Winning aside, Jackson 'a very normal guy'

Updated: June 3, 2004, 11:34 PM ET
Associated Press

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- It's the NBA Finals, and that means Phil Jackson digs into his personal jewelry box for a championship ring to inspire his players.

Jackson sported the 2001 ring won by the Los Angeles Lakers on his right pinkie Thursday. A bit gaudy perhaps, but the 58-year-old coach with nine titles to his credit is following a personal tradition.

"The stuff has just snowballed. I can't stop to absorb it all," he said of the staggering success he's experienced as an NBA coach.

Jackson has been called lucky to have coached the likes of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in Chicago and Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant with the Lakers. Considering the four superstars didn't win a championship before playing for Jackson, maybe they're the lucky ones.

A Jackson-coached team won its first title 13 years ago when the Bulls beat the Lakers, clinching the title at the Forum in nearby Inglewood.

Just a few miles away at the Lakers' training facility, Jackson recalled feeling he had reached the pinnacle of his profession at that time.

He was only just beginning.

The Bulls won five more titles including three straight from 1996-98 before Jackson, Jordan and Pippen all left.

After taking a year off, Jackson signed a five-year, $30 million contract to coach the underachieving Lakers, who immediately won three straight championships, giving their coach six straight and nine overall, tied with former Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach.

The Lakers were eliminated from the playoffs by San Antonio last May -- five days after Jackson underwent an angioplasty to clear a clogged heart artery.

Now, they're four wins shy of winning their fourth title in five years, and heavily favored to do so against the Detroit Pistons.

"That would be a real feat, I think," Jackson acknowledged of winning a 10th title in his 14th season as a head coach.

Jackson has been known as the "Zen Master" because of his involvement with meditation.

"In everybody's mind, the perception of Zen and meditation is calm and quiet. He strives for that because he's so opposite," said Jackson's girlfriend, Jeanie Buss, daughter of Lakers owner Jerry Buss and a team executive as well.

"He doesn't sit around all day with his legs crossed meditating," Buss said. "He does spend time meditating to get away from it all. Meditation is about clearing the mind. For me, it's pretty easy to clear my mind. He's got to practice it -- it's like working out."

Lakers assistant coach Kurt Rambis called Jackson "a very normal guy."

"He's very approachable, very intelligent, very passionate about his job," Rambis said. "He was a very demanding coach when he first got here -- very strict, really pushed the guys. As he's evolved here, as his team has evolved, he's gotten a lot more accommodating."

Jackson's contract expires after the season, and the Lakers broke off negotiations on an extension in February. While Jackson has been noncommittal about his future, Rambis believes his boss still wants to coach.

Jackson enters the finals with an NBA postseason-record 174 victories.

"He'll probably be either the greatest coach or one of the greatest coaches, according to me," O'Neal said regarding Jackson's status should the Lakers win the title. "I don't know what Red Auerbach would say about that. I'd put him right up there."

Buss said Jackson works 20 hours a day during the season.

"He's constantly plotting, especially during the playoffs," she said. "There are many nights we're at dinner where there's silence.

"He's not the perfect person. It's not like that. Is he the most adult man I've ever had a relationship with? Yes, by far. The most complex? Yes."

And, Buss pointed out, very human.

"He loves to watch baseball on TV and have a beer," she said.


Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press

ALSO SEE