A Course in Championships from Phil Jackson

Jeff Skibiski —  June 23, 2010

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Growing up, I always remember my grandfather would make a point of trying to make a “life lesson” out of every little situation. He would sit back in his easy chair, flip the remote to whatever featured game was on TNT that night and share his words of wisdom about life and basketball. While I was eagerly anticipating the next great dunk by Kobe, he would labor on and on about the war and character, among other topics I tried to ignore at the time. Despite my best efforts, I realized years down the road that I actually absorbed a good amount of what he said.

In many ways, I think Phil Jackson has spent the better part of the past decade serving as the grandfather of the Lakers family. His unique vision has guided the Forum Blue and Gold through murky waters and heavenly heights. At the beginning of the decade, Jackson transformed an upstart, but immature Shaquille O’Neal-led squad into three-time champions. In 2003-‘04, he provided the glue that kept the team together when Bryant was flying back and forth between L.A. and Colorado courtrooms. After returning to his usual perch after a one-season hiatus, Jackson planted the seeds of success on a rag-tag team whose nightly outcome depended on Kobe’s heroics. Most recently, he was the commander in chief behind another back-to-back championship Lakers team. As of Wednesday, June 23, he is arguably one of the biggest free agents on the market this summer. With a decision on his future likely looming in the next few days, let’s take a step back and look at 11 lessons (in honor of the Hall of Fame coach’s record-setting number of NBA titles) that fans and players have accrued over the years.

1. Composure starts at the top. Through all of the volatility during Jackson’s Lakers tenure, his calming influence has served as the one constant that has helped steady the team amidst incredible turmoil. His now legendary decorum extends beyond off-court tension and dramatic losses; Phil also knows how to keep his team focused coming off a monumental victory too, as evidence by his teams’ remarkable winning percentage in closeout games. Over the course of an 82-game season and grueling two-plus months of playoff basketball, it makes all the difference.

2. Never underestimate the value of communication. Phil reminds me of a college professor with an “open door” policy; he has always made himself available to players and the media in a manner that few NBA coaches, past or present, have been able to match. Jackson refuses to coddle his players and is particularly selective when doling out praise. He also has no qualms with being direct with his players and letting them know exactly what he expects of them. There is a reason why so many players attribute Phil with their on-court improvement as he sets the bar higher than anyone else does.

3. Sharing is for grown-ups too. The very foundation of the triangle offense is built on passing, which is why Jackson has consistently made a point out of sharing the ball, dating back to his days as coach of the Bulls. It is a difficult mantra for players to buy into, especially superstars like Bryant and Michael Jordan, but once the sale is made, the results are incomparable.

4. Check your ego at the door. Jackson has had the good fortune of coaching some of the greatest players of all-time. While that unprecedented level of talent has led him to 11 NBA championships, it has also bred overconfidence from players at times. Phil never lets those egos get in the way of the team’s mission though; he is not afraid to knock a player off a pedestal when necessary. If Kobe has a 9-33 shooting night in a 22-point Lakers loss, Jackson will make sure his discontent is verbalized. Despite any in the moment anger, his players respect him as a result.

5. Quickly put out fires. I am not sure that there is another coach in NBA history – in all of sports for that matter — who has had to deal with more internal conflict than Jackson. It is perhaps this point more than any other that separates him from the pantheon of the league’s coaching elite. From MJ’s notorious stubborn streak, the Shaq vs. Kobe saga and the recent Ron Artest Twittergate, Phil has proven adept at diffusing fires and managing overpowering personalities.

6. Sometimes, you just need a pat on the back. As I mentioned before, Jackson’s definition of nurture does not exactly involve hugs and spoon-feeding. Instead, the coach adopts a more even keel approach that gently pushes players along without allowing them to become too excited or feel too down after a particular performance. Andrew Bynum, a player with whom Jackson has continually prodded seemingly since the day he was drafted, is the best example of this. Aside from the occasional gripe about playing time, Bynum has become one of the coach’s most outspoken champions.

7. Surround yourself with good people. Jackson happily relinquishes the role of dictator when it comes to coaching, instead employing a more communal style that involves an entire coaching staff or in his terms, a council of elders. Those who have watched a Lakers practice know that Phil’s voice is far from the only one heard. By spreading the love, Phil ensures that each of his players receives an equal amount of attention.

8. Let your freak flag fly. Meditation and carefully selected literature are not the only things that make the Zen Master one of the quirkiest characters the league has ever seen. Players and fans may scoff at his often-bizarre tactics, but with 11 championships, no one is complaining.

9. Mind games are not always for crazy people. Jackson knows exactly when and how to rattle his opponents. If you don’t believe me, just ask the trail of star players that the Lakers have left in their dust over the years. From rattling the Kings at the beginning of the decade to his public statements about Kevin Durant’s disproportionate number of foul shots, Phil is a true master of manipulation.

10. Keep your stars aligned. No matter what anyone says, it takes a special coach to lead a star-filled team in the entertainment capital of the world. Shaq, Kobe, Gasol, Malone and Payton are just a few if the Hall of Fame-worthy Lakers players with whom Jackson has molded. Part of keeping your stars aligned also involves the role of supporting characters like Robert Horry, Derek Fisher and Lamar Odom — something with which Phil has an intimate understanding. This delicate balancing act has resulted in five NBA titles in L.A. and potentially more on the horizon should he choose to return.

11. Expect the best. Jackson’s ear-splitting, manufactured whistle is often heard all the way up in the rafters at STAPLES Center, but overall, he is not a yeller in the same vein as a Pat Riley type of coach. Nevertheless, Jackson expects greatness from his teams, with anything else serving as a huge disappointment. His level of confidence and championship mentality permeates all areas of the team. Simply put, players who are coached by Phil wind up as better people both on and off the court.

Truth be told, it is virtually impossible to boil Jackson’s lessons down to the 11 we have highlighted. I suspect his value to the NBA is something that will only be fully celebrated after he eventually hangs up his dream catcher once and for all. Just like the day John Wooden left the game of basketball, this league will never be the same again. If last Thursday’s thrilling Game 7 victory was indeed the last cigar Phil will ever smoke, it has been a fantastic ride, filled with lessons Lakers fans and players will never forget.


Jeff Skibiski

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