The NBA’s Top 15 Greatest Coaches list was recently released, and, unsurprisingly, Phil Jackson, an 11-time NBA champion as a coach with the Jordan and Pippen Bulls and then Shaq & Kobe Lakers and two-time title winner as a player with the New York Knicks in the 1970s, is on it.
Jackson, aka the Zen Master, was a revolutionary coach in that he stressed the mental aspects of the game and engaged in constant psychological warfare with his own players and the opposing team. He was renowned for taking incredible talent, cultivating its development and turning that talent into a championship player.
After ripping off two three-peats with the Bulls, Phil bounced to L.A. and led the Lakers back to glory, somehow helping to transform a contentious relationship between Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal into the greatest twosome to ever grace the hardwood in the same building at the same time.
Despite the internal conflicts and egos that kept the Lakers from four-peating after already three-peating, Jackson was masterful at massaging egos, challenging his superstars and producing championship results. His unorthodox coaching methods, revolutionary ways of keeping his teams hungry, are the stuff of legend.
Hall of Fame center Shaquille O’Neal spoke this week on “NBA on TNT” about his experience of playing under the tutelage of Jackson.
“Phil was the one who gave me the blueprint on how to be more dominant than I already was. He also gave me the blueprint on how to be a Champion. What I loved about Phil is he was very, very fair. What I also loved about Phil is he was a player’s coach. The way I played and the way I got played, he could tell the days I was banged up and he had enough respect to say, ‘OK, I’m not gonna press you hard today, ride the bike for 20 minutes but I need 30 from you big fella.’ From being with him, I made up the quote ‘if the general doesn’t panic, the troops don’t panic.’
I played for a lot of coaches where it gets real tight, they start panicking, but Phil would always just look at us and say I’m not gonna bail you out. … He would explain to us like men, rather than yelling and crying.”
Phil was a maestro when it came to creating team chemistry. He was also incredibly flexible with his ability to manage enormous personalities, supposed malcontents, high-priced veterans and get them to buy into a championship system. Jackson meshed rebels like Dennis Rodman and temperamental stars like Scottie Pippen with icons like Jordan and made it work to perfection, regardless of what kind of soap opera drama was happening behind the scenes.
In his book “Eleven Rings: the Soul of Success,” which is named for his 11 championship rings, Jackson says:
“I’ve always felt that there is a strong connection between music and basketball. The game is inherently rhythmic in nature and requires the same kind of selfless, nonverbal communication you find in the best jazz combos.”
Jackson asked the players to set their egos aside, even during charged internal conflicts. He knew that winning basketball teams were built on strong relationships. Relationships that strengthen when tested with internal conflict instead of faltering.
The key to any solid franchise is leadership, and regardless of what transpired with ownership and contracts and the delicate relationship between corporate and the players, the Zen Master kept his team razor sharp.
There was more drama than an episode of “Euphoria” in Los Angeles, but it was also the greatest show on earth with Kobe and Shaq totally dominating the league, dissing each other on rap tracks, arguing, hating and demolishing squads with some of the most riveting, showtime hoops that have ever been played.
Through it all, even after Shaq left and Phil won two more rings with Kobe, the constant was the Zen Master. There are more than a few people who would consider him the GOAT NBA coach.
More news from our partners: