Phil Jackson, the purveyor of all things Zen, is seeking to eclipse the cigar-chomping legend who was Red Auerbach at these NBA Finals.
Jackson is down to his next-to-last season. Or so he implied during the regular season. His contract expires after next season, and he has made it clear that the tedium of the regular season wears on him.
This is Jackson’s third attempt to win a 10th championship as a coach, denied first by the Pistons in 2004 and then by the Celtics last season. This is possibly his last chance, with Kobe Bryant turning 31 years old in August and able to opt out of his contract this summer.
Bryant is destined to begin his incremental statistical decline after 13 leg-sapping seasons in the NBA. That reality is no small consideration with Jackson, who left the long bus rides of the CBA to become an assistant to Doug Collins in Chicago in 1987.
That one-line transaction in the agate section of America’s sports sections eventually transformed the Bulls and Michael Jordan, the high-scoring guard deemed too egocentric to ever win an NBA championship.
That was the conventional wisdom before Jackson started deploying his psychological hocus-pocus on Jordan and the Bulls. That conventional wisdom has been all but forgotten over the years, as the championships started to accumulate in Jackson’s portfolio.
It became fashionable to note how he won six championships in Chicago because of Jordan and Scottie Pippen and another three in Los Angeles because of Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.
A similar observation could be made of any NBA coach who has won a championship. After all, NBA teams composed of journeymen and role players do not win championships. The thread that connected Auerbach’s nine championships was Bill Russell.
Jackson’s bag of Zen and incense has not always brought calm to teams. He could not solve the bitter rivalry of O’Neal and Bryant, the two alpha males who refused to defer to each other. That fracture led to the departure of both O’Neal and Jackson after the 2004 season. It also led to a book by Jackson in which he wrote Bryant was impossible to coach.
After sitting out one season, Jackson returned to the Lakers before the 2005-06 season and found the aging process taming the petulant manner of Bryant. Two seasons of mediocrity also humbled him.
Jackson put to rest the notion that he was willing to coach only sure things because the Lakers were hardly compelling in 2006 and 2007.
This could be Jackson’s best coaching job if the Lakers are able to overcome the Magic. Jackson has refused to panic in these playoffs, even while others have wondered whether he was asleep on the bench.
These Lakers are hardly dominant, at least not in the sense of the “Showtime” Lakers and the O’Neal-Bryant Lakers.
Pau Gasol is a consistent stat filler but a finesse player. Andrew Bynum has been a disappointment in the playoffs. Lamar Odom always looks great in the layup drill but sometimes reverts to being a passive spectator once the game is in progress.
Derek Fisher is showing his 34 years, while Trevor Ariza is a starter by default. It is not necessarily a one-man team, but it would be the least formidable of Jackson’s championship teams.
That is a testament to Jackson identifying what best complements a team.
The Lakers have appeared beatable but have managed to persevere. Jackson, in customary fashion, has worked the officials in public settings on occasion, always seeking an edge, real or imagined.
He does not need another championship. He already is on the coaching Mount Rushmore of the NBA, right next to Auerbach.
The 63-year-old, white-haired gentleman, with the professorial air, stilted gait and coat-rack shoulders, has evolved into a legend.
That is not bad for a North Dakota graduate who spent five years off the NBA radar in the ‘80s, with a CBA team called the Albany Patroons.
Not bad at all.
• Tom Knott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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