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Phil Jackson leaves the game with wry smile on his face

May 8, 2011, 6:29 PM EDT

Dallas Mavericks v Los Angeles Lakers - Game One Getty Images

This was not how you expected to see Phil Jackson walking away from the NBA.

After a series where he could not get his players to buy into the system, to make the extra defensive rotation, to play at their peak, then to watch the players unravel at the end and take cheap shots. You could sense his desperation in Game 3 when he went to an Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom front line — a lineup he had used for 2:19 all season long — and stood there hitting Gasol in the chest. All in vain.

Except it sort of is how we knew Jackson would leave, with a wry smile on his face and making a joke regardless of the outcome.

“All my hopes and aspirations are this is the final game I’ll coach,” Jackson said after the game. “It has been a wonderful run. I go out with a sour note after having been fined $35,000 this morning by the league. So that’s not fun and having the feeling I’m being chased down the freeway by them. As Richard Nixon says, he won’t be able to kick this guy around anymore.”

In a couple of days, even Lakers fans will calm down and Jackson will be remembered as the best of the modern era. A guy with 11 rings over two different teams, who had great players but got them to be great teammates. A guy who revolutionized coaching.

Largely because he approached coaching more like parenting. The goal was to raise an independent team that could go out on its own in the playoffs and deal with the pressures the game and opponents threw at them. That’s why the no timeouts during games. Why the calmness on the bench during games, even when his team stunk. He, like legendary college coach John Wooden, wanted to do his coaching during practices then let the players play during games.

“He was the white version of my father,” Shaquille O’Neal once said (from Alan Ross’ book Lakers Glory). “I do something spectacular, he sits there and says ‘so what?’ He doesn’t let me lose my focus. He stays on me all the time. That’s what I like. It’s what I need.”

That was Jackson’s gift — understanding players. Even Dennis Rodman. He treated each player differently, yelling at some while more gently prodding others. Just like no two children are alike and need different discipline to help them grow, so does each player on a team. Jackson got that in a way few other coaches do.

“He allowed you to have input,” former player and now Jackson lead assistant Brian Shaw said one. “I liked that about him. With some coaches it’s like, ‘I’m the coach, I’m the one with the power.’”

All that helped get players to buy into a selfless system. In the middle of the 1990s and the height of isolation basketball, the Bulls were running Tex Winter’s triangle offense, which demanded selflessness. It’s a system that is hard to learn not because of the cuts or motions, but because it is a “read and react offense.” Like an NFL offense, it’s designed to have different actions depending on where the blitz is coming from. It takes time to learn to read then make the right play, it takes time for a team to get in synch with that. It’s a thinking man’s offense when run right.

Jackson was able to get the supposedly impossible to handle modern player to buy into that. To make plays.

For all the talk of Zen and the chants in the locker room (and that did happen, as did group meditation and more) the gift of Jackson is that he got teams to buy into that. To raise his talents.

He was at times arrogant. And condescending. But he was competitive from his time as a Knick, while he honed his skills in the CBA. He figured out what could win and how that was part of who it was, then he passed it on to his players.

And they bought it. Most of the time. Jackson’s last team — and it is his last team, he is not coming back — didn’t, which is why it is odd to see him leave this way, swept out of the second round.

But he still has that smile on his face. And 11 rings.

  1. metalhead65 - May 8, 2011 at 6:47 PM

    I for one am not sad to see him go. was he a good coach?of course he was but let’s face it it was not exactly the toughest job to coach the players he had. if he wanted to be considered to be a real genius then he should have coached a losing team like the clippers or the nets but he chose jordan’s bulls and a lakers team with with shaq and kobe then kobe with gasol. why would I not be shocked if he came back to coach the heat should they not win a title this year?

    • davidly - May 8, 2011 at 7:01 PM

      “if he wanted to be considered to be a real genius…”

      He is considered a real genius. Get over it.

      • dolphinphan - May 8, 2011 at 8:16 PM

        no matter how you think about it, he was a genius.

        He chose to coach the best players in the NBA and get 11 rings. Thats pretty damn smart.

  2. goforthanddie - May 8, 2011 at 6:53 PM

    I have reservations in giving Jackson too much credit. Tex did the coaching, MJ/Kobe did the motivating. He should have won the titles he won.
    I’m sure he was good, but given what he had to work with, I’d say he just did what was expected.

  3. georgeanderson2 - May 8, 2011 at 6:54 PM

    Great coach with great players. He won with exceptional NBA talent. He guided his teams to champonships, you can’t ever take away anything Phil has done.

