So I still haven’t forgiven ESPN for dedicating Phil Jackson’s retirement column to Bill Simmons, who somehow transformed a supposedly endearing article about the NBA’s greatest coach to an embarrassingly forced discussion of how Jordan is superior to Kobe in every facet.
But because I don’t share Simmons’ ridiculous pathological disdain for any of Phil Jackson’s players that would destroy my “tribute” to him, I now feel compelled to pay homage to Coach Phil by describing his impact to basketball, Los Angeles, and my personal development. I will focus on his tenure in LA because, as Laker fan, I learned the most about him during this time.
The Off-Season of 1999: The beginning
By 1997, Jerry West had constructed a team with explosive talent and potential. West had drafted Kobe and Fisher a year earlier while adding Shaq to the team at the same time through free agency. Additionally in 1998, the Lakers had 4 all-stars on their roster, which included Shaq, Kobe, Nick Van Exel, and Eddie Jones.
But the team lacked discipline on defense and had a consistent fourth quarter offense involving Shaq receiving an entry pass into a double or triple-team and everyone else just standing around the three point line watching. The Lakers lost 4-1 and 4-0 to Utah in 1997 and 1998 and 4-0 to San Antonio in the strike-shortened 1999 season because of this.
However, Jerry West and Jerry Buss then hired Phil, and everything changed.
Phil first sought Ron Harper to help institute his triangle offense. He needed a PG that could handle egos and attitudes and could help develop Kobe into a better teammate. The Lakers were conditioned better than ever during the off-season and had bought into an offense that had off-the-ball motion on every possession.
2000-2002: The Blossoming
These three years were shining examples of Coach Jackson’s main philosophy: instill confidence, trust, and unity in your players to the point where they don’t need you during their most trying situations.
The fourth quarter of Game 7 of the Lakers-Trail Blazers series in 2000 was a testament to this belief. Down by 15 after a runner by Steve Smith at the start of the quarter, the Lakers did not panic and look to Phil for advice, instead, they remained composed, looked at each other, and willed themselves to a legendary playoff victory.
This is what we take from Phil. Not the mythological speeches of coaches in movies, the steely resolve of excellent coaches like Gregg Poppovich, or even the X’s and O’s on defense of legends like Larry Brown. We learned that winning an NBA championship is done through preparation during the previous off-season, not through the pivotal fourth-quarter minutes of a hard-fought game showcased on national TV in May.
Mike Dunleavy’s team faltered. Even with Scottie Pippen as their leader, they melted with every Laker defensive stand. I sometimes wonder: what if Rasheed Wallace and the Trailblazers were coached by Phil that year? Would Sheed have missed both crucial FT’s with 1:30 remaining in the quarter? Would the team settle for 18-foot contested jumpers on virtually every possession or would they have actually ran the offensive sets like the Lakers had in the waning moments of the game?
Portland couldn’t win because they weren’t ready for those kinds of moments. They had an extremely talented roster and great game plans to guard Shaq, but the team wasn’t emotionally and mentally prepared to thrive in those situations.
Likewise, Phil let the Lakers coach themselves throughout the 2001 season. Even when Kobe had infamously criticized Shaq in ESPN magazine’s “The One” issue, Phil stayed relatively outside the conflict, only breaking silence to subtly critique Kobe’s selfish decisions to ensure Shaq didn’t feel that Kobe was allowed to get away with anything.
The season culminated in the Lakers demolishing every opponent in the most dominant performance in NBA playoff history. He let the team deal with its inner conflicts like he let them deal with difficult matchups. Phil could have easily pressed West to try to move Kobe, but he understood that Kobe’s fire was a reflection of his hunger, a value that should be cultivated and morphed rather than destroyed.
Furthermore, I still believe 2002 was much like 2000 except that the Sacramento Kings were more talented and confident than the Trailblazers and the Lakers were more experienced. The OT of game 7 featured some of the same aspects of the 2000 game 7: the Kings hoped that the Lakers would fold while the Lakers wanted to stomp out the Kings.
Peja Stojakovic’s airball of a 3 point attempt in that OT automatically triggered my memory of Sheed missing those FT’s at the time. I knew we had it. I knew we were the more prepared team for these moments. I knew the Lakers trusted each other while the Kings didn’t know who to pass to.
Phil’s philosophy had kept the team united and brought 3 championships to Los Angeles. He had an almost divine-like quality of never being there but actually always being there. Lastly, his composure and relaxed demeanor had been taken on by his players.
2003-2004: The Lost Years
Somewhere during the championship years, Shaq had lost his hunger. His off-season work-outs were never up to par with his conditioning in the pre-championship years. Statistically, Shaq was still excellent in the regular season, but his superior talent did not shine against the top defensive opponents in these two years as it had against those same teams in the past because of potential weight issues.
I never know whether to blame Shaq or Phil for this. Shaq missed the entire training camp for the 2002-2003 season because he elected to surgically repair his knee during the camp period rather than in the early summer months. He basically didn’t want to work. Could Phil have forced him to repair it in June? Most likely. Should Phil be responsible for ensuring that Shaq wasn’t becoming too complacent? That’s obviously debatable.
The Lakers got off to a very slow start in the 2002-2003 season because of Shaq’s late surgery. They lost home court advantage throughout the playoffs and ultimately lost to a lesser Spurs team that plainly out-worked and out-hustled the Lakers.
Additionally, during “The Last Season” (2003-2004), Phil was beginning to lose control of the Lakers. Kobe’s rape trial had derailed the unity of the squad. Kobe was missing too many practices and became alienated from his teammates, particularly because of his comment to police that he “should have done what Shaq does and just pay her off.”
