Farewell to the Zen Master

For the most part, coaches are the least valuable part of any sports team. History has shown us that they’re for the most part interchangeable… teams either have the talent to compete or they don’t. There’s a reason that top players make 10 or 20 times what their coaches make.

Coaches are also normally about as interesting as watching paint dry. Most fall into two categories. One, they have the personality of a high school gym teacher, all rah-rah and take-a-lap bullshit. Or, two, they seem like a middle management accountant, carefully crunching numbers and allocating resources.

As a Chicago sports fans, there have been very few coaches who have transcended the normal apathy. Mike Ditka and Ozzie Guillen may not be the brightest bulbs, but their personalities fit into Chicago’s self-image and they are undeniably entertaining. Don Zimmer had an old-school-toughness mixed with an Elmer-Fudd-goofiness that made me not hate him even when he joined the Evil Empire (although I was happy when Pedro threw him to the ground). That’s about it. Otherwise it’s been gym-coach blowhards (Lou Pinella, Dusty Baker) or boring middle managers (Dick Jauron, Lovie Smith).

Only once has a coach risen to the level where he rivaled my favorite players on a team.

On Sunday, a Phil Jackson team got swept out of the playoffs for the first time, and he didn’t seem to really care all that much about it. That’s what you get when you talk a rich hippy into doing something he doesn’t want to do.

But, it probably won’t affect his legacy a whole lot, a forgotten footnote like the Babe with the Braves or MJ with the Wizards. Jackson has to be considered the best coach in basketball history (college or pros… fuck that John Wooden bullshit), and probably the best coach in sports history.

What are you talking about… anybody could win with MJ or Kobe? Oh yeah? Tell that to Doug Collins or Rudy Tomjanovich or the great Del Harris. As I said earlier, great players win championships. There is literally no NBA champion outside of the 2004 Pistons who didn’t have an all-time great on their roster (and they had Ben Wallace, who was a defensive superstar, and Rasheed Wallace, who was a superstar talent who happened to be Ron-Artest-level crazy).

Phil Jackson has 13 NBA championships, two as a player for the Knicks, six as the coach of the Bulls, and five as the coach of the Lakers. This is more coaching titles than any other coach in sports history. But that isn’t why I love him.

-He was the most unlikely of coaching successes. A hippy backup center for the Knicks, he wrote a book detailing his use of LSD and his antiestablishment views. Before Jerry Krause came calling (whatever can and should be said about Krause, it can’t be forgotten that Jackson never would have gotten a chance without him), his NBA coaching trail was so cold that he had applied both to law schools and for unemployment.

-He didn’t let his dislike of convention throw out the good ideas. Tex Winter (another Krause reclamation project) invented the triangle offense… Jackson was smart enough to run with it. Not only that, but he gave credit where credit was due… Winter coached on his staff until he couldn’t stand up anymore, and Jackson showered him with enough credit that this year he finally made the Hall-Of-Fame. Jackson let Johnny Bach instill his defensive tenacity with the Bulls. He reveres and celebrates Red Holtzman, his Knicks coach, to this day. I guess you could knock Jackson for not being a innovator, a la Bill Walsh. But most coaches would either insist on running their own systems even if they were inferior, or taking the credit for their assistants’ work so as not to be overshadowed. Jackson’s longevity and success has much to do with the fact that his ego was healthy enough that he cared more about the team.

-He let his dislike of convention make his teams stronger. I understand that the things I love about Jackson (the biting sarcasm with the press, the book giveaways to his player, his application of religious principles to basketball) annoy the shit out of other people. But his unconventional approach allowed players to trust him in a way that transcended basketball. Such as:

1) Not trying to talk Michael Jordan into staying with the Bulls before the first retirement, only making the argument that he had a gift for basketball like Michaelangelo had for painting, and that to walk away was to deprive the world of that genius. His unselfishness paved the way for Jordan’s return.

2) Blowing up Kobe in the book The Last Season after he left the Lakers for the first time, and forgetting about it when he returned a year later. At that point in his career, Kobe was acting like a selfish bitch and Jackson’s words had to have been a wake-up call. That Kobe signed off on Jackson coaching the Lakers again tells you all you need to know about the respect Jackson received.

3) Convincing the Bulls that Dennis Rodman was the equivalent of a backwards-walking Indian and should be given latitude. I know… that single sentence sums up what some people hate about Jackson. But everyone forgets how disruptive Rodman was at the time… he basically suicide-bombed a pretty good David Robinson Spurs team because they tried to make him behave. Jackson was smart enough to work within Rodman’s limitations, not to fight them.

Which was really his genius, one that is missing all too often in sports… fitting the pieces together rather than trying to force players to be a piece they’re not.

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1 Comment

Filed under David Simon Cowell, Sports Has AIDS

One response to “Farewell to the Zen Master

  1. That was a great post and it gave me an appreciation for Jackson that I didn’t earlier have. I am a huge Knicks fan and lived through the years of getting repeatedly knicked about by the Bulls, so yes, there is some sour grapes involved. But shit…11 rings. You can’t argue with that.

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