- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 11, 2008

LOS ANGELES

He is chasing a ghost, the Zen Master is. Phil Jackson cannot win, even if he eclipses Red Auerbach with a 10th championship.

The living rarely compare well to dead legends.

Both men are more alike than either cared to admit while Auerbach was around.

Auerbach always pointed to Jackson gravitating to the game’s best players, first Michael Jordan and then Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.

This was intended to tweak the accomplishments of Jackson.

That was the competitor in Auerbach. There was a trace of arrogance, too.

The same characterization could be said of Jackson, one of the few NBA coaches who stands on a higher plane than his players.

Jackson is not afraid to call out his players, including Kobe Bryant.

They may have forged a lasting alliance this season but only after coming to an uneasy peace following Jackson’s first go-around with the Lakers.

Of the 2004 season, Jackson wrote, “I do know that there were many occasions this year when I felt like there was a psychological war going on between us.”

He penned that unflattering passage and others on Bryant in a book titled “The Last Season: A team in Search of Its Soul.”

Jackson knows how to work a playoff series. The work sometimes includes a pointed comment on the quality of the officiating or an unforgiving observation on one of his players, such as Lamar Odom appearing “confused” in Game 2.

Jackson always has enjoyed the mental battle of playoff basketball, just as Auerbach did.

Visitors to Boston Garden found the locker room to be either too cold in the winter or too hot in the spring. That was said to be Auerbach’s handiwork, and even if it wasn’t, he was not about to tell the opposition otherwise.

Auerbach wanted opponents to believe he controlled every aspect of the Celtics’ old homecourt. Once he had an opponent thinking as much about him as Bill Russell, that would be just another advantage in his team’s favor.

Jackson used to delight in taking on the city of Sacramento, acting as if it were a small town instead of the state capital that it is. These fighting words angered the cowbell-waving supporters of the Kings, unable to see the barb for what it was.

Jackson, with a straight face, could twist a postgame question-and-answer session into a plea to the referees to let Dennis Rodman be who he is.

Predictably, that plea would be in the next morning’s newspapers and presumably read by the referees.

Auerbach jumps out of those old black-and-white photographs of the ‘50s and ‘60s as an everyman. His kind never will pass through the NBA again, because that NBA is as gone as the Fort Wayne Pistons.

Auerbach was a showman, promoter, marketer, tough businessman, shrink and basketball coach. He had to be all those things in the NBA of the ‘50s and ‘60s, for it was an entity subservient to baseball, football, boxing and horse racing.

It needed the energy, strength and vision of Auerbach to coalesce into something grander than a glorified minor league operation. It needed Auerbach’s grin, victory cigar and Russell’s David haunting Wilt Chamberlain’s Goliath.

With the oddly configured shoulders and Lurch-like gait, Jackson has the commanding sideline presence that belies his humble roots as a coach in the old Continental Basketball Association. He might never have made it to the NBA if not for an appeal from Jerry Krause to join Doug Collins’ staff in 1987.

Collins eventually grated on the Bulls, and the incense-burning philosopher was granted the opportunity to lead an NBA team. It has resulted in a remarkable body of work and a link to Auerbach.

Neither man could appreciate that link while Auerbach was still around.

There was too much NBA history between them, with Jackson being a disciple of Red Holzman and the Knicks championship teams of the early ‘70s.

If Jackson is to pass Auerbach, the Lakers will have to win four of the next five games of the series.

Auerbach is booing that prospect from his seat in the heavens.

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