Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Bill Simmons and Basketball's Zen Master

Professional sports has probably never seen a championship coach like Phil Jackson. Jackson was the architect of the NBA World Championships of the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers, and was able to win by managing the personalities and egos of some of the greatest basketball players in the history of the game.

Simmons on what made Jackson special:

That trait defined Jackson as a coach. He couldn't be rattled. He never overreacted. He measured every response, thought out every media barb, dealt with every player with the same steady hand. These past 20 years weren't exactly easy for Jackson, even if the narrative has morphed into "Well, anyone could win eleven titles with Jordan, Shaq and Kobe!" In 1992, a best-selling book called "The Jordan Rules" nearly imploded the Bulls. In 1993, his best player disappeared for 18 months. In 1997, the relationship between Scottie Pippen, Michael Jordan and Bulls general manager Jerry Krause became so contentious that Jackson asked Krause to stop traveling with the team. In 1998, Dennis Rodman started partying so much that Jackson and a few others had to have a makeshift intervention. In 2001, Shaq and Kobe's relationship started to deteriorate, a three-year spiral that bottomed out when Kobe was accused of sexual assault. In 2005, his general manager traded his second-best player for Kwame Brown. In 2007, Kobe spent the summer and the first month of the regular season desperately pushing for a trade. Jackson managed everything. There were times when he failed -- the 2004 Finals, most notably -- but you could never say he lost his cool.

His defining moment happened during the 1994 playoffs, when Pippen refused to re-enter Game 3 against New York after Jackson called the final play for Toni Kukoc. Instead of laying into Pippen after the game, Jackson trusted his players to handle the immediate aftermath. It ended up being done by Bill Cartwright, who screamed at Scottie with tears rolling down his face, incredulous that one of the league's most unselfish players would undermine that dogfight of a season -- when the Bulls somehow remained contenders with Jordan playing baseball -- by acting so selfishly.

Jackson waited for the room to calm down, judged the moment for what it was, chalked it up as an aberration and moved on. More than a few coaches would have abandoned Pippen, claimed that he lost the team, pushed for him to be traded that summer. Jackson knew that Pippen's mistake came from a complicated place, a Molotov cocktail of insecurity, ego and frustration about his unfair salary. When Jordan left, everyone pushed Scottie to be the leader -- including Jackson -- but the Bulls didn't pay him like other franchise players, and now they were giving away his "You the man!" moment? Jackson wanted to understand why Pippen handled it so poorly, figured it out, determined it wouldn't happen again (hopefully), and defended him going forward. Coaching isn't just about calling plays, riding the officials and figuring out strategies. Really, it's management more than anything else. You manage people. Jackson managed people better than anyone.

Simmons on Jackson the man-manager:

He never gets enough credit for successfully handling two of the three most difficult NBA superstars ever: Jordan and Kobe (with Wilt being the third). Jordan's ongoing ruthlessness threatened the basic concept of a "team" -- instead of being supportive, he was withering. He had to win all the time, every time. If he sensed someone might be a weak link, Jordan shattered their confidence rather than building it up. During any times of real struggle on a basketball court, he trusted himself over everyone else and played accordingly. Jackson tempered his most unlikable qualities while accentuating the good ones, steering him toward a team framework without compromising the ferocity that defined him.

His smartest small-picture move was pitting Pippen and Jordan on opposite sides in every scrimmage, which kept both players sharp and ensured their practices were properly competitive; otherwise, Jordan would have gone for a shutout every game. His smartest big-picture move was his handling of Jordan's baseball sabbatical, when he reminded Michael that he was an artist more than a basketball player, and that, by walking away, he would be depriving millions of a chance to experience that art. He never tried to change Michael's mind, just reminded him what was at stake. For Jordan, that cemented their relationship and opened the door for Michael's eventual return; he knew Jackson cared about him as something more than a meal ticket. When people dismiss Jackson's credentials with "Anyone could have coached Michael Jordan," they are wrong.

Simmons on Jackson's ability to relate to his players:

The good news: Nobody will remember that Dallas sweep in eleven years, just the eleven rings and every relationship he fostered along the way. Steve Kerr told me once that what made Jackson special -- and Popovich too -- was that he cared about his twelfth guy as much as his best guy. He spent time with his players, bought them gifts, thought about what made them tick. He connected with them, sold them on the concept of a team, stuck up for them when they needed him. His actual coaching -- calling plays, working refs, figuring out lineups and everything else that we see -- was a smaller piece of a much bigger picture. His players competed for him for many reasons, but mainly because they truly believed Jackson cared about them. Which he definitely did.

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