- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 12, 2002

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. Phil Jackson has eight rings and plenty of skeptics.
And barring the greatest collapse in NBA history, the coach of the Los Angeles Lakers will earn something all but one coach before could only dream of: a ninth championship.
The Lakers will try to close out the New Jersey Nets in Game 4 of the NBA Finals here tonight, and a victory would tie Jackson with Boston Celtics legend Red Auerbach for most titles.
That accomplishment could be followed by others nearly as formidable. Jackson also will break Pat Riley's record for playoff victories (155) with a win tonight. His Lakers are poised to win their third straight title, something his Chicago Bulls did twice.
And as stellar as the past has been, the future is just as bright.
Jackson has two years remaining on his $30 million contract with the Lakers and two of the game's most dominant players in Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.
Despite his incredible success, Jackson, 57, still has his critics. Many pundits suggest his accomplishments might be somewhat deceiving because he has coached phenomenally talented players like Michael Jordan with whom he won six championships in nine seasons (1989-1998) and now O'Neal and Bryant.
Although New Jersey coach Byron Scott has spoken complimentarily about Jackson at every turn, he did suggest earlier in the week that the lowly Memphis Grizzlies would have won the championship if O'Neal played for them.
Even the 84-year-old Auerbach questions Jackson's coaching prowess.
"Most of your great coaches do some teaching and developing of players," Auerbach said. "Phil may be able to do it, but he hasn't shown it. His teams have been ready-made."
Just as he has his detractors, however, Jackson also has his relentless defenders, such as Lakers forward Rick Fox.
"It's becoming personal for us [playing] for him," Fox said. "You keep hearing comments about his ability to coach. There's been questions about it, with people saying it's just the talent he has. I feel, as much as he's done for us, we need to come out in his defense. I didn't have a championship before I met him. Neither did Kobe. Neither did Shaq. We're all better players because of him. It's disappointing to have to defend yourself when you've been as successful as he's been."
Jackson's critics have spurred talk by his players of doing something that hasn't been done since the 1960s: winning a fourth consecutive title.
"If there's anything we can do as players, it's come back next year and do something that hasn't been done since the 1960s. It's jealousy. We recognize where it comes from," Fox said.
That kind of statement might have brought forth Auerbach's venom. After all, the old Boston coach never had a roster wanting for good players, either. Bill Russell, John Havlicek, Sam Jones and Bob Cousy, all selected among the NBA's top 50 players of all time, played for him. Jackson, by contrast, has coached three Jordan, O'Neal and Scottie Pippen.
Not every coach has been as bitter as Auerbach, who now says he was quoted out of context.
Riley, the coach of the Miami Heat, has 1,086 career regular-season victories and trails only the Toronto Raptors' Lenny Wilkens (1,268) all time. Jackson, meanwhile, has 726 regular-season victories, good enough for 12th place. Riley believes that Jackson could eclipse both Wilkens and him if he stays beyond the two years he has remaining on his contract, and the Lakers keep O'Neal and Bryant.
"It's just been an absolutely magnificent coaching run that, if he continues to coach with that team for five or six or seven or eight more years, without a doubt he would be the winningest coach, and he should be," Riley said. "That's what it's about."
Nets guard Jason Kidd found time to admire Jackson's accomplishments despite basically an insurmountable deficit for his team.
"Coach Jackson has fulfilled everything," Kidd said. "I think he has a philosophy and a formula that works. Everybody can say, 'Well, he's had the best players in the world,' but it takes a philosophy and it also takes a coach to be able to get those guys to coexist. He's been through everything with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
"He's a winner," Kidd continued. "That's why he won three in a row, and now they're trying to chase that for a third time. His formula works."


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