Commentary

X marks the spot of greatest NBA coach

Originally Published: June 15, 2009
By Chris Broussard | ESPN The Magazine

Phil JacksonNathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesLakers coach Phil Jackson is feted for the tenth time as leader of an NBA champion.
ORLANDO, Fla. -- For one fleeting moment, especially when his radical ways flashed through my mind, I thought Phil Jackson was releasing his inner militant.

As Lakers players celebrated on the makeshift stage in Amway Arena with gray "World Champion" baseball caps on, Jackson sported a bright yellow hat with a bold, black "X" on the front.

"Malcolm X?" I thought, recalling the faddish caps of the early 1990s, before quickly realizing that the X was for Jackson's record-breaking 10th NBA title.

While Jackson and the slain black leader of the 1960s have little in common, there is this one similarity: they are/were one of a kind.

Jackson's 10th championship, claimed Sunday night at the conclusion of a 4-1 victory over the Orlando Magic, is not the only thing that separates him from every other coach in NBA history.

Honestly, has the NBA -- and for that matter, the NFL or MLB -- ever seen a coach like Jackson?

A coach who has so blatantly incorporated his Zen Buddhist philosophies into his routine, who brought the rituals of the Lakota Sioux (placing tribal fetishes on shelves) into the locker room, who led his players in group meditation?

Those aren't exactly the first three chapters of Red Auerbach's "Basketball for the Player, the Fan and the Coach." But darn it, if they don't work.

Jackson, for all his idiosyncrasies, is the greatest coach in NBA history. And by "greatest," I don't mean "most accomplished," as if giving him the title simply because he's got the most rings.

No, I mean, Phil Jackson is the league's best coach ever.

Sure, nine of his championships came with two of the league's all-time greatest duos -- Jordan and Pippen winning six, Shaq and Kobe winning three. But how many of Auerbach's nine titles came without Bill Russell and either Bob Cousy, Sam Jones, John Havlicek or a host of other Hall of Famers?

None.

In fact, two years after Auerbach retired, Russell led the Celtics to the first of back-to-back championships as a player-coach. Talk about stealing somebody's thunder!

How many rings did Pat Riley win without Magic and Kareem or Shaq and Dwyane Wade?

None.

"Maybe you'll hear the comment, 'He had great players,'" Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy said, repeating the oft-heard criticism of those who deny Jackson the No. 1 spot. "First of all, I don't know of a team that's ever won it once that doesn't have great players.

"Yeah, he's had great players, but the guy wins all the time. If you have Kobe and those guys and you're losing, OK, maybe they can talk about it. But that guy is winning all the time. You can't give him short shrift. Damn, you look at the guy's record, it's undeniable."

It's not just the championship years either. Think about what Jackson did with the 1993-94 Bulls, the first post-Jordan team. With Scottie Pippen, Toni Kukoc and an injury-plagued roster that started somebody named Pete Myers, he won 55 games. That's two fewer than he won the year before with Jordan. You lose the greatest player of all-time and you're only two games worse?

And remember where the Lakers were before Jackson's return in 2005. With the highly-esteemed Rudy Tomjanovich at the helm (then later, Frank Hamblen after Tomjanovich stepped down), L.A. won 34 games.

But it's more than even the great seasons. It's the way he got perhaps the two greatest one-on-one players in basketball history, Jordan and Bryant, to buy into the equal-opportunity triangle offense, the way he's earned their utmost respect (to the point that neither of them wanted/wants to play for anyone else).

It's the way he got the wild and rebellious exhibitionist Dennis Rodman to conform (somewhat). The same Rodman who was threatening to commit suicide in Detroit, and sitting on the bench without shoes in San Antonio, was, if not an angel, then at least a well-behaved champion in Chicago under Jackson.

"It's his ability to bring people together," Bryant said when asked what makes Jackson such a great coach. "That's the biggest thing that he does so well -- he continues to coach the group, continues to coach unity and chemistry and togetherness. Because when you're together, you can withstand adversity. If you're not, you can easily break apart and become a team of individuals. That's his biggest characteristic and what he does so well."

Being a great NBA coach is not about X's and O's, because let's be honest, every NBA coach knows X's and O's. Do you really think Mike Dunleavy or Mo Cheeks don't know how to run various offenses or teach their players how to defend the pick-and-roll?

Being a great NBA coach is about managing egos, earning your players' respect, developing team chemistry, making (in-game and off-day) adjustments, and emphasizing the right things. And no one's ever done all that better than Jackson.

"Some coaches teach and others manage," said Kareem, who's helped Jackson develop Andrew Bynum. "I see Phil as more of a manager."

Manager, teacher, coach, whatever. Bottom line, he's the greatest there's ever been.

Chris Broussard is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine.