YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Path of Much Resistance

Jackson took a circuitous route into coaching to reach the cusp of history

June 06, 2004|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

It happened at USC when Sam Barry ran a triple post offense while an undersized guard, Tex Winter, memorized every nuance.

It happened in Williston, N.D., where Bill Pederson, a small-town high school coach, drew up plays that intrigued a smart, scrawny center into finding beauty in the running of a pick-and-roll.

It happened when Winter, always tinkering and tweaking what he'd learned from Barry, gave clinics and Bill Fitch, an inquisitive young coach at the state university, took notes on a strange offense and made a still scrawny center run it in practice.

It happened at Madison Square Garden, where Red Holzman, a fiery authoritarian, preached that five men are better than one, that no one basketball player can win a game by himself.

And it happened in Albany, N.Y., where a young man still searching for his calling in life would drive the van to Continental Basketball Assn. towns throughout the East, make his players listen to the Grateful Dead and argue deep into the night with his point guard, Lowes Moore, who was a minister and a basketball player.

"Me and Phil, we'd talk about how basketball was spiritual and how you could make what happened on the court make things meaningful in the rest of your life," Moore said of his conversations with Phil Jackson.

Moore is a volunteer coach in Mount Vernon, N.Y., at the high school and the local Boys and Girls Club. He teaches young men and women the flex offense, which is what Jackson coached with the Albany Patroons. He lectures sternly on the values of teamwork and all for one.

Jackson is on the cusp of history. If the Lakers win the 2004 championship, he will become the first coach in NBA history to produce 10 title-winning teams. No one in American professional sports has won more than nine.

Jackson said he was humbled by this prospect.

"It's great fortune to be going after something like this," Jackson said Thursday. "It's almost ridiculous at some level to have this kind of opportunity. I value that. Yet I know that it's whimsy in many ways, a matter of happenstance and luck."

Jackson's whimsical journey began in Montana and North Dakota, where he grew up, and included a best-friend-philosopher-hippie named Charley Rosen, a man who became his unpaid assistant coach in Albany, and his co-author. It also included a guru in Winter, then a 60-something NBA assistant who stubbornly preached an offense called the triangle and who still has an office and a role with the Lakers and who still tutors Jackson in the intricacies of that triangle.

"Phil didn't take the traditional path to coaching greatness," Rosen said last week. "Phil wasn't the guy who came out of college, or even the NBA, with that burning desire to be a head coach. It was a process Phil went through to get to that point with the [Chicago] Bulls and with the triangle. He was always searching for a system he could believe in. Then he found the triangle and he had his 'wow' moment."

That moment had its roots at the University of North Dakota when Jackson was playing for Fitch. Fitch had learned from many people, but he had listened hardest to Winter.

In the book "More Than a Game," which he co-wrote with Rosen, Jackson recalled his playing days under Fitch:

"I know I enjoyed playing the offense because there always seemed to be a lot of usable spaces and because most of the movement was toward either the basket or the unguarded areas.

"Anyway, the offense was definitely intriguing. Twenty years later I happened to see a tape of one of our games and I was astounded to see that we were running the triangle!"

When Jackson was a hard-working player at North Dakota, he didn't think about coaching. He wasn't even certain he would play professional basketball. But Holzman, coach of the New York Knicks, had scouted Jackson at an NCAA tournament and signed the small-town Western boy to a big-city contract. From Holzman, Jackson learned about dealing with the mind of a player as well as the strategy of the NBA game.

"Above all else," Jackson wrote, "Red was a master at managing people. He could accurately gauge the intelligence and temperament of his players and determine how each of them should be treated.... [During timeouts], Red would ask the players what we wanted to run. This is something I still use. 'OK, guys. What's going on out there? Tell me what you think will work.' "

So what looks to some as detachment or, worse, laziness, is actually one of the first coaching lessons Jackson gathered from a mentor he admired.

"We would talk often and in-depth about Red Holzman and his way with people," Rosen said. "Phil found Red someone to emulate in many ways."

Still, Jackson would spend the last few years of his playing career dabbling in coaching. He served as a player/coach under Kevin Loughery with the New Jersey Nets.

"At that time," Jackson wrote, "and despite Kevin's inducements, I had no desire ever to become a head coach."

Los Angeles Times Articles