The Last Emperor


Apr 2, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Phil Jackson looks on as the jersey of Los Angeles Lakers former player Shaquille O

It happened first as a player, he won a championship. And then it happened as a coach, he was a builder of championships. The difference between the two was subtle- one relied on performance, the other relied on trust. Still both were his body of work. It is his legacy of being in the league for so long that there is a Phil Jackson romance, this winner of eleven coaching rings, the emperor of the triangle. He had a certain way of treating the men who played for him. He encouraged toughness and relied on connectivity and urged his players to stand their ground.

Start with glory. It needs pain. Otherwise how do you know what it is? In a way this is the subtext of coaching, creating the definitions, knowing how to hand players a system that will manage their egocentricity. Phil Jackson repeatedly did this with his Bulls teams and his Lakers teams, so thoroughly that in one city he won six times and in another city he won five times. And yet if it was all peeled away with a paring knife, if the titles of Phil Jackson were gone, and the moments disintegrated into a pile of dust. If the fights with management were walked all the way back. If Kobe’s stubbornness and skill, and Michael’s brilliance and dominance and a 72 win season, if all of that was buried in some grave overlooking some exotic sea, what would be left?

This would be left. He would extract selfishness from the game. He would dig out love. He would draw a circle between what is human and what is possible. The circle is the team. It was the team in Chicago and the team in Los Angeles and if he coached anywhere else it would be that too. For there are certain things that make a team whole. They trust. They respect. They forgive. They share. They compete. It is the unheard footprints of basketball, the unseen holy grail.

There was a moment in game 5 against the Lakers in 1991 when during a time-out Phil Jackson asked his star player to tell him who was open. Michael Jordan did not respond and then Phil said to Michael, “look at me, who is open?” John. John Paxson was open. Michael finally admitted as much. And then in the closing minute of a tense game Michael found John Paxson for an unguarded shot. It was coaching championship number one.

He was his father’s son. His father, the caring compassionate Pentecostal minister, had empathy for just about everyone. Look inside a person, that is where they are. And so the son for his imperfect players gave them books each season, an oddity for a coach but the books were significant in one way and symbolic in another because what is a gift, what is its purpose?. Read the books if you want. It was not going to alter the meaning of the kindness, that Phil took the time to choose something and to quietly say you matter to me.

And so it was after championship number three and a murdered father on his brain when Michael had had enough, when he was burdened by grief and sick and tired of his life in the glaring spotlight, when he walked away. He went to Phil and they talked and Phil did not say-don’t quit Michael. Phil said, the fans love you, you make them happy. But basketball did not make Michael happy, that was the point. The game was suddenly a burden and a drain. He had to walk away. And then, a year later, when Michael came back and had a terrible, terrible game in the playoffs and was responsible for the loss, Phil put his arm around Michael and said “You’re our guy, don’t forget that.”

The NBA did not forget Phil Jackson. After Chicago, when his time in that glittering sports obsessed city came to a crashing halt because of the mind games of general manager Jerry Krause, and he had a one year hiatus, Phil had the ability to breathe again. He absorbed the detritus and what had happened to the league and the game in his absence, how global it was, how driven the fans had become thanks to ESPN, how dynamic the athleticism was, how the high schoolers- Garnett, Kobe, McGrady- changed what was schematically possible. His phone rang. It was the Lakers.

Talent blesses, talent curses. Just like the Chicago Bulls in 1990 who lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to the Pistons, in 1998 the Lakers were swept by the eventual champions, the Spurs. Phil had a sense this Lakers team could win three titles. But Kobe was stubborn and had to suffer and experience failure and Shaq was demanding and had to learn to inspire.

