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Phil Jackson: So long, Zen master

Lakers' Coach Phil Jackson had an unmatched ability to turn good squads into great ones that stayed great. Now he's retiring.

May 10, 2011
  • Coach Phil Jackson, leaving the court in Dallas after Sunday's Game 4 loss to the Mavericks, always seemed to be the one person who could keep the Lakers from derailing.
Coach Phil Jackson, leaving the court in Dallas after Sunday's Game… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

The Phil Jackson era ended miserably Sunday, with the Los Angeles Lakers showing none of the poise so characteristic of their coach. The less said the better about the team's cheap-shot fouls, blown defensive assignments and inexplicable lack of energy. Let's focus instead on Jackson's unmatched ability to turn good squads into great ones that stayed great — if not forever, at least for years at a time.

Critics have downplayed Jackson's league-record 11 titles (six with the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s, five with the Lakers in the 2000s) by noting that he coached a succession of the game's best players, including Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal and Pau Gasol. But the National Basketball Assn., like other major sports leagues, is littered with star-studded teams that never took home a trophy. Jackson won three consecutive titles three times, with two different franchises. And his most recent Lakers squad made it to the NBA Finals three years in a row, winning twice.

Jackson reached that pinnacle by getting players to excel in roles that complemented their strengths and those of their teammates. He viewed coaching as a process designed to instill players with championship-caliber dedication and focus — the intangible differentiators in a league rich in talent. His Lakers could be distracted and ordinary during the regular season, but in the playoffs the best of those squads moved the ball smartly on offense and defended with a suffocating intensity.

Granted, he seemed unconventional to the point of being weird, at least by NBA standards. A devotee of Zen, he gave his players weighty books to read on road trips, had them meditate before games, then sat implacably on the bench while they tried to work through their problems on the court. And sometimes his players stopped following his lead, as in 2004, when the feud between O'Neal and Bryant became toxic, and this season, when the individuals on the court never seemed to gel as a team.

Jackson lamented this year that he couldn't seem to get through to the players. The NBA's population is certainly different now than it was when he became a head coach in Chicago 22 years ago. The players are younger, more athletic and more international, often having a greater financial interest in their personal brands than in their team's. Yet Jackson has been able to mold the shifting array of personnel into teams that never had a losing record and never missed the playoffs.

He was the ideal coach for a team in a fickle town that has little patience for losers. He shares credit for his Lakers wins with the team's free-spending owner, Jerry Buss, and its adept general managers. But his five championships in purple and gold — the most for any major league coach in Los Angeles — speak for themselves. With the current Lakers squad poised for a shakeup and a lockout looming in the NBA, Jackson chose a good time to move on. We only wish he'd gotten a better sendoff.

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