The true measure of greatness

Updated: June 13, 2004, 1:52 PM ET
By Adrian Wojnarowski | Special to ESPN.com

Maybe there's measure of justice if they stay on nine championships, Red and Phil, the old Celtic and the old Knick going arm-in-arm into forever together. There's no love there, and most of that has to do with the history of disdain between Red Auerbach and Red Holzman. When Phil Jackson was closing on his ninth NBA title two years ago, Auerbach was on the telephone, laughing off the Laker coach's insistence that the Boston patriarch told common friends that some of his jabs on Jackson had been misquoted.

Bill Russell and Red Auerbach
Red Auerbach thinks it's absurd when Phil Jackson's coaching record is compared to his success with Bill Russell and the Celtics.
Not at all, Auerbach said.

"Well, what I said is true," Auerbach grumbled. "What I said isn't criticism -- it's true."

There was never much mistaking what Red had to say, because he always came right out and made himself clear.

"He's done a fantastic job with the teams he had -- either Chicago or Los Angeles," Auerbach said. "All I said is that he never tried it the other way. He's never tried building a team and teaching the fundamentals. I'm not saying he can't do it. Maybe he can. But he never had to. When he's gone in there, they've been ready made for him. It's just a matter of putting his system in there. They don't worry about developing players if they're not good enough.

"They just go get someone else."

Had there been free agency when Auerbach was winning with the Celtics, there would've been a long line of players willing to make the move that Karl Malone and Gary Payton did, sacrificing salary for the championship chase. He never had the luxury. Around Bill Russell, Auerbach kept drafting and trading in the wisest of ways, constructing the model franchise in history, right there with Vince Lombardi's Packers. Everyone says, "Well, Red had Russell," and sure, he had Bill Russell. Of course, Red drafted Russell. And when Russell was gone, Auerbach, the GM, reshaped the Celtics into two-time champions with Dave Cowens, JoJo White and Paul Silas. He had walked as coach, but does anyone think that Tom Heinsohn could've won two titles with those Celtics, and Red wouldn't have if he had stayed on the bench?

Auerbach made them three-time champions in the 1980s era, engineering the ingenious acquisitions of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. Perhaps he was too old to coach by that time, but let's understand something: Whatever people want to project with Jackson, about what maybe he could've done in a different circumstance, they'll never have to do with Red Auerbach.

He did it.

And then did it again.

And again.

Phil Jackson
Would Phil Jackson be capable of getting through to Kobe Bryant?
What Jackson has done with the Lakers and Bulls is truly remarkable, but let Larry Brown beat him in these Finals and then Brown's coaching résumé can hold against anybody in history. All he's done is get the most of out teams everywhere he's been, and with one of the great NCAA tournament champions runs in history at Kansas with Danny Manning and the Miracles in 1988, with turning around the Nets, the Spurs, the Clippers, the Pacers, the Sixers and, finally this season, bringing the Pistons to the cusp of a title, Brown has moved himself onto the Rushmore of coaching legends. He won ABA Coach of the Year three times, and almost won that first UCLA national title in the post-John Wooden era, losing in the 1980 NCAA Final to Louisville.

When history remembers Brown beyond his fatal flaw of forever running out on commitments, there will be no mistaking his legacy as a teacher of the game. They'll be no mistaking the distinct style his basketball teams played. He never had the best talent on the floor, but on a lot of nights, he had the best team. He developed players. He lived to teach the game in the gym. What they'll remember about Jackson is that he was the great manager of personalities, the great stabilizer on turbulent teams. This was an important talent, but managing talent isn't coaching it.

Despite his constant job jumping, Brown is far more like Auerbach than Jackson will ever be. When the New Jersey Nets offered Jackson more than $7 million a year to take over a lost franchise in 2000, Jackson concluded that Jersey undertaking a "24/7" job, and passed, waiting for the Lakers to come calling for him. No one can begrudge passing on that disastrous franchise, but just making them a contender again would've gone a long way to validating his six championships with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.

Auerbach isn't foolish. Jackson has never blown a championship. When he's close, he got it. He's 9-0 in the NBA Finals, and when it was clear that he had the best team, he's won the championship. The Lakers are falling apart now, down 2-1 to the Detroit Pistons and the title run could be over, especially if Kobe Bryant leaves this summer.

"But hey, when the guy has won as many close games as he has, he's got to be pretty damn good," Auerbach said.

Pretty damn good is right, but understand: It doesn't make him Red Auerbach.

Adrian Wojnarowski is a columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj8@aol.com

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