But Phil sees the game a lot differently."
That vision extends past the court. Earlier this season, he suggested books for his players to read on the road. But that doesn't mean he is afraid to show who's boss, as he did to Grant and veteran center Bill Cartwright during the Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Philadelphia 76ers.
When Grant was getting pushed around by Armon Gilliam during Game 3 -- Philadelphia's only victory -- Jackson said something that made the player call for a one-on-one meeting the following day. Grant scored 21 points and pulled down 11 rebounds in Game 4. In that game, Jackson went jaw-to-jaw with his starting center after Cartwright nearly got thrown out for going after an official.
But mostly, his feel for the game comes from his years as a player. After the Bulls lost their only playoff game to the 76ers and Jordan limped out with a tender left knee, Jackson called off practice the next day.
"He's got a real relaxed attitude, but he's not afraid to point out to anyone on this team if they've made a mistake," Jordan said. "He knows how important it is for us to spread the wealth on offense, to get everyone involved. He's a real player's coach."
What kind of lawyer Jackson would have made, we'll probably never know.