It was a season of starts and stops in 1999 when Phil took over. Kobe broke his hand and was out until December. In February the Lakers lost four games in a row. Kobe’s single mindedness drained the team. Phil worked both ends. He challenged Shaq. He reasoned with Kobe. After the All Star break the Lakers went 27-1. In the Western Conference Finals, a lob pass from Kobe to Shaq represented their circle, their trust. In the Finals against Indiana, in game 4, after Shaq fouled out and Kobe took over the game, Shaq ran onto the court and called Kobe his “big little brother.” Of Kobe’s performance, Phil was reminded of his other star, Michael Jordan. Soon thereafter it was championship number seven.

And naturally it fell apart, it had to, this stage play with immature characters. The introvert who only wanted to win. The extrovert who needed to have fun. Kobe implied Phil’s offense was inhibiting his talent. Shaq said “if the offense doesn’t run through me the house does not get guarded.” This was light years from Chicago. Phil did not have the nurturing balm of Scottie Pippen, the sacrificing toughness of Bill Cartwright, the reliable maturity of John Paxson. There wasn’t the larger than life figure of Michael Jordan to keep everyone in line. This was L.A. The two best players in the NBA were on the same team fighting to save their own ego. And Phil with his Zen ethic was hesitant to step in, wanting them to figure it out for themselves. In many ways this put his tribal philosophy and his circle theology to the test. It was his greatest mistake, this innate sense he had of taking a step back. Unlike Chicago, the players were more stubborn and insistent and corrupted but they were also brilliant. Against Sacramento in the first round of the playoffs Shaq had 44 points and 21 rebounds. In the next round when they faced the Spurs, Kobe scored 45 points, had 16 rebounds which prompted Shaq to say of his teammate “you’re my idol.”

If athletes have interrupted lives then so do coaches. Here and gone. Phil left. He returned, wisdom and theology still intact. Upon his lead the team meditated. They listened to his drumming. He passed out books. In 2009, in the NBA Finals with a team not as talented as his previous championship teams but just as hungry, perhaps even hungrier, in a pregame session, Phil said to the them, “Let’s get our minds right.” He meant let’s get the right inner balance. Let’s be peaceful. Let’s be calm. Let’s become champions. It would be title number 10.

What does it mean when you repeat as champions? What does it say about intensity and focus and commitment? Everyone is trying to slay the beast. But Phil Jackson teams always return to finish what they started the year before. So in 2010 there was a Game 7, against Boston. In a timeout Phil said to Kobe “You don’t have to do it all by yourself.” Phil had been in this place before. He had watched a gifted player edge away from the offense, not because he was being rebellious but because he trusted himself. So his small soliloquy was a variation of what he said to Michael Jordan nineteen years earlier. Find the open man. Find him. As Jordan did, so did Kobe. He had the ball when Paul Pierce came over to disrupt his path to the rim. He did not hesitate. Kobe passed to Metta who was the open man. Metta made a three. For Phil Jackson it was championship number 11.

It is easy to put Phil Jackson in a box and say he is strange or say he is Zen this or Zen that or say there will never be another coach like him. But the facts are he won 11 NBA Finals series. He lost two. He went to a seventh game once. Six of his 11 titles he won on the road. The Bulls never had a 7th game. The Lakers had a sweep and won two series in 5 games. As great as his iconic players were Steve Kerr, John Paxson, B.J. Armstrong, Derek Fisher, Metta World Peace, Devean George were the glue to his winning.

The NBA without Phil Jackson is a silent place, no longer equitable because he should be coaching but is not. He is taking it all in, taking notes as he is deciding- where and what next and for how long. He is 68 years old now and the farther he gets away from basketball the farther he gets away from basketball. For all his talk about circles this is the most enduring circle, the one that surrounds his ordinary life. But still, the truth is the truth. He did an extraordinary thing for two American cities. He combed through the wreckage of failure. He drew the lines. He ruled the kingdom. All of his players were not geniuses, were not Kobe and MJ, will not be remembered in the mythology of the sport. But all of his players were developed in his image. Trust. Respect. Forgive. Share. Compete. There is something greater than yourself. It is the Phil Jackson way of teaching humility. Of walking to victory.