Bull market for Jackson needs Jordan to make sense

May 30, 1999|By John Eisenberg

Phil Jackson has been linked to every NBA head coaching position currently vacant, as well as several in the NHL, pro soccer, the entertainment industry and academia. The Orioles probably will put him on their list of candidates when they finally make a change.

Jackson, who coached the Chicago Bulls to six NBA titles in eight years, is the hottest free-agent coach in sports history. The New Jersey Nets reportedly are offering him a record-setting package of money, vehicles, country club memberships, backstage passes and a harem. (We exaggerate only slightly.) And the poker game hasn't even started yet. Some team will see the Nets' offer and raise it. Who knows how high the stakes might go?

If only Jackson were worth what he's going to make.

No offense intended, of course. Jackson obviously is a fine coach and a clever psychologist, an asset to any franchise. Having Michael Jordan on his team was a huge advantage, but Jackson excelled at organizing and tending a zoo including Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippen and others.

Still. Come on. Do any of these teams now seeking him really believe he made the difference? Do they actually think they'll get a Bulls-like run of titles in return for the riches they're ready to pay?

The ludicrous bidding might almost make sense if Jordan were part of the Jackson package. Come to think of it, maybe that's why the Nets, Knicks and others are so hot for Jackson. They think Jordan might change his mind again and insist on playing for Jackson. But he won't. Not this time.

And without Jordan, Jackson is just another coach.

Maybe he's better than most. But maybe he isn't. Who knows? He's only coached a few games without the greatest player in history on his team, and he had only modest success. Talk about a question mark.

The odds are overwhelming that the team that signs Jackson to a mega-year, mega-million deal will wake up in a year and realize that, oops, they signed the wrong ex-Bull. They're going to be disappointed.

Not that they weren't warned. Look what's happened to the rest of Jordan's Bulls without Jordan. Pippen struggled in Houston and was knocked out in the second round of the playoffs, his reputation badly tarnished. Rodman was such an embarrassment to himself and his team in Los Angeles that he was waived. The various Kerrs, Longleys and Buechlers predictably did nothing. And the Bulls weren't just bad, they were unwatchable.

A kindergartner could spot the trend there.

Let's just say they all benefited mightily from their connection with Jordan.

Jackson benefited, too -- more than anyone else, in fact, except maybe Pippen, who rode Jordan's coattails to a spot on the NBA's list of the 50 greatest players in history.

Jackson didn't do that, but he also rode those coattails hard. His last-second playbook consisted of one play: Get out of Michael's way. His standards of effort and discipline? Didn't need to set them. Jordan did.

On and on we could go. Not that Jackson wasn't a key part of the Bulls' success. But the success never would have happened without Jordan. Jackson couldn't do it himself. He has never won a seven-game playoff series without Jordan. The Bulls were knocked out in the second round when Jordan was off swinging and missing at curveballs.

That's a coach worth $7 million a year?

But Jackson's reputation is still so good that NBA teams are debasing themselves to try to get him on board.

The Knicks secretly contacted Jackson even though they're already paying a coach, Jeff Van Gundy, who happens to have led the team to the Eastern Conference finals. Knicks president Dave Checketts lied to Van Gundy and the press about contacting Jackson, then admitted he'd lied and was swallowed whole in the tabloids. A mess. As if all the aging, dysfunctional Knicks need is a new coach.

The Nets' offer is crazy, but, the Nets being what they are, longtime strays in the NBA's kennel, they had to make an outlandish offer just to keep from getting hung up on. You have to admire their gall, however misguided it might be. If they throw in an ownership stake in the Vince Lombardi Rest Stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, they might have a chance.

The Lakers are out of the running, it seems, having admitted their satisfaction with their current coach, Kurt Rambis. Too bad. That's one team that could use Jackson's ability to juggle egos out of control.

Several other teams have shown at least an interest in Jackson, and others are sure to follow. Everyone wants the Zen Man. But it's all a fool's rush.

Pat Riley, for all he has accomplished in New York and Miami, has never won a title without Magic Johnson. Same goes for Chuck Daly without Isiah Thomas.

Bill Parcells can make a championship difference in the NFL because systems and schemes rule in pro football, but players are the difference-makers in the NBA. A coach can only do so much.

Jackson's record assures that he will get his players to respect him and play for him, which is half the battle, but without Jordan, he's just a high reputation waiting to fall. You can see it coming. Everyone can.

Everyone except the desperate teams seeking a miracle cure for past mistakes.

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