by Pat Gunther
As the Los Angeles Lakers fell to the Dallas Mavericks 122-86 on Sunday May 8, 2011, one story in particular lingered for days after. It wasn’t the Lakers’ disastrous collapse, or Pau Gasol’s disappearing act in the playoffs. It was the retirement of the most winning coach in NBA history, Phil Jackson.
On May 31st the Lakers officially hired Mike Brown as their new coach. One can only reflect on the incredible job Phil Jackson has done for the Lakers franchise. Although Brown has clown-sized shoes to fill, a seemingly impossible expectation, we must reflect on the incredible contributions Phil Jackson gave to the game of basketball.
Jackson took the head coach position in 1999, after a one-year sabbatical. Jackson retired after the 1998 season with the Chicago Bulls and his transcendent superstar Michael Jordan. After Jordan’s Bulls defeated the Utah Jazz in the NBA Finals, Phil Jackson vowed never to return to the sideline to coach another game.
Although Jackson’s journey in Los Angeles began in 1999, his illustrious career was already underway when he joined them. After capturing two NBA championships with the New York Knicks in 1970 and 1973 as a player, Jackson earned six more as the head coach of the Chicago Bulls. Jackson was hired as an assistant to Doug Collins in 1987, but shortly after took over as the head coach of Chicago in 1989.
Jackson’s unusual coaching methods, including his deep spirituality and counter-culture beliefs, helped propel the Bulls to a playoff appearance in only his first season as a head coach. The Bulls finished 55-27 in Jackson’s first season, and lost in the Eastern Conference finals to the hard-nosed Detroit Pistons.
The first season under Jackson’s belt was a successful one, and the team’s improbable run in the NBA playoffs brought a swagger that would not be shaken for nearly a decade. The Bulls promptly returned to the 1991 NBA season and finished 61-21 as the won their first NBA Championship in franchise history. Jackson first hoisted the Larry O’Brien trophy as a coach that season, but it would not be his last. The Bulls continued their dominance for two seasons after, and became the first franchise since the Boston Celtics to three-peat. As Jackson solidified himself as the top coach in the NBA, the Bulls suffered for the next three seasons.
The 1994 season ended with the Chicago Bulls losing to the New York Knicks in seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. Although the Houston Rockets won the NBA Finals, their first title in franchise history was hardly the league’s most captivating storyline. Michael Jordan missed the 1994 season to pursue his childhood dream of becoming a professional baseball player, a goal that his late father wanted him to accomplish. As the Jordanless Bulls made another run to the Eastern Conference Finals; there was turmoil in the locker room. In game three, the Chicago Bulls ran a play for power-forward Toni Kukoc at the last second, something that former wingman- turned- team’s -star Scottie Pippen resented. Pippen refused to play in the final seconds, as he took Phil Jackson’s decision as a slap in the face.
The Bulls ultimately fell at the hands of Pat Riley’s New York Knicks in seven games, and Jackson had no choice but to beg his star to come back. Jackson delivered an inspiring speech to Michael Jordan, stating that he was not just an athlete but an artist and he needed to return for the fans. Jordan came back, and in his first season after his “retirement” led the Bulls back to the Eastern Conference Finals. Jordan’s valiant effort was for naught, as the Chicago Bulls lost to Shaquille O’Neal’s Orlando Magic. The Bulls failed to capture another NBA championship, and critics were writing Jordan off. Jackson, meanwhile, kept his cool, something he has become famous for, and looked forward to the 1995-1996 NBA season. Jackson and the Bulls cruised through the season finishing 72-10; a record for most wins that still stands today.
Jordan submitted one of the finest seasons of his career, averaging 30.4 points per game while shooting 42% from behind the three-point line. As Jordan captured yet another MVP award, Phil Jackson also walked away with some hardware. Jackson won his first and only coach of the year award, while the Bulls ran through the playoffs with little opposition. Chicago had returned to the NBA finals for the first time since Michael Jordan’s return, and defeated a lucky Seattle Supersonics team in six games.
Jackson’s team returned to the pinnacle of the NBA and would not be dethroned until 1998 when Michael Jordan retired. The Bulls would three-peat for the second time in Jackson’s career, ultimately ending Michael Jordan’s illustrious tenure in the NBA. Jordan would then hang it up for the second time in his life, and Phil Jackson too decided it was time to leave the game.
