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Phil Jackson

Chronology, Related Biography: Basketball Coach Tex Winter, Selected Writings By Jackson:, Career StatisticsCONTACT INFORMATION


American basketball coach

Phil Jackson's preeminence as a National Basketball Association (NBA) coach is evidenced by his top-ranking winning percentage and nine championship rings. During the 1990s he coached the Chicago Bulls to six NBA titles. While star player Michael Jordan was given considerable credit for the Bulls' unprecedented pair of "three-peats," it is questionable whether he would have had such success under any other coach. Jackson, using the triangle offense, got the Bulls to play well as a team rather than just serve as a background to Jordan's solo act. He has since strengthened the Los Angeles Lakers, a team that had great talent in Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, but could not prove that they were championship material. Under Jackson's eye, and again using the triangle offense, they quickly racked up three consecutive NBA titles. Since the days when he played for the New York Knicks, Jackson has been known as a non-conformist who is deeply interested in politics, philosophy, religion, and psychology. He touches on all of these subjects when he talks about basketball, but most analysts agree that amidst team meditations and recommended reading lists, it is Jackson's knowledge of the game and ability to work with star players that make him a highly effective coach.

Born in Deer Lodge, Montana, Jackson had an unusual childhood as the offspring of two fundamentalist ministers. His strict upbringing did not include dancing, rock music, movies, or television. However, he did participate in extracurricular activities at school, including basketball, football, and baseball. At six feet, eight inches tall and weighing 180 pounds, he was a great asset to his high school basketball team and went on to play at the University of North Dakota. Going to college, where he majored in religion, philosophy, and psychology, gave Jackson the freedom to question his beliefs and lifestyle. He also gained some forty pounds and drew attention from NBA scouts.

The New York Knicks selected Jackson in the second round of the 1967 NBA draft. He became a rookie along with teammates Bill Bradley and Walt Frazier. They

Phil Jackson

would soon play under Red Holtzman, who influenced Jackson's later coaching style with his team-oriented approach. As a player, Jackson was not a star, but was especially good at setting picks, rebounding, and playing man-to-man defense. He was also popular, though not universally admired, for his off-court behavior. Many young fans liked the fact that he rode his bike to Madison Square Garden, supported liberal political causes, was a (temporary) vegetarian, and experimented with LSD and marijuana. In 1975 Jackson detailed some of these experiences in his autobiography Maverick.

Jackson played in the NBA until 1980, missing the Knicks' 1970 championship season because of a back injury, but contributing to the team's 1973 title. In 1978 he was traded to the New Jersey Nets, for whom he would serve as a player-assistant coach for two years. Although he has been described as the least likely player to turn coach, Jackson soon began a coaching career with the Albany Patroons, a Continental Basketball Association team. With the hope of reaching the NBA, he spent five seasons with the Patroons. When he resigned from this job in 1987, Jackson was discouraged and considered going back to school. That was when the Bulls asked him to interview for an assistant coaching position prior to the 1987-88 season. Jackson shaved his beard and adopted a more conventional style of dressing than he had used at an earlier, unsuccessful interview with the team. He got the job, assisting Doug Collins.

One night in Milwaukee, the Bulls played exceptionally well under Jackson after Collins was ejected from the game. When Collins was later fired, his assistant became head coach for the 1989-90 season. Jackson proceeded to put a new emphasis on defense and to institute the triangle offense, as taught by his assistant Tex Winter, despite grumbling from a skeptical team. The triangle offense involves giving all five players on the floor opportunities to score by focusing on penetration, spacing, ball movement, offensive rebounds, and getting the ball to the open man. The move cut Jordan's scoring stats slightly, but drastically improved the team's performance as a whole. The Bulls were eliminated in the Eastern Conference finals that first year under Jackson, but went on to win the NBA championship in 1991, 1992, and 1993. Jordan retired after the 1993 season, troubled by his father's death and wanting to try his hand at professional baseball. But the Bulls' star returned to the team late in 1995 and was part of Chicago's championship teams of 1996, 1997, and 1998. A "repeat three-peat" was something that had never been done before in the NBA. This second string of titles was ended when Jordan retired again, Scottie Pippen was traded to Houston, and Jackson temporarily retired from coaching.

After a one-year hiatus, Jackson accepted a job offer from the Los Angeles Lakers and a five-year contract worth $30 million. The Lakers had some of the most highly-touted talent in the league, but they also had a reputation for disrespecting coaches, having huge egos, and fizzling in the playoffs. Since 1994, the team had performed disappointingly under Magic Johnson (briefly), Del Harris, and Kurt Rambis. It was a chance for Jackson to prove his skill with players and his knowledge of the game without the overshadowing presence of Michael Jordan.

In Los Angeles, Jackson did not hesitate to criticize his players. He warned that O'Neal was losing his role as a dominant figure in the NBA and that Bryant needed to stop showing off and shooting at will. He grumbled that his players had tiny attention spans. Yet another problem was bad feelings between O'Neal and Bryant. At practice, Jackson took a more disciplined approach and taught the basics, then the complicated triangle offense. O'Neal was quick to voice his support of Jackson, even calling him "my white father." Bryant looked forward to using the new offense to advantage but was offended by Jackson's gift of the book The White Boy Shuffle about a black kid living amidst whites. As a whole, a team known for partying was trying to show Jackson that they were cleaning up their act.

Under Jackson's new regime, the Lakers finally put it all together on the court. The team proceeded to claim the NBA title in 2000, their first since 1988, and again in 2001 and 2002. Even before the last of these titles was won, Jackson had achieved the best-ever winning percentage among NBA coaches at .738. His 156-54 win-loss record in the playoffs was also the best. The team's prospects in subsequent seasons will depend on whether Jackson will stay beyond his five-year contract, which ends with the 2003-04 season. O'Neal has said that if his coach leaves Los Angeles, he will also. However, by 2002 Jackson had formed an unusual alliance that might strengthen his ties to the Lakers, a serious personal relationship with Jeanie Buss, daughter of Lakers' owner Jerry Buss and vice president of business operations for the team. Jackson was divorced from his wife June, who had not moved to Los Angeles with him.

The question of why Phil Jackson is so successful constitutes an ongoing debate. As Jackson himself has pointed out, neither he nor Winter originated the triangle offense. He has simply used it more successfully than other coaches. His unconventional behavior, such as assigning poetry, philosophy, and novels for his players to read, is sometimes dismissed as mind games or as a screen used to mystify his other methods. The result, however, is clear. Jackson gets his players to focus on a common goal and in this mode they play well consistently. In an era when star players far outrank their coaches in salary and influence, he has proven that coaching is still essential to winning NBA titles. He has taken some of the NBA's finest individual players—Jordan, O'Neal, and Bryant—and made them integral parts of championship teams rather than independently functioning stars on teams that disappear in the playoffs.


Address: Los Angeles Lakers, 3900 W. Manchester Blvd., P.O. Box 10, Inglewood, CA 90306.

Sketch by Paula Pyzik Scott

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Famous Sports StarsBasketball