    Glad to see it end this way with Phil and Kobe, just helps all those who want to keep comparing MJ to Kobe.Kobe couldn’t send Phil out a champion and MJ did.

  4. thekingdave - May 8, 2011 at 7:11 PM

    What a diabolical scheme. Drop games 1 and 2 at home, then head to Dallas, giving the Mavs a false sense of hope. They don’t call him the Zen Master for nothing. Then, just when you think the Lakers had game 3, Jackson let the Mavs come back from double digits to win it. What better way to inflate that false hope than to give the Mavs a 3-0 lead. Next, Phil let the Mavs jump out to a 20 pt lead in Game 4, making them believe they were going to sweep. Then, miraculously in the 4th qtr, the Lakers….. Wait. So much for that.

  5. cup0pizza - May 8, 2011 at 7:38 PM

    Good riddance.

  6. gunner1970 - May 8, 2011 at 8:08 PM

    I’d say he exited in the perfect manner….

  7. Chris Ross - May 8, 2011 at 8:31 PM

    It was terrible to see the way his players acted in what was possibly is final game as a coach. Other than Kobe no one showed any fight and Bynum’s hit to Barea was just atrocious to see. It was a disgusting act. I’m not sad in any way to see the Lakers lose because they win so much. I hope the Mavericks can go all the way because Dirk is a true gentleman of the game and maybe even one of those once in forever unique players.

  8. jrmcool20 - May 8, 2011 at 8:36 PM

    i agree , if phil did not have the players he had to work with while coaching the bulls and lakers ,, it would have been a whole diff out come for mr jackson,, however with saying that phil j. is a special coach for being able to get these great players to be able to play as well as they did with all the egos involved and it takes a special coach to do that and phil did that very well and got 11 titles doing it !!! i give him alot of credit for that !!!

  9. blueintown - May 8, 2011 at 9:07 PM

    Phil Jackson isn’t the first coach to win with vast amounts of talent (see: every single coach to ever win an NBA championship). Red Auerbach was truly a genius, or perhaps it was the nine hall of famers he coached. If it was simply a matter of being lucky enough to coach a team with superior talent, they wouldn’t pay Phil eleven million a year to do it. They’d let me do it for hotel and airfare.

    Phil Jackson had never been swept in an playoff series until today. He was a head coach for twenty years, and went to the finals thirteen times. He won eleven championships. The numbers are absolutely stupefying. Video game stuff. Best ever. Period.

  10. js081025 - May 8, 2011 at 9:12 PM

    Name any coach’s last game or last series in any sport….you can’t! Phil Jackson will be remembered only as a championship caliber coach who is best known for bringing together ecentric personalities and superstars to play team ball and win.

  11. dannymac17 - May 8, 2011 at 9:23 PM

    LOL @ most of these comments. Uh, last time i checked, these players WANTED to play for Jackson, not the other way around. He groomed both Kobe and MJ from young talents to elite all time players. You wanna knock him? Knock him for his outlandish and rude comments. But don’t knock his coaching. Greatest of all time. Of course you’d say “Good Riddance” cause chances are, you weren’t a bull or laker fan, nor could you admire what he did cause he consistently beat whoever you team was, into the ground. Thanks for the memories Phil. 11 rings, nobody can take that away from you, not even Red Auerbach.

  12. king3319 - May 8, 2011 at 10:18 PM

    Love or hate the Bulls…love or hate the lakers..make all the BS excuses like he had more talent to work with…the man knew how to get the most out of different players and personalities. Go ahead and hate..he’s got 11 and that’s the start and end of the debate, those rings are engraved in history forever, too bad get over it!!!!

    • purdueman - May 8, 2011 at 10:25 PM

      king… that’s a really sour grapes weak and lame response. You sound like Yankee Homer who lays claim to championships won decades before they were even born. Get a reality check, dude! You teams run is OVAH!!!

      • blueintown - May 9, 2011 at 7:32 AM

        Yeah, King, how lame of you to acknowledge a coach’s eleven championship rings as if that were relevant. Purdue, read the statement again and check which part of it isn’t consistent with reality….dude.

      • purdueman - May 9, 2011 at 9:28 AM

        bluein… I don’t get it… unless you’re related to Phil Jackson, why would you give one happy damn how many rings he has (other than of course to have finally put dead windbag Auerbach in his place)? Who cares?

        My friend, it’s time you stop living in the past and get into the present. You sound like Yankee honks who lay claim to championships that were won even before their parents were born, much less when they were even on the face of this earth.