The season ended by the Lakers losing to a unified Pistons squad under Larry Brown. I still think that Brown is the only coach that could hold his own in a series against Phil with two equally-talented teams. I wish I could have watched the series a few years earlier, when the Lakers were still a unified unit and hungry. That would have been a true battle of opposing coaching philosophies (the 76ers-Lakers series in 2001 was obviously too one-sided).
Phil, Shaq, Malone, and Payton subsequently all left the squad. Kobe was dealt the blame for destroying the Laker core as he was the only one left. Phil’s relationship with Kobe seemed forever irreparable.
2006-2008: The Reawakening
The Lakers’ sad experiment with Rudy Tomjonavich had curtailed early in the 2004-2005 season. By the 2005 off-season, the team needed Phil once again to instill his principles.
This transition may have been Phil’s most impressive work with the Lakers. He managed to reconcile his fractured relationship with Bryant, which took a huge hit from Phil’s book, “The Last Season,” while dealing with a terrible Laker roster including Luke Walton and Smush Parker as starters.
At the time, I really didn’t know how it would work. Kobe never trusts anyone, how was he going to trust the coach who threw him under the bus and blamed his selfishness for losing in 2004? But upon reflection, I now understand that Phil’s rejoining of the Lakers was a sign of Kobe’s maturation, which could be attributed to Phil’s teaching.
Though Phil could convince Kobe that he had to side with Shaq to keep the big fella’ appeased during the seasons of the early 2000s, I don’t know how he could persuade him that “The Last Season” was for Shaq even when the book came out after the 2004 Lakers had parted ways. Instead, Phil simply looked to Kobe to move forward and to bury those undeniable feelings of distrust.
But Kobe listened even though he was always viewed as one who would never do so. He fully supported Phil’s comeback and became the Ron Haper-like figure in addition to being the superstar of the young Laker’s squad.
Additionally, Phil dealt with Kobe’s longing to be traded before the 2008 season because the team was absolutely atrocious. Again, Phil was able to act as the calming influence for Kobe when Kobe was viewed as “un-coachable” by Phil just 4 years before.
These trying situations were examples of Phil adapting his coaching style and learning how to reign in Kobe. Phil didn’t have all the answers when they first were joined at the hip in 1999, but six years later, he finally began understand Kobe.
2009-2011: The Final Chapters
Following the brutal loss to Boston in 2008, Phil knew his last mountain to climb was toughening up Pau Gasol. Phil’s off-season practice criticisms of Gasol, which included referring to Pau as a “b****” or “p****” during practices to limit Pau’s sensitive nature showed a new ripple in his coaching skills.
In reality, Phil always had mentally and physically tough superstars who intimidated opponents. Pau was the complete opposite. He was a finesse player who feared contact. The 2010 NBA Finals exemplified Phil’s undying preparation to instill toughness into Pau. Pau had 19 points and 18 rebounds in one of the most important games in Laker history.
By 2010, Kobe had 5 titles and Phil had 11 rings from coaching. The win against the more talented Celtics had cemented their legacies without any lingering questions. Sure, both the athlete and his coach shared their differences, but together they had won consecutive titles on multiple occasions and actually had avenged a previous loss to a very worthy opponent. Looking back, I almost wished Phil retired after 2010.
The 2010-2011 season featured too many nagging injuries for Bryant. His inability to practice consistently derailed the team’s preparation for the playoffs throughout the year. As Luke Walton had said following the recent Mavericks’ sweep, the practices were just not as competitive because Bryant and Fisher weren’t in there hounding their teammates.
Phil’s philosophy has always been rooted in preparation. The team really could stand no chance when that was compromised. The ending to Phil’s career may leave many of us cringing, but in reality, it was actually a true example of one of his main coaching principles: proper preparation is necessary for excellence. Whenever the Lakers couldn’t prepare (Shaq’s surgery, Kobe’s rape trial, Gasol’s first time in the playoffs, Kobe’s injuries limiting practice time), the Lakers faltered.
My Final Thank You
I have a jumbled view of the ideal leader that I often try to emulate. It’s a conglomeration of Barack Obama’s charisma, Phil Jackson’s composure, and my father’s resolve. I often believe the people I chose to insert into this view to imitate are placed in my mind subconsciously because of both their success and the respect that they command.
Phil Jackson commanded respect. Even when the team’s playoff hopes were in jeopardy, he never had to demand it. For these reasons, both consciously and subconsciously, I have tried to define his values that led to his demeanor.
I never really thought loyalty was important to Phil. He was above such considerations. He needed challenges; teams that were close to crossing the finish line but still had issues, both on the court and off. He needed the hurdles of dealing with egos because I think he understood that arrogance and competitiveness were early signs of a champion when other coaches would have viewed these as unnecessary hurdles.
Kobe, Shaq, and Jordan didn’t need Phil anymore than Phill needed Kobe, Shaq, and Jordan. I really believe he loved guiding them through the triangle as much as he loved teaching them to become better teammates and leaders. He didn’t view his job as simply about basketball as much as he viewed it as developing character.
Lastly, Phil never was nervous or afraid during the most stressful coaching moments of his career. He prepared his athletes well and asked them to trust each other, and likewise, during pivotal moments, he trusted his athletes. He stuck to game-plans when other coaches would have adjusted. He let games unfold before he tried to bend their complexities under his own will.
Phil, you captivated an entire city for 11 of the past 12 years. You have taught many of us how to manage talent and egos. You remained calm when virtually everyone else would have become tense. Additionally, you placed an important emphasis on preparation and diligence in an era of sports that often dilutes their value. We will never forget your contributions. Thank you.