Jackson-Auerbach titles rivalry obscures legends' core similarities
Red Auerbach and Phil Jackson both have won nine NBA coaching titles
Auerbach and Jackson had an uncanny knack for dealing with egocentric athletes
Like Auerbach, Jackson has been a lightning rod for scorn around the league
Over the next couple of weeks, those sounds you could be hearing throughout New England and the far-flung terrain of Celtics Nation are roiling stomachs, gnashing teeth and perhaps even full-throated howls. For if the Lakers subdue the Magic in the NBA Finals -- it says here that they will, though it will not be easy, and keep in mind that I picked the Lakers over the Celtics in 2008 so what do I know -- Phil Jackson will have surpassed the late Red Auerbach for most coaching championships won. Jackson 10, Red 9.
Unthinkable that the old cigar-smoking genius, the patriarch with a hard East Coast crust, would have one fewer ring than a bohemian who once wore what he describes as "an Ecuadorian straw hat" with a blue parrot feather stuck in the brim to a job interview with the Bulls. He didn't get the gig. Not that time anyway.
Indeed, you can hardly imagine two coaches seemingly more different than Auerbach and Jackson, products of their own vastly different generations. But I don't want to go too far down that road, for I see their similarities as much as their differences. Jackson and Auerbach represent, in one respect, different ends of an evolutionary chain -- namely, the hated coach.
Perhaps hated is too strong a word, and certainly both Auerbach and Jackson were (and are) downright beloved within their respective fan bases. But Jackson is a lightning rod for scorn, an obvious target at 6-foot-9, though no more than Auerbach at 5-9. And they loved it. That is part of why they were successful.
Auerbach was hated almost anywhere outside of Boston (but especially in L.A.) for his no-holds-barred-maybe-he's-breaking-the-rules competitiveness. Which amounts to arrogance. Jackson draws scorn from almost anywhere outside of L.A. and presumably Chicago (but especially in Boston) for his above-the-fray, I'm-smarter-than-anyone style of coaching. Which amounts to arrogance.
But that is part of their game. Neither ever cared about popularity. They both knew that to succeed in this ticking-time-bomb world of egotistical athletes, energy-sapping schedules and 24/7 critics, a coach must become a personality himself. He needs a strong personae, an aura, someone with a celebrity to match that of those over whom he holds sway. Or he won't be holding sway very long.
Indeed, has any really successful basketball coach been wildly popular? Don't blurt out UCLA's John Wooden. Yes, he's now America's Genial Grandfather, the patron saint of legendary hoops coaches, but he drew more than his share of hatred outside of Westwood for what many believed to be his holier-than-thou attitude. Duke's Mike Krzyzewski? No way. He's revered in Krzyzewskiville but reviled in many other places because some see, as with Wooden, that the perception of him as a by-the-book gentlemanly general is at odds with his cutthroat competitiveness. Pat Riley? Same thing. I always saw Riles as the link between Auerbach and Jackson, one foot in each camp -- suave and quick-witted but a backroom tyrant. And San Antonio's Gregg Popovich is in the Riley tradition, albeit without the meticulous grooming. Though Pop is extremely intelligent and thoughtful, a wine expert of all things, the abrupt, ice-cold manner he shows to the public can be off-putting. And he, too, couldn't care less.
I'm not going to say that Chuck Daly, who died last month, is the only exception to the rule, but he's the best one. He not only won back-to-back championships in Detroit but also won them with teams that were, by any standard, aggressive and arrogant. Yet Daly, a master of public relations while no phony, escaped much of the enmity that was heaped upon his charges. I never ceased to be amazed at how he was able to keep the Pistons together with a firm hand, harnessing yet never discouraging their bad-ass style, while also remaining a universally popular figure.
But it's worth noting that Daly wasn't in the prime-team, prime-time spotlight as long as Auerbach or Jackson. (Neither was K.C. Jones, who remained a beloved figure for the evenness of personality he displayed when his Celtics were winning.) Auerbach was on the front pages of sport (to the extent that the NBA was a front-page sport in the '50s and '60s) for the better part of half-a-century, and Jackson is in his 18th year as an NBA head coach, virtually all of those seasons with a marquee team. The man has been a tall, tall target for a long, long time, and it is in the crosshairs he will stand in this series. Or, rather, sit, king-like, on that special ergonomic chair that puts him literally head and shoulders above his benchmates, hoping to put his name one notch about Red's.
But even if Jackson loses this coaching duel to Orlando's Stan Van Gundy, who learned much of his NBA craft under Riley in Miami, it is imperative to clear up one misconception about the man. To wit: He can coach. Yes, he has had great players, just as Auerbach, Wooden, Krzyzewski and Daly had great players. But nobody wins multiple championships unless he can institute a system, get his players to believe in it, develop a trust with his best players, learn how to deal with divergent personalities and make game-to-game, even minute-to-minute adjustments. On these Lakers teams and on his Bulls teams in the '90s, it was Jackson drawing X's and O's on the blackboard and making the strategic calls. That is more remarkable considering that he has continued to use a fundamental offensive system (the triangle) even though he's had three of the best individual talents ever to play the game in Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Kobe Bryant.
Auerbach's manner suggested that he believed -- or pretended to believe -- that he was the only worthwhile coach who ever lived. But that's not what he really thought. I once heard him rail against a Coach of the Year choice because it wasn't Riley, the hated Lakers rival. "They never give that damn award to people who win championships," he said. "I thought that was the idea."
It would've been fun to watch Auerbach and Jackson coach against each other, the former fussing and fuming and pacing the sideline, the latter sitting there with that Zen-like calm, calling his timeouts according to some inner clock, running the game with a seeming caprice that actually comes from a fundamental plan. There would inevitably come a time when they would torch each other in public, Auerbach with a straight-to-the-point rant, Jackson with a witty, circuitous insult. But winners almost always respect other winners, and, my best guess is, if they were pressed to tell the truth, here's what each would say about the other: He's a great coach.
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