Jackson retreated to his home in Montana after that magical NBA season, where he fished and enjoyed the outdoors. But as Jackson continued to live the life of a retired man, the game kept calling him back. Finally before the 1999-2000 NBA season, Jackson took the reigns from Del Harris as head coach for the Los Angeles Lakers. Jackson inherited a very talented Los Angeles team, and in his first season finished 67-15, the best record in the league. The Lakers battled through the playoffs, defeating an incredibly deep Sacramento Kings team in the first round and one of the best Portland Trail Blazer’s teams in seven games to capture the Western Conference.
Led by super star Shaquille O’Neal, the Lakers met with sharpshooter Reggie Miller’s Indiana Pacers in the 2000 NBA Finals. It took the Lakers six games to silence the Pacers, but in the end they prevailed. Phil Jackson captured his seventh championship ring, and stamped his mark on the NBA as the Red Auerbach of the 21st century. Jackson and the Lakers celebrated for the first time that June, but it would not be their last.
The next season the Lakers went 56-26, and yet again advanced to the playoffs with ease. They submitted the single most impressive post-season in NBA history, going 15-1 as they absolutely demolished anyone in their path. They entered the NBA Finals of the 2001 season, undefeated at 11-0, and faced prolific scorer Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers. The Lakers only loss of that post season came in the first game of the Finals in overtime, as the 76ers prevailed 107-101. The Lakers rattled off four consecutive wins, and had given rise to Phil Jackson’s third three-peat in his career.
The Lakers captured the fourteenth title in franchise history as they swept the New Jersey Nets. Jackson captured his eight overall title that season, and his third with the Lakers. The next season, however the Lakers would lose in the Western Conference Finals to the San Antonio Spurs, which sent them into a proverbial funk for the coming season. The Lakers reloaded with aging stars Karl Malone and Gary Payton in 2003-2004, but fell to the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals. Jackson retired and the Lakers locker room was subject to severe turmoil. Kobe Bryant’s rape case created a rift in the team, particularly his relationship with Shaquille O’Neal, and resulted in the trading of O’Neal.
During that summer, Jackson published a book in which he called Kobe Bryant ‘uncoachable,’ and revealed several personal stories about that past season. The next season the Lakers finished 34-48, and were rewarded the number ten overall pick in the draft, with which they promptly drafted Shaquille O’Neal’s replacement, Andrew Bynum. The Lakers were stuck in a pickle, and begged Jackson to return to the team. Jackson deliberated the decision for several weeks, but ultimately decided to return to his team.
The Lakers went through the next two seasons with completely average records, but incredible play from Kobe Bryant. Although Bryant continued to light up the box scores, the Lakers lacked the team mentality that propelled them to their previous championships. As the 2007-2008 NBA season began, Jackson’s Lakers got off to a fast start, and entered the all-star break as one of the best teams in the Western Conference. The management made a key move before the trade deadline that season, and acquired all-star power forward Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies.
The acquisition of Gasol pushed the Lakers into the league’s upper echelon, and helped carry them to the NBA finals for the first time since 2004. They faced their archrival the Boston Celtics this particular year, and looked like they were on their way to capturing the fifteenth title in Lakers history. The Celtics, however, outplayed them in every aspect of the game and embarrassed the Lakers as they cruised to another NBA Championship.
The humiliating defeat left many wondering whether Jackson would return or not, and if the Lakers could respond and capture the title next year. Jackson decided to return, and with the help of Kobe Bryant, led the Lakers to the NBA Finals yet again. This time, they faced the Orlando Magic, and bested them in five games. Phil Jackson was again a champion, and came back to avenge his loss to the Boston Celtics in a thrilling seven game series the following season.
Jackson had won back-to-back championships before losing to the Dallas Mavericks this post-season, and captured eleven NBA titles along the way. Although he leaves the game with the sour taste of defeat in his mouth, Jackson also departs with the satisfaction of knowing he is the greatest to ever coach in the NBA. For everything Phil has done for the Association, for Chicago Bulls fans, and for Los Angeles Lakers fans, we thank you. And although this appears to be the end of the line for the Zen Master, you never know what trick Phil Jackson has up his sleeve.