No doubt, Jackson one-of-a-kind coach

Players bought into his team-first philosophy, which led to 11 titles

May 10, 2011|By K.C. Johnson, Tribune newspapers

Jerry Krause never will forget the first time he met Phil Jackson.

"I went out to North Dakota to scout him (for the Baltimore Bullets) in 1967," Krause, the former Bulls general manager, said in a phone interview. "And (his coach) Bill Fitch says, 'This kid can do something nobody else can.' I said, 'What's that?' He introduces me to Phil and we walk outside the back of the arena and there's an old, four-door Ford sitting there.

"And Fitch says, 'Phil, show Mr. Krause what you can do with that car.' So Phil sits in the back seat and opens all four doors with both arms. He had the longest arms I had seen in my life. And Fitch was right: Phil could do something that nobody else can do."

Jackson, who plans to follow through on plans to retire after an unparalleled coaching career, opened championship windows as easily as car doors.

While nobody would've predicted Jackson's career would end with four straight losses to the Mavericks, he will exit as the most decorated coach in NBA history. He won six championships with the Bulls after Krause hired him out of the Continental Basketball Association and five more with the Lakers, surpassing legendary Celtics boss Red Auerbach by two titles.

His regular-season and postseason winning percentages of .704 and .688 are all-time bests. And he took 20 straight teams to the playoffs, winning 1,155 regular- and 229 postseason games along the way.

"He's a great coach," Krause said. "He had the ability to handle Michael (Jordan). He handles stars extremely well. … It's not easy to coach great players. But he has the ability to make stars believe in his philosophy."

This philosophy, which included incorporating Tex Winter's famed triangle offense into the NBA, centered on teamwork and selflessness. It earned Jackson the nickname of "Zen Master," a reputation he furthered by handing out motivational books on road trips and using unconventional tactics such as meditation at practice.

"Phil had a unique way of bringing a group together, getting everyone to believe in the team concept and buy into roles that made you feel your contribution was important whether you were the best player or one who rarely played," said John Paxson, who played on three Bulls championship teams and is the team's executive vice president of basketball operations. "His belief in the team being greater than any one individual was always his most passionate."

Along these lines, Jackson often sat idly, a wry grin on his face, refusing to call timeout in times of duress.

"He always used to say, 'If I have to make the timeouts and corrections so regularly that they come to depend on me totally, then they haven't grown up. And I haven't given them a chance to do so,'" recalled Johnny Bach, his longtime assistant. "He does leave a team alone in times of crisis with the assurance that it's good for them to solve the problems themselves. And it has always worked for him.

"I have seen players grow up under him. I wouldn't want (Ron) Artest on my team. I probably couldn't handle it. He can. He could handle (Dennis) Rodman. He can handle that cantankerous, difficult guy."

Randy Brown, another former player, said this skill came from Jackson's consistency.

"He treated us all the same, like professionals," Brown said. "And that made you want to play for him. He's firm and fair, a great teacher and motivator. He knew how to push your buttons — and when they needed to be pushed. He was a great communicator — and did that with silence sometimes."

Jackson's philosophical bent caused some to overlook his deep-seated competitiveness, a trait that manifested itself in the Lakers' loss to the Mavericks, during which he challenged several players and poked Pau Gasol in the chest.

"Phil has taken cheap shots over the years for sitting quietly on the sideline," Paxson said. "Those who criticize never saw him teach in practice, a sacred place to him. The games were for players to take what they had learned and execute under pressure. Phil was always an excellent teacher of fundamentals and gave us belief we could rely on those under duress."

Paxson said Jackson handled his own duress with an even-keeled demeanor.

"He was never too high or too low, and that was a great comfort as a player," Paxson said. "I also always appreciated his ability to talk on so many different subjects with you. Phil had a knack for seeing the gray areas in situations. Most of us see black and white, but he saw subtle things in life and basketball. It's why he was such a great coach."

Jackson always blazed his own trail, carving a Hall of Fame career out of independent thinking.

"Right after we hired him, I told him, 'This is a championship team. So you gotta win now. Because if you don't win now, both of our asses are probably gone — but yours for sure,'" Krause said, laughing. "And son of a gun if he didn't win it quick.

"We had a good relationship for a long time. He was easy to work with until a few years before he left. There was an ugly contract negotiation. But give this to his credit: Basketball-wise, he was not hard to work with ever."

That's what winning multiple titles can do.

"He put himself ahead of Red Auerbach," Bach said. "I never thought in my lifetime I would see that. He belongs in the cathedral. He went to the top of coaching."

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