Phil Jackson: Zen and the Art of Winning ChampionshipsPhil Jackson headlined the 2007 Basketball Hall of Fame class, speaking last at the enshrinement ceremony--and for good reason: it is impossible to write the history of the NBA over the last 20 years without prominently mentioning his name. Before looking at the methods and philosophies that led to his success, here are the raw numbers that delineate his greatness:
* Ranks first in career regular season winning percentage (.700; 919-393)
* Ranks first in career playoff winning percentage (.699; 179-77)
* Ranks first in career playoff wins (179)
* Set record for most wins in one regular season (72 in 1995-96)
* Has coached four different teams to at least 67 wins in a season; no other coach has done this more than once
* Set record for best playoff winning percentage in one season (.938; 15-1 in 2001)
* Tied for first with Red Auerbach for most championships won as a coach (nine)
* Ranks ninth in career regular season wins (919)
* Named to the list of the 10 Greatest Coaches in NBA history (1996)
Jackson's critics are quick to say that he was fortunate to coach Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in their primes in Chicago and then to coach Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant in their primes in Los Angeles. During his speech, Jackson himself mused, "Who could have been more fortunate than I am, to have stumbled into this success?" The reality is that few people ever truly stumble into success and no one does so nine times at the highest level of his profession. Before Jackson became the head coach of the Chicago Bulls in 1989, Michael Jordan had amassed a playoff record of 14-23 in five seasons. Chicago went 10-6 in the playoffs in Jackson's first campaign and then won three straight titles. Before Jackson became the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers in 1999, Shaquille O'Neal was a seven year veteran who had made one trip to the NBA Finals when his Orlando Magic were swept in 1995. O'Neal's teams were also swept out of the playoffs in 1994, 1996 and 1998. The Lakers went 67-15 in Jackson's first season and won the franchise's first championship since 1988 and followed that up with two more titles and a run to the 2004 Finals.
Jordan and O'Neal have become so popular and iconic that it is almost considered sacrilege to even suggest that neither of them is perfect but under Jackson's tutelage both players corrected flaws in their approaches to the game. In Jordan's case, he needed to trust his teammates more fully and not try to do everything himself on offense; O'Neal needed to get into better shape, become more of a defensive force and function as the hub of the Triangle Offense (O'Neal's blocked shots, rebounds and assists all soared in Jackson's first year in L.A.). Jordan and O'Neal had already proven that they could have great individual success but Jackson helped them to channel their skills into transforming their teams into championship squads.
Here's an interesting quote: "He's the greatest athlete I've ever seen. Maybe the greatest athlete ever to play any sport. He can do whatever he wants. It all comes so easy to him. He's just not a basketball player." Who do you suppose is the subject of those remarks? None other than Michael Jordan. The speaker was his teammate Bill Cartwright, as recounted in Sam Smith's 1992 book The Jordan Rules (p. 249). Cartwright uttered those words after a 1991 loss versus Detroit when Jordan, according to an unofficial count by one courtside observer, failed to pass to Cartwright on nine separate occasions when the center was wide open. This was during Jackson's second season with Chicago and, though the Bulls won the championship that year, Jordan had yet to completely accept what he derided as Jackson's "equal opportunity offense." After Jackson first became the team's head coach, Jordan said, "He's the coach. I'll follow his scheme but I don't plan to change my style of play. I'm sure everything will be fine if we win, but if we start losing, I'm shooting" (p. 67, The Jordan Rules).
Doug Collins, Jackson's predecessor at the helm in Chicago, had tried unsuccessfully to get Jordan to play differently. Once, after Collins upbraided Jordan for shooting too much during a playoff series, Jordan attempted just eight shots in the next game. Jordan always wanted to win but he did not always know how to accomplish this at the NBA level. "I thought of myself first, the team second," Jordan once admitted of the mindset that he had early in his career (p. 66, The Jordan Rules). "I always wanted my team to be successful. But I wanted to be the main cause."
The difference between Jackson and Collins is that Jackson better understood how to convey his message to Jordan in a way that Jordan would--begrudgingly--respect. Jackson knew when to be confrontational and when to defuse situations with humor (after the game when Jordan refused to pass to Cartwright nine times, Jackson's whimsical response was, "Well, at least he was under double figures"). Jackson had not been an All-Star player like Collins nor did he have any NBA head coaching experience but he found a way to not only get Jordan to buy into his system but to convince the rest of the team that Jordan would do so and that they must be ready to step up their games.
