Barely a decade ago Phil Jackson was unable even to be seriously considered for an assistant coach's job in the NBA. Phil Jackson a coach? He was a strange duck, a middle-aged hippie. Yes, the hoop eminences knew: Phil Jackson was not coachly, that was for sure. So he underwent personality testing in an effort to find out what occupation he might be suited for. The top two vocations suggested by his profile were 1) housekeeper and 2) trail guide.
Ah, but Jackson did, at the last moment, out of the blue, get one offer—from Jerry Krause, the general manager of the Bulls, another odd man out in the NBA. And by last June, at a swish Beverly Hills hotel, where the Los Angeles Lakers announced Jackson's hiring for five years at $6 million per, he had been beatified: "The preeminent coach in America," said Lakers vice president Jerry West, beaming. After Jackson took the microphone, a local columnist gushed that he was "Churchillian," and an only slightly more hyperbolic general assessment was that Jackson was the savior. In the particular, Shaquille O'Neal, a man who has shown an appetite for coaches—as hors d'oeuvres—cooed that it would be "an honor" to play for Jackson.
So at a time when coaches have become nearly vestigial ornaments in what is politely referred to as "a players' league" (anarchy just sounds so harsh), Jackson thrives. Only once in all his nine seasons with the Bulls, it seems, did any player deign to take him on. Indeed, going all the way back to John McGraw and Amos Alonzo Stagg, the last time a century turned, successful American coaches have usually been one of those two broad types-martinet or minister. But Jackson seems to have found a modern middle way, with what appears to be a bittersweet style that works well for the boys of this fin de siècle. How, Phil?
He has thought about this. He has thought about many issues. "The one thing even-successful coach needs is an ingredient: the intuitive ability to change a conflict situation into a team-building one," he replies. This is exactly what Jackson used that one awful time when a player—the star—publicly disobeyed him, attacking the very core of team sports. Jackson goes on, in his deep bass timbre: "Sometimes just the coach's voice is enough. Whatever. Sometimes...who knows? Sometimes it can be just the way you smell."
Jackson now uses a metaphor. He is well known as a liberal Democrat, and when Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980, Jackson was aghast at the choice America had made. He thought about this. "Eventually I realized that what was so important, so attractive, was that Reagan delivered a coherent message that the people could understand," he says. "And he had the bearing, the carriage." Jackson pauses and, wryly, smiles. "The smell. Whatever it was, Reagan had the smell."
It's after practice one day in the preseason as the Lakers, growing more familiar with their savior, are likewise trying to assimilate his esoteric offense, the (fabled) Triangle. He approaches them, assembled, at midcourt. They eye him. Jackson's carriage is unique. Indeed, from his high perch, 6'8" up, long, mobilelike arms dangle from his coat-hanger shoulders. His legs are bowed in an extreme caricature of a cow-poke's, and sometimes when he walks, it appears as if he is going to pitch forward, right onto his face. His gray beard is austere, professorial; the frames of his glasses, by contrast, have a sensitive lavender patina; his loud ties are simply hideous. But there is no question that the Smell emanates from this odd-lot package. O'Neal has even stepped up his respectful assessment and now promotes Jackson as "a white version of my father."
The coach speaks to his new team, and this time they sniff something new, an avuncular odor. "You know what it is with you?" Jackson asks. "It's like you're going along at 65 miles an hour, listening to your hip-hop music, and your cell phone is ringing, and you're eating a Big Mac, and you spill ketchup on your shirt. You look down. And when you look back up: right ahead of you, it's all red lights. There's just too much going on in your lives."
Whatever the Lakers think, this much is sure: No coach of theirs has ever put it quite this way. They know that later, too, there'll be group meditations and pregame "nap time" (there's no nap time in basketball!) and surprise field trips and party games and personally assigned books—all the things that in Chicago gained Jackson the reputation for being a wise Buddha. But there, of course, it was different. There, Jackson had a constituency of one to satisfy, and that one, Michael Jordan, was a smart and mature grown-up. Jordan, too, was a leader you could smell from far off.
Jackson's vision for the Bulls—and he has stated unequivocally that it is critical for every team to possess a discrete vision if it is to succeed—was clear. But when he came to L.A. he admitted, "I haven't even got an idea of a vision." The Lakers are a different kettle of fish. Jackson explains it diplomatically: "They've had a variety of coaches, but they haven't had stability. They need to come together for a purpose. But we don't know whether that purpose will be precision, execution or...Showtime." This time, he is the one who wrinkles his nose, as at an odor. "That doesn't fit in with me."
In any event, coaches have not fared well with the stylish Lakers. Magic Johnson, a man whose smile was undented even by HIV infection, lasted only 16 games in 1994, ranting about his players, "Me, me, me! Nobody cared much about anything else." Of Del Harris's tenure, from '94 to '99, Kobe Bryant has remarked dismissively, "Guys tuned out Del from Day One." Et tu, Kobe. Harris was followed 12 games into last season by Kurt Rambis, who once got into a shouting match with Bryant during a timeout. "Fine, do whatever you want to do!" Rambis screamed. Then, after a playoff loss to the San Antonio Spurs, O'Neal cursed Rambis in the locker room for imposing on him to please join his teammates in a circle—exactly the sort of gesture that Jackson sponsors.