Jackson feels that he was distrusted by certain segments of the NBA establishment for a while, but these days his counter-culture leanings are generally forgotten or treated with humor. After he lit a smudge stick of sagebrush in his office a couple of seasons ago, for example, a few players stuck their heads in the door and said, "Oh, back to smokin' a little dope, eh, coach?" Actually, in some Indian tribes the lighting of sage is a ritual of purification—one just doesn't see it much in the NBA.
Anyway, whatever Jackson was questioning in the late-1960s and mid-'70s, it was never his love for basketball. He and Rosen coined a saying early in their friendship, and they still repeat it often: "Basketball's not a metaphor for life. Life's a metaphor for basketball."
On the court, Jackson was never confused with a ballet dancer—his movements still suggest one of those loose-jointed skeletons that get nailed to the front door on Halloween—but he played the game intensely, intelligently and unselfishly. Before Holzman had an assistant, he sometimes sent Jackson to scout the opposition (telling him to buy a meal on the team in exchange for his work), because he trusted Jackson's basketball mind. They didn't have anything in common—the traditional, conservative New Yorker in his Brooks Brothers suits, and the bearded, inquisitive, tie-dyed soul from the north—except for a mutual respect.
Jackson appreciated what he calls Holzman's "tender touch," his knack for compromise and conciliation. "He never overloaded you with advice. He doled it out in small packets and in a variety of ways," says Jackson. "He had a featherweight punch that hit you like a knockout blow." Some of Jackson's off-the-court coaching stratagems—giving his players books to read on road trips, taking a bus instead of a plane so they could see the countryside—are really new-age Holzman.
Still, no one figured Jackson for the coaching type—including Jackson himself, who wrote in Maverick that coaching wasn't for him because he couldn't deal with the egos and eccentricities of the players. But after he was traded to the New Jersey Nets in 1978 and became a player-assistant coach under Kevin Loughery, he found he liked coaching.
Jackson's playing career ended in 1980. He ran a health club in Montana for a year and then rejoined the Nets as a TV commentator for a season before taking the head coaching job with the Albany Patroons of the CBA in 1983. He moved his family to Woodstock, trading the 110-mile round-trip commute to Albany for the experience of living in a counter-culture environment. When Bulls general manager Jerry Krause called him in 1985 to interview for an assistant's job with Albeck, he felt he was ready for the NBA but not necessarily ready to fit the mold. "I wanted jobs, but I wanted them on my terms," says Jackson, "and I was still young enough to believe that could happen. I wasn't flaunting anything. I wore suits—don't forget I spent my whole boyhood in Sunday clothes—but, yes, I had the beard." And he had the Panama hat, a model that he had picked up in Puerto Rico, where he had been supplementing his income with summer coaching stints, to protect himself from the sun. "It's not just a hat," says Jackson, who still has it, "it's a great hat." Albeck took one look at it and wouldn't let Jackson sell ice cream to his team, much less coach it. "And this from a guy who frizzes his hair," says Jackson, smiling.
Jackson stayed with the Patroons for almost five seasons before tiring of the CBA and quitting after the 1986-87 season. He was considering graduate school and filing for unemployment when Krause called again in September '87 to ask him to interview for an assistant's job that had opened up under Doug Collins. "This time, Phil," said Krause, "come in here the right way." Hatless, featherless and clean-shaven, Jackson was hired. And when Collins was fired after the 1988-89 season, Jackson was elevated to the head job as, according to Krause, "the only candidate I ever considered."
Two major reasons Collins was fired were his emotional volatility (initially a strength because he was able to motivate a young team, later a problem because the Bulls started tuning him out) and his refusal to accept Winter's offensive system. Jackson was clearly of more even temperament than Collins and, just as clearly, had more respect for Winter. Collins, who would not comment for this story, has said that he believes that Jackson worked behind the scenes to backstab him, partly by guaranteeing that he would accept Winter's triple-post system if he got the head job. Both Jackson and Krause vehemently deny that there was any politicking to get Collins fired. "It's a move that had to be made," says Krause. "I remember when Phil told me he was going with Tex's system, and it was well after he was hired. Frankly, yes, I was glad to hear it because I happen to think Tex Winter is a genius. But it was not a condition of Phil's hiring."
If there was one question about Jackson as a head coach, though, it was not whether he would paint the locker room black or hire Jerry Garcia as a scout—it was his ability to come up with an offensive game plan. As a player he averaged only 6.7 points per game in a 13-year career, during which he concentrated on defense. "In his ability to guard every position on the floor, he was ahead of his time defensively," says Holzman.
"Tex's system is exactly what I was looking for," said Jackson. "When I got here, there was a feeling of impotence among some players who were eliminated from the process of ball movement. I came from the Knick system that incorporated all five players. Tex's system made a lot of sense."