Jackson Is Seeing Red After Title

After it was over on this steamy June night, after the Lakers had turned away one last charge up the hill by the Philadelphia 76ers' musket brigade, Phil Jackson was smiling.

See a player, smile, hug and smile. He repeated the sequence again and again on the floor of the First Union Center, the way he has in arenas in every time zone in the country.

He gets the last laugh. Again.

The season ends, Phil Jackson lights a cigar.

Sounds like Red Auerbach? Get used to it. It's getting more and more difficult to mention one without the other.

When asked to rate Jackson, Laker forward Horace Grant said: "He and Red Auerbach have to be 1 and 1A, the best coaches who ever coached the game."

He wouldn't differentiate between which was which, but if the Lakers keep winning, the numbers will do it for him.

When the Lakers swept the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals, Jackson moved past Auerbach's record of 18 consecutive playoff series victories. Jackson now has won 20 in a row.

And Jackson has coached his teams to eight championships, moving him to within one of the standard set by Red Auerbach.

Jackson was relieved to find out Red's record was "only" nine.

"Somebody said 10 the other day and I was concerned I'd have to stay in this game longer than that," he said.

"You know, it's incredible to be in this position as a coach, knowing that this run for the last decade has just been incredible for my coaching career on a personal level. But everything revolves around a team, revolves around a staff that I've assembled and has been around me during those periods of years.

"It's impossible for me to look back and to be in the same level of Red Auerbach or other coaches that have coached in this game for years. I've been in the right spot and I've been fortunate to have players that put me in this position."

That's the knock on Jackson, that he only wins because he has the best players: Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in Chicago, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant in L.A.

You think Auerbach won with a bunch of chumps? A solid 10% of the NBA's 50 all-time greatest players wore the Boston Celtic uniform for him: Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, Sam Jones, Bill Russell and Bill Sharman.

The egos might have been as large back in the 1960s, but the attention and scrutiny was nowhere near as great.

The fact that Jackson has managed to corral the wills and attitudes of everyone from Jordan to Pippen to O'Neal to Bryant and everyone he asked to play supporting roles around them is what makes him a key part of all those championships, not merely a cast member.

Fixing this Laker team--when O'Neal and Bryant clashed over the direction and leadership of the club and the bickering was national news--was his greatest challenge.

That's why he said this championship was both his "most difficult and rewarding."

It goes down as his top accomplishment.

"This team had some growing to do," assistant coach Jim Cleamons said. "There was a point in time that we could have gone one way or another, and I'm so happy we went in a positive direction.

"In the end they saw that coming together and staying together allowed things to be accomplished. I think that was the message that we had to learn collectively as a team.

"[Jackson] knows the pulse of this team. He has to understand the vision and where he wants us to go. I think the team in the end, they came together and they fulfilled the vision he had for them."

After his team swept through the first three rounds of the playoffs, Jackson ran up against Philadelphia 76er Coach Larry Brown--one of the few times Jackson wasn't automatically handed the edge in the coaching matchups.

Brown struggled to piece together combinations from his injury-riddled roster that could work.

At times, Brown's multiple moves made him look like he held a decisive upper hand in the coaching matchup. But it also subjected him to more second-guessing.

Jackson made fewer moves, but everything he tried worked. He sent in Tyronn Lue to guard Allen Iverson--a.k.a. The Answer--and Lue became The Reply for the Lakers.

Robert Horry in Game 3. Jackson called Ron Harper off the golf course, and Harper made some key shots in Games 2, 3 and 4.

Brown's forte is taking teams and willing them to greater heights. He even had a winning record when he coached the Clippers. But for all of his coaching ability, this was his first trip to the NBA Finals.

Brown tends to draw more compassion than Jackson. You see Brown's basset-hound face, hear that weary-sounding voice and you want go give him a blanket and a sandwich.

Jackson can't win. People get mad when he sits stoically, they get mad when he smiles.

Yes, there's an arrogance to Jackson. But he wears it very well, to the point it's kind of appealing. When he tries modesty, such as his pregame remark that "in the unlikely but fortunate event that we should prevail in this game," it doesn't work for him.

But he has this: His coaching style is the least egomaniacal in the NBA.

In contrast to many of the league's coaches who jump around the sidelines, signal for plays every trip downcourt and call timeouts whenever their team gives up back-to-back baskets, Jackson does little during a game to call attention to himself.

When things are going against the Lakers, he'll sit by, refusing to call timeout. Same for his approach to the internal chaos.

With the town--including this mouth--screaming for Jackson to mend the Shaq-Kobe rift that threatened to tear the team apart, with the faith his superstars had in him wavering, he let them settle it themselves. He insists it builds character.

His ways also send the message to players that they are men, that he trusts them enough to make their own decisions.

He did levy fines this season, for everything from being late to practice to not getting back on defense.

But the convergence of this team into a powerful force that wins its final eight regular-season games, then posts an unprecedented 15-1 record in the playoffs came from within.

And it came from the environment created by Jackson.

Add the championship ring he won playing for the New York Knicks and his total of nine puts him only two behind the all-time jewelry standard of Bill Russell.

You don't even to look to know he's in the room anymore. Just smell the cigar smoke.


J.A. Adande can be reached at j.a.adande@latimes.com.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World