To the surprise of some, Phil Jackson became a basketball lifer
Phil Jackson was a gangly young forward with the New York Knicks in the 1960s, and to his teammates he seemed the most unlikely candidate to ever become a head coach.
“When we were playing together,” recalled Mike Riordan, a Knicks guard and Jackson’s teammate for three seasons, “Phil said to me, ‘Mike, you’re the type of guy who can’t live without basketball. When you’re finished with basketball, you’re such a junkie, you’ll have to be coaching in basketball the rest of your life.’ And then he says, ‘That’s not for me.’ ”
Speed forward to the present. Jackson, 65, is finishing training camp with the Lakers as they try to win another championship in what is his 20th season as an NBA head coach.
His transformation from player to coach was a surprise, even for him.
Jackson coached baseball while in high school and college, including a state champion Babe Ruth League team in his hometown, Williston, N.D.
“It’s not like coaching just dropped on me, but I never took phys ed classes in college. I never had any inclination on it being like this. I was in arts and literature,” Jackson said.
Jackson’s interest in coaching gradually took root during 12 seasons as a player for the Knicks and the New Jersey Nets as he did some part-time scouting and coaching.
But when the Knicks made him their second-round draft pick in 1967, Jackson didn’t show the same interest in basketball, some of his former teammates said.
Before his rookie season, Riordan played in some street pickup games, but not Jackson, Riordan said. “He had the mental frame of mind that basketball was important in his life, but he saw himself going in another direction” after his playing career, Riordan said.
Bill Hosket, who played two seasons with the Knicks in the late ‘60s, remembers Jackson even avoiding postgame conversations about basketball.
Jackson was injured and missed the end of the Knicks’ 1968-69 season, and after spinal surgery he was sidelined for the entire 1969-70 championship season.
“I ended up on the injured reserve list and [Knicks Coach] Red Holzman had no assistant. I ended up being the guy in the locker room with him,” Jackson said. “As we started developing a relationship and he started seeing that I saw the game a certain way, he asked me to start diagramming stuff in the locker room before the game, plays that the other team would run.”
Said Hosket: “Phil understood the game and was particularly effective on the defensive end.”
What did Jackson learn from Holzman?
“I learned that he usually had an Alka-Seltzer before the game,” Jackson said before chuckling. “He had a great sense of humor. He always said that basketball isn’t rocket science. It’s a pretty basic thing. You stay in front of your man defensively and on the offensive end, hit the open man…
“But he had a lot of common sense about people. I think that’s more than anything else what I picked up on.”
In 1978, Jackson was traded to the Nets, a team coached by Kevin Loughery and one loaded with young players. Jackson was an elderly 33, and he assumed he was going to be cut.
But Loughery surprised Jackson by telling him that he wanted him as a part-time player and coach.
“It’s a very hard experience to be both a player and assistant coach. You’re on both sides of the fence,” Jackson said of his time with the Nets. “You try and get [players] to do some things that they’re learning and then you’ve got responsibilities to the coaching staff.”
Jackson joined a cast of role players on the Nets who later become head coaches: Al Skinner (Boston College), Eddie Jordan ( Philadelphia 76ers, Washington Wizards, Sacramento Kings) and Jan van Breda Kolff (Pepperdine, Vanderbilt).
Bob Elliott, a center-forward, played with Jackson for two seasons in New Jersey.
Elliott said none of the future head coaches were physically imposing, so they had to understand the game well to compete. “That made it easier for them [as a coach] to put someone else in the position to be successful,” Elliott said.
The Nets’ win total jumped from 24 to 37 in Jackson’s first season with them. “We had a pretty successful run. Kevin got thrown out of about 12 or 14 games, so I got to coach some games,” Jackson said.
After retiring as a player, Jackson took on various coaching jobs. He coached the Albany Patroons to a title in the Continental Basketball Assn. in 1984, and followed Holzman’s advice and coached in Puerto Rico’s National Superior Basketball League. In 1987, Jackson joined the Chicago Bulls as an assistant coach under Doug Collins.
Even then, Jackson was unsure whether he’d stick with coaching.
He quizzed Riordan, who then owned a restaurant, and Hosket, who ran an insurance agency, about their transition away from basketball. Hosket remembers talking with Jackson for an hour about what it was like to start a new career.
But in 1989, Jackson became the head coach of the Bulls, and he went on to win six championships with Chicago and five more with the Lakers.
“It’s just funny that someone could be in that position and end up with the basketball success he has,” Hosket said. “Life is timing, and he made the most of it.”
Times staff writer Mike Bresnahan contributed to this report.