      • blueintown - May 9, 2011 at 9:39 PM

        I don’t recall “laying claim” to any of his championships rings. As an NBA/sports fan, I admire and respect a coach who was able to win ELEVEN CHAMPIONSHIPS. It is simply incredible. It’s not living in the past. He retired yesterday….with eleven championship rings.

        And why do you keep talking about the Yankees?

  13. omniusprime - May 9, 2011 at 11:01 AM

    Thanks Phil Jackson for the 5 Laker championships you won us with your wizardly zen coaching style! Phil was smart enough to take on Tex Winters and his Triangle offense, the thinking man’s offense. He helped make Michael and Kobe the true champions they are because they were smart enough to embrace the thinking man’s offense. I sure hope that Brian Shaw keeps the triangle alive, but then there’s not many thinking players in the NBA.

    Have a great retirement Phil! You’ve earned it as the greatest coach in sports history. I hope Phil will grace tv with his zen master knowledge now and again giving us all some truly intelligent punditry, something Chuckles Barkley has never brought us. Relax in style and always wear a smile when thinking about your most excellent adventure in the NBA!

  14. saturn1111 - May 9, 2011 at 11:36 AM

    This might be one of the worst examples of professional writing I’ve ever seen. It’s filled with fragments and subjects, verbs, and objects that don’t agree. It is no wonder my male students can’t write their way out of a paper bag and see no reason to improve. They read yiur columns and think that since it’s published it must be goid.

  15. fouldwimmerlaik - May 9, 2011 at 3:33 PM

    I will miss Phil sitting on the Lakers bench, doing his two-fingered whistle as he does so well. But I thank him for his love and brilliance these oh so many years. And now, I lay me down to sleep with my Kobe Bryant Action Figure – Playoff Edition and dreams of next year.

    • purdueman - May 9, 2011 at 3:49 PM

      fould… with the “new” polarized NBA (i.e., the clear desire of stars to now conspire to get together and play primarily only in large markets), I don’t think we’ll see a three peat again for a long, long time (if ever). There’s just too much parody now among the top 6-8 teams.

      It doesn’t hurt to dream though; that’s why we’re fans!

      What will be most interesting to me this offseason is to see who gets named as Phil’s successor and whether or not whoever it is tries to continue to run the triangle offense. You do realize that EVERY coach who’s tried to successfully run the triangle offense other than Phil has failed miserably, right?

      If I’m Kupchak, given the fact that the Lakers core roster is all mostly made up of players on the wrong side of 30 (Bynum being the obvious exception), I don’t hire Shaw (or any other rookie coach). I would put Doc Rivers (who will be a free agent after this season), and Norm Nixon at the top of my wish list.

      Also, given the Lakers again roster, if I’m Kupchak I’d try to tweek the roster (not blow it up as Magic Johnson favors), to give Kobe hope at making a run at one or two more championships. To do so though, Bynum will have to go as trade bait, ideally for either Howard or Paul.

      • davidly - May 9, 2011 at 4:45 PM

        boilerdude! You just used the Sports Urinalist 2nd Conditional:
        “If I’m Kupchak, given the fact that the Lakers core roster is all mostly made up of players on the wrong side of 30 (Bynum being the obvious exception), I don’t hire Shaw (or any other rookie coach).”

        Fortunately you almost redeem yourself by following it up with the correct version of the corresponding clause: “I would put Doc Rivers (who will be a free agent after this season), and Norm Nixon at the top of my wish list.”

        You’ve been reading these blogs too much! Anyway, I think Doc is calling it quits after this year, too.

  16. commonsense365 - May 10, 2011 at 10:39 AM


  17. king3319 - May 10, 2011 at 3:22 PM

    Wow purdue sounds like your the one sour!!! Sour over someone elses success!!! Keep sittin in front of that computer “dude” and keep hatin…that’s all bench warmers for kickball can do!!! A little jealous if the Yankees are we?!!!

    • purdueman - May 10, 2011 at 5:00 PM

      king… could care less about the Yankees, but I am going to sit back and have a good laugh seeing the Yankees pay aging Jeter and A-Roid superstar money as they continue to decline into being just ordinary players.

      You DO know, don’t you, that only one team in the last 49 years has won a World Series with a starting SS 35 or older (as Jeter is now), don’t you? Damned statistics! (LOL!).

      I don’t hate the Lakers, but I do hate that segment of “pretty people” bandwagon fans who are really only interested in “making the scene” than they are REAL basketball fans. I actually used to be a Laker fan until Kobe got caught red dicked with his pants down in Colorado too.

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