Zen of Championships
"Trying to get everyone uniting at the same beat, same rhythm, same mood, that's when everything becomes perfect," says Phil Jackson on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
Jackson is a study in nonconformity. After becoming an NBA head coach with the Chicago Bulls in 1989, he relied on Zen philosophy to inspire his players. He held group meditation sessions, burned sage to reverse losing streaks, decorated his team's practice center with "sacred warrior" artifacts, quoted Walt Whitman and Rudyard Kipling, and related stories of the sacred white buffalo of the plains.
Admired by many and scoffed at by some, Jackson's methods have been undeniably successful. His nine NBA championships with the Bulls and Lakers are tied with Boston's Red Auerbach for the most ever. His teams won a record 25 consecutive playoff series. His regular season .700 winning percentage (919-393) is unequaled by any coach in NBA history. His 179 playoff victories are the most ever and his .699 postseason winning percentage is also a record.
Still, Lakers owner Jerry Buss didn't want him coaching his team after the 2004 season and Jackson was not rehired. However, a year later, after the Lakers had their first losing season in 11 years, Buss changed his mind and rehired Jackson - for $30 to $36 million for three seasons.
Even as Jackson basks in the public spotlight for more than a decade, he remains aloof, preferring to live a private life and to follow a spiritual quest.
Jackson, the youngest of four children, was born on Sept. 17, 1945, in Deer Lodge, Mont. His parents, Charles and Elizaberth, were Pentecostal ministers who accepted a pastorate in Williston, N.D., in 1956 and moved from Great Falls, Mont. With religion the central focus of his life, Jackson was taught to believe that the apocalypse was about to be fulfilled at any moment.
As a boy, Jackson conformed to the wishes of his parents. He didn't drink, smoke, listen to rock 'n' roll, read comics, go to the movies or watch television. He studied the Bible, and spent Saturday nights playing board games with his family. At 17, Jackson sneaked out of the house and saw his first movie, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
At Williston High School, Jackson discovered a world of ideas. He read voraciously and took up baseball and basketball with a passion. His basketball talents earned him a scholarship to the University of North Dakota.
Angular, thin and 6-foot-8, Jackson was all arms. He played defense with a vengeance, and his penchant for chasing after loose balls earned him the nickname "the Mop." By the time he graduated in 1967, he was a two-time Division II All-American.
Baltimore Bullets scout Jerry Krause, who would become Jackson's boss later in Chicago, was in awe of Jackson's wing span. "Phil could do something no one else in the country could do," he said. "[He could] get in an old four-door Plymouth, sit in the middle of the back seat and open both front doors at the same time."
It was the New York Knicks, however, that drafted Jackson, making him the 17th overall selection. The 220-pound forward lasted 10 years with them, compensating for his scoring limitations with boundless energy and a pair of razor-sharp elbows that he let fly with abandon.
A back injury forced Jackson to miss the Knicks' first championship (1970), but he was a key reserve on the team that won the 1973 title. His best seasons were the next two years when he averaged 11.1 and 10.8 points.
He endeared himself to the fans because he played all-out, rode his bicycle to games from his Manhattan loft, wore long hair, and took part in the counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s. He demonstrated against the Vietnam War, took drugs and continued to explore Christianity, Sufi mysticism, Native American spirituality and Zen Buddhism.
In 1982 he became head coach of the Albany Patroons of the Continental Basketball Association. Two years later, Jackson guided them to a league championship. In Albany, he imparted the same philosophy to his players that he would later bring to the NBA. He demanded that players share the ball and he stressed awareness, compassion and selfless play - concepts he had learned from his former Knicks coach Red Holzman.
Jackson left the Patroons in 1987 with a 117-90 record to become an assistant coach with Chicago. Michael Jordan had just won his first scoring title, but under Doug Collins the Bulls were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.
Jackson's big break came in July 1989 when he replaced Collins, who was fired after Chicago lost the Eastern Conference finals. Convinced that the Bulls needed a makeover, Jackson got rid of the isolation plays that had been designed for Jordan and introduced the triangle offense, an "equal opportunity" offense that involved all five players. The new offense emphasized spacing between players, crisp passing and constant movement. Once Jordan bought into Jackson's vision, the Bulls were unstoppable.
In his second season, they won their first title, defeating the Lakers in the 1991 NBA Finals. The following year the Bulls won again, and the year after that they three-peated. Then Jordan retired.
One of Jackson's biggest challenges came in 1995-96. With Jordan recently back from retirement, Jackson had to find a way to fit in all the pieces around him. The results were spectacular: the Bulls went 72-10, the best record in NBA history. They lost only one game in the first three rounds of the playoffs, then wrapped up the title against Seattle in six games.
With two championships to follow, they completed their "repeat three-peat" in 1997-98. Jackson's dynasty had produced six NBA titles in eight seasons.
In 1998, Jackson parted ways with Chicago because he chafed working for Krause, the Bulls vice president of basketball operation. "Jerry and I did not see eye to eye at the end," Jackson said. "I'm sure he felt I had changed. And he's right. Success had changed me. I probably was more demanding. I felt there were too many times he and I clashed over what I wanted to do."
The following season, the Lakers marched through the season, won 15 of 16 postseason games, and in winning yet another title made Jackson the first coach to lead two different teams to multiple NBA championships. In 2002, after the Lakers claimed their third straight title, O'Neal said, "If it wasn't for Phil and his system, I wouldn't have any championship rings, never mind three."
In May 2003, Jackson underwent an angioplasty to repair a blocked artery to his heart, forcing him to miss Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Spurs. With Jackson back on the bench, the Lakers lost the next two games and the coach's record streak of winning 25 consecutive playoff series was over.
The following year he got the Lakers back to the NBA Finals, where they were upset in five games by the Detroit Pistons, the first time a Jackson team had ever lost in the championship series. Three days later, Jackson was gone as Lakers coach after five seasons, saying it was time to "pause and reflect." During his year off from basketball he wrote The Last Season: A Team In Search of Its Soul, in which he labeled Bryant uncoachable.
But in June 2005, the uncoachable star and the elite coach were reunited. Recapturing the old magic wasn't so easy. While Jackson guided the Lakers back into the playoffs, they blew a 3-1 lead in losing to Phoenix in the first round of the 2006 playoffs. It was the first time in his NBA coaching career that his team lost a series when it held a lead.
In 2007, when Jackson was elected into the Basketball Hall of Fame in his first season of eligibility, he finished with his worst record in 16 years as an NBA head coach when the Lakers went 42-40. Again they lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Suns.