It is easy to simply give Jordan the lion's share of the credit for Chicago's success but it is possible that Jordan may have never won a championship if Jackson had not put into place a system that allowed the whole team to shine. Interestingly, during the 1991 championship season, Pippen said, "We know that everyone says that the Bulls would be nothing without Michael, so there really isn't much respect for the other 11 guys, even after I made the All-Star team. You take Michael off this team and give us a consistent two (shooting) guard and we'd still be a top, contending team." Of course, when Jordan retired just prior to the start of the 1993-94 season the Bulls had a very successful season without him--and his spot was taken not by a "consistent two" but rather by Pete Myers, a career journeyman. Jackson did a masterful job coaching that team and Pippen finished third in the MVP voting that year, becoming the leader of the team but not substantially increasing his shot attempts.
By the time Jackson arrived in L.A. he had already won six titles and earned acclaim as one of the greatest coaches ever, so he had a pedigree that commanded instant respect. Still, Jackson faced a daunting challenge: melding the skills and egos of dominant center Shaquille O'Neal and budding star Kobe Bryant into a championship quality dynamic duo. Regardless of whatever drama took place off of the court, under Jackson's leadership the O'Neal-Bryant tandem emerged as one of the best one-two punches in NBA history, winning three straight titles and enjoying the best single-season playoff run in NBA history (15-1 in 2001).
Yes, the old cliche is true: you cannot win the Kentucky Derby with a mule. Phil Jackson has had the "horses"--but he has also driven those horses to achieve their maximum potential. There is a quite lengthy list of Hall of Fame players and talented teams that never won championships; it takes much more than just assembling a lot of talent in one place to win a title. Jackson imbued each of his teams with his philosophical approach to the game, a mindset that was shaped by his upbringing by parents who were both ministers, his readings about Zen and Native American thought and the wisdom of his New York Knicks Coach Red Holzman. In Sacred Hoops, Jackson details how each of those elements influenced his thinking.
Jackson places value on the printed and spoken word and is renowned for giving his players books that he thinks will have special meaning to them, so it is only fitting to revisit some key quotes/phrases that Jackson has employed during his coaching career:
* "Go down as you live." This was the "rallying cry" of Jackson's New Jersey Nets' teammate "Super" John Williamson. Jackson explains (p. 112, Sacred Hoops): "Don't hold back. Play the way you live your life, with your whole heart and soul." This attitude is second nature to Jordan and that type of fierce competitiveness created a bond between player and coach even when they did not see eye to eye on everything else.
* "For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack." Jackson placed this quote from Rudyard Kipling's The Second Jungle Book at the top of the scouting reports that were distributed to the Bulls' players before the first round of the 1991 playoffs (p. 262, The Jordan Rules). Jackson thought that his players sometimes snapped at each other like wolves but needed to develop that Pack mentality to survive the playoff grind.
* Perhaps the signature moment of the 1991 Finals--and the final hurdle that Jordan needed to clear to emerge as a great team player--happened in game five. The Bulls needed just one win to take the championship and Jordan was determined to carry the team there single-handedly if necessary. Of course, that approach was a good recipe for defeat. During a fourth quarter timeout when the Bulls trailed the Lakers 91-90, Jackson looked right at Jordan and barked, "Who's open?" When Jordan did not answer, Jackson repeated the question and Jordan finally relented, "Paxson." Jackson said simply, "Let's find him." John Paxson scored 10 of his 20 points in the last four minutes of the game and Chicago wrapped up the championship. Jackson knew when--and how--to challenge Jordan in ways that led to a constructive response. Jackson did not berate Jordan and did not deliver an expletive filled diatribe. All he said was, "Who's open?" Jackson knew that Jordan had the court sense to understand how the defense was checking him; Jordan just needed a little reminder. Real coaching has nothing to do with ranting and raving during timeouts; real coaching is done in practice, in private moments on the plane or on the bus, so that a simple "Who's open?" leads to the desired result during a pressure-packed Finals game.
* "Don't leave Michael alone here. It's not time yet." As I wrote in my post about my 10 favorite coaching soundbites, "Phil Jackson's exhortation to Jordan's teammates served as both an acknowledgment of how much the team depended on Jordan to carry the day in the fourth quarter and as a reverse psychology tool to goad/shame the other players into performing better." Jackson could have criticized Jordan for shooting too much or lambasted his teammates for shrinking under pressure but he instead delivered a powerful message with a few simple words. It cannot be emphasized enough that the ability to communicate this way is set up by all the work that is done in practice during the course of the season; that is when great coaches earn their pay. When I see a coach spend an entire game prancing up and down the sidelines ranting and raving I assume that one or more of the following is true: he loves to be on camera, his players are too stupid to know what to do no matter how many times he has told them or he is too stupid to know when to sit down and let his players do their jobs. Anyone who mocks Jackson for his generally placid demeanor during games and his reluctance to call timeouts simply does not understand what coaching is all about.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:01 AM