Weekly Countdown: NBA's leading coach still finds work to be done
Phil Jackson, the winningest modern-day coach, continues to stay relevant
He manages player egos by giving options, something few coaches have grasped
In other topics, Brandon Roy plays his finest, Jason Kidd tackles challenges
5 Mysteries of Phil Jackson
The winningest modern-day coach could be on his way to an 11th championship, which would put Jackson two titles ahead of Red Auerbach and leave him with a half-dozen more than anyone else who has coached in the NBA.
Will he coach the Lakers beyond this season? I didn't ask Jackson this question during our conversation in Los Angeles last weekend. He raised the issue himself, without quite answering it. Jackson, 64, is in the final season of a two-year extension paying him $12 million annually, a record salary for an NBA coach. He acknowledges that money will influence his decision, which is not to say that money alone will hold sway.
"When this extension came along, there was no doubt about taking it at that point," he said of his current deal. "I've had a couple of situations in my own life that have changed -- my separation from a wife that raised a family for 25 years, and that was a financially devastating situation. I had a couple of financial situations that came about that changed my life in the last 10 years, as everybody has. Everybody has taken a loss [in the stock markets]."
At the same time, Jackson said he feels a need to continue working, to reclaim vitality in his approach to work. "Working is still something I think I would do if I were a firefighter and I had a retirement," he said. "I'd still probably go out and have another job because I think you have to work. I really believe that now, and watching Tex Winter and Johnny Bach and Bill Bertka -- guys I've worked with who have been senior members of my coaching staff -- they've continued in basketball. I don't know if I'll continue in basketball or not. I probably will, there's a good chance.
"But there's still work to be done: Pete Newell," he said, referring to another coach who continued his career in basketball long after the normal age of retirement. "All of these people who were senior people I looked up to in this business."
On managing talent. It's a small price to pay in exchange for so much success, but one lingering insinuation that is routinely attached to Jackson's run of 10 championships in 18 full years of NBA coaching is that his titles have essentially been dividends of his involvement with the league's dominant performer, whether it was Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal or now Kobe Bryant.
"You're always going to have someone who questions why or how he got to this point [and claims] that he had the best players," Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan said. "But it doesn't just happen. You've got to manage those egos, and that is probably as hard as anything in this league, whether they are superstars or role players. That is big time, and those types of players are so dominating that just anybody couldn't coach them. They are bigger than the team and the game. And Phil has been able to be as big as them. When you say Kobe and you say Phil, it's like ..."
They are equals.
In this era of young, entitled players who enter the NBA with one year or less of college experience -- let's call it the Kobe Bryant era -- most franchises have struggled to find a coach who can relate to these unfinished talents. But here's the interesting dynamic: There are currently six NBA coaches who are 60 or older, and they are Gregg Popovich, Rick Adelman, Jackson, Jerry Sloan, Don Nelson and Larry Brown. The only one among them who appears to be having trouble relating to his players is Nelson, who has a young, struggling roster at Golden State. You might think that older men would have trouble dealing with players generated by this AAU era, but the fact is that these long-standing names remain among the most effective coaches in the league while commanding respect and maintaining authority over their teams.
Jackson's most ironic legacy has been his understated approach. Coaches who tend to lose their temper -- Stan Van Gundy, for example -- constantly face claims that they may be turning off players and losing the locker room. In effect, they are being compared with Jackson, who rather quietly has established the high standard of NBA conduct by maintaining a subdued tone with his players. The lessons drawn from Jackson's success have further reduced the prospects for a high-strung, rant-and-rave college coach to vault up to the NBA.
Jackson's approach is based on a respect for the players, as well as an understanding that they can be influenced to pursue team goals.
"You can't fool these guys," Jackson said. "In basketball, for sure, they've been pursued since they were 12, 11, 13 years of age usually. They've seen all kinds of 'yes' people, back-slappers. So they're pretty savvy ... even though they're athletes, and athletes by and large still have some naïveté, because they are taken advantage of without a doubt by certain agents or plans or schemes.
"But I think they are savvy to character, and I think that's what wins the day with them. It wins the day as far as the leadership that they have, and I think our team leadership is really good.
"Red Holzman used to say, 'There's always the middle path,' " he said of his former coach when Jackson was a player for the Knicks. "He was the first Buddhist I knew. It was always about that -- don't do anything in excess, do it in moderation. And don't get too high over a win, don't get too low over a loss."
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