- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 11, 2009

Hedo Turkoglu was throwing in shots from everywhere, the Orlando Magic were outrebounding the Los Angeles Lakers, and even Jack Nicholson seemed to be getting worried. It was the third quarter of Game 2 in the NBA finals, time for Phil Jackson to gather his charges and work some magic of his own.

They huddled in front of the Laker bench, eager for some words of wisdom from the Zen Master himself. While Stan Van Gundy was yelling and waving his arms in an apoplectic fit at the other end of the court, Jackson delivered in his usual calm way.

“Make some shots,” he told Kobe Bryant and his supporting cast.

Make some shots? Come on, Phil, the Laker die-hards in the upper regions of section 328 at Staples Center could have come up with that.

What was next? Grab some rebounds? Try guarding Turkoglu?

No sense in making things too terribly complicated.

Jackson himself said on the eve of the championship series that there wasn’t much to do at this time of year other than name the starting lineup and tell the players what time tip-off is.

Then again, Jackson has made it look easy for a long time now. He sits courtside in these finals, poised on the brink of basketball history, all the while looking like he would rather be up at Malibu contemplating the meaning of ocean waves.

Unlike Van Gundy, he doesn’t yell, doesn’t scream. Doesn’t seem to be doing much of anything, really, other than watching Bryant take charge and tell his teammates what to do.

And he’s surely the first coach who ever called out referees for not making a call that could have cost his team a win in Game 2.

He’s so unorthodox that people in basketball can’t figure him out. More has been made about his Zen philosophy than his ability to get his five players to play better than the five on the other end of the court.

With his Lakers up 2-1 and Jackson edging closer to a record tenth NBA title as a coach, maybe it’s time to start thinking of Jackson in a different way. Maybe it’s time to begin recognizing him for what he really is.

The greatest coach in NBA history. Perhaps the greatest coach ever in any sport.

Fans of Red Auerbach might recoil at the thought, even if Jackson passes the cigar-smoking one with a tenth title. They would say Auerbach helped change the way basketball is played _ and pave the way for new people to play it _ with the Celtics, while all Jackson did was adopt someone else’s triangle offense and get lucky with some of the greatest players to ever play the game.

It’s a fair criticism, even when broached to Jackson himself. He had Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O’Neal and Bryant.

Other coaches didn’t.

“I’ll accept it,” Jackson said. “You have to have the special players to make the finals. That’s why they’re special players _ because they get to this position at the end of the season.”

Although it’s true Jordan might have won a few titles no matter who was on the bench in Chicago, someone had to keep Jordan happy, Pippen engaged and the rest of the team in synch for two three-peats. Likewise, someone had to keep Bryant and Shaq off each other’s backs long enough for a third three-peat in Los Angeles.

And Jackson had to be doing something right to get a $30 million contract to rejoin the Lakers even after writing a book admitting he lobbied to get Bryant traded during his first stint with the team and deriding his star’s pettiness in wanting a bigger plane provided by the Lakers to take him to his sexual assault hearing in Colorado.

In the end, the rings count more than anything, both to Jackson and the superstar who now professes, at least publicly, grudging respect for his coach.

At last count, Jackson had nine. Bryant had three.

“I’m just honored to be coached by the best coach of all time,” Bryant said last week. “It would be a tremendous honor to be on the team that can get him that tenth championship.”

That would move Jackson past Auerbach, but it’s more than that. Although Auerbach won all his titles with Bill Russell dominating the middle, Jackson has won with different stars and different teams. He has been able to adapt to different changes, all during an era in which players had more autonomy and say than they ever did in the 1950s and 60s.

It may not look like he’s doing much, but he’s a winner. In a few short days he could become the biggest winner ever, with a ring for every finger and both thumbs.

That’s assuming, of course, that he can get his team to make a few more shots.

___

Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org

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