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Saturday, December 29, 2018

Mike Lupica Underestimated Phil Jackson, but Made a Valid Point About "Genius" in Coaching

Mike Lupica's column for the May 4, 1998 issue of ESPN the Magazine ("Not Everybody is a Genius") opens by declaring, "Phil Jackson's genius days may be numbered." Jackson, then the coach of the Chicago Bulls, was on the verge of winning his sixth NBA title in eight seasons, but Jerry Krause told Jackson before that campaign that he would break up the team even if the squad went 82-0.

Lupica anticipated that another team would eagerly hire Jackson but Lupica did not expect Jackson to have much success: "Jackson will make the score of a lifetime and be set for life. What he won't ever be is as much of a genius as he was in Chicago. Here is just a partial genius list from the last 20 years: Jackson, Pat Riley, Jimmy Johnson, Bill Parcells, Tony La Russa, Whitey Herzog, Joe Gibbs, Bill Walsh. What we have found with all of them is that genius doesn't travel so well. And it never returns with another championship trophy."

Before his stint with the Bulls, Jackson coached the Albany Patroons to the 1984 CBA title. After that, he also coached a team to the Finals in the Puerto Rican professional league despite not speaking the language. Lupica's overall point about "genius" in coaching may have had some general validity but Lupica did not realize that Jackson was a specific exception.

Jackson left Chicago after the Bulls' "Last Dance" sixth championship in 1998. He sat out the lockout-shortened 1999 NBA season and then the L.A. Lakers hired him to mold Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant into champions. Prior to Jackson's arrival, the Lakers had suffered three lopsided playoff losses in O'Neal and Bryant's first three years with the franchise, including sweeps in 1998 (Utah) and 1999 (San Antonio). Under Jackson's leadership, the Lakers won three straight championships (2000-02) and in the 2001 playoffs they set a record for best single-season playoff winning percentage (15-1; the 1983 Philadelphia 76ers went 12-1 under a different playoff format). Jackson left the Lakers after the team lost in the 2004 Finals, then he returned for the 2005-06 season. During Jackson's first two years back, Kobe Bryant carried a subpar roster to a pair of first round playoff losses. The Lakers acquired one-time All-Star Pau Gasol early in the 2007-08 season and advanced to the Finals that season before losing to the Boston Celtics. Jackson coached the Lakers to back to back titles in 2009 and 2010 before retiring after the Lakers lost in the second round of the 2011 playoffs.

So, using Lupica's language, Jackson's "genius" not only traveled well but it returned with five championships, resulting in Jackson setting the all-time NBA record for most championships by a head coach (11), breaking the record of nine set by Boston's Red Auerbach.

Auerbach, never a huge fan of Jackson, often dismissed Jackson's accomplishments by noting that Jackson--unlike Auerbach--had never built a team but rather coached teams built by other people (and, in light of Jackson's brief, unsuccessful tenure as President of the New York Knicks, maybe Auerbach had a valid point that he displayed a more versatile set of talents than Jackson did).

In his article, Lupica quoted Auerbach: "You know what genius is? A nice word to say. You want to hear one time when I was a genius? Game seven of the '62 Finals. Us against the Lakers. The score's 100-all, and Frank Selvy takes the last shot. The ball rolls around the rim for about 15 seconds, then falls off. We beat 'em in overtime. Yeah, I was some big genius that year."

Auerbach was being very modest. Yes, there is a certain amount of chance/variance/good fortune involved in being successful but Auerbach did a masterful job of annually preparing his teams to be at their best. Fortune favors the brave--and the well-prepared.

Auerbach mentioned a pet peeve to Lupica that I share about coaches who play to the TV cameras during blowouts: "They could sit down at least once in a while. You turn on the game and these guys are ahead 40 points, and they're still coaching their (butts) off because they know they're on TV. I always get a kick out of that one, too."

Auerbach's points about coaching and "genius" are well taken, and Lupica's contention that among coaches "genius doesn't travel so well" is generally true, but Lupica erred when he chose Jackson as an example. There is a short list of basketball coaches who deserve the "genius" tag, and both Auerbach and Jackson belong on that list.

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posted by David Friedman @ 9:40 PM



At Saturday, December 29, 2018 9:51:00 PM, Blogger Nick said...

Lupica was also wrong to list Pat Riley as an example. He did not add another five titles the way Jackson did but he did win one as a coach and another two as a GM in Miami.

At Saturday, December 29, 2018 9:56:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Good point. Riley had not won a title in his second act as a coach (with the Knicks after coaching the Showtime Lakers to four titles in the 1980s) at the time that Lupica wrote the article but you are correct that in Riley's third act he coached the Heat to a title.


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