Nobody quite knew what to say Sunday afternoon when Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson walked off the court for perhaps the last time.
His team, the two-time defending champions, had just been outplayed, outhustled and outclassed by the lower-seeded Dallas Mavericks, 122-86 in Game 4 of the Western Conference semi-finals. It was just the eighth time in franchise history the Lakers were getting swept from a playoff series. And for Jackson, who’s been the standard of success in professional sports over his illustrious 21-year coaching career, it was the first time ever.
But with a stiff smile, he shook hands with veteran guard Jason Kidd and quietly praised Mavs coach Rick Carlisle for advancing to the Western Conference Finals for just the second time in six years, despite the fact that Dallas has won 50 or more games every season since 2000-01.
Jackson was accompanied through the tunnel at the American Airlines Center next to four of his five children, who were visibly shaken by the idea of their father, the greatest basketball coach of all time, finally riding off into the sunset.
In the postgame press conference, a reporter asked Jackson to comment on Coach Carlisle’s tongue-in-cheek prediction that the Zen-Master would grow tired of smoking peyote in the mountains and eventually come out of retirement.
Without missing a beat, Jackson smiled and responded with characteristically quick-wit, “Well, first of all, you don’t smoke peyote.”
It was one of the few light-hearted moments of the day for man who, 1,973 games, 13 NBA Finals appearances and 11 rings later, was finally calling it quits.
Yet it was a strangely fitting departure for Jackson, who, throughout his entire career, dating all the way back to his playing days as a member of the New York Knicks in the 1970s, recognized the value of the journey rather than just the destination. He held an eccentric and oftentimes offbeat approach to the game, which made him something of an anomaly in the sports-world.
Over the years, critics sometimes discredited Jackson’s success as a product of the incredible talent that he’s been surrounded with. As the thinking goes, “If you give someone a team with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, or with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, or with an aging Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, they could let my 80-year-old grandmother call the plays and still find a way to win.”
But that’s the kind of shallow logic you’ll hear from people that don’t understand his coaching style.
Look at the Chicago Bulls from 1987-1990: Scottie Pippen, Michael Jordan and former Olympian Doug Collins, a more than capable basketball mind, calling the plays. While certainly a power in the eastern conference, the Bulls didn’t know how to handle the volatile style of Michael Jordan, and as result, could never get past the “Bad Boys” of the Detroit Pistons and Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics teams.
In Los Angeles, while it’s true that Jackson inherited one of the brightest young stars in the game (Bryant) and Shaquille O’Neal, the most dominant player in the game that year, the Lakers were far from a finished product.
With assistant coach and offensive guru Tex Winter at his side, Jackson ran the innovative Triangle offense, a scheme that had most NBA coaches scratching their heads. It relied on cuts, ball movement and superstars sharing the ball with lesser players. Jackson would often refuse to call timeouts when his team was playing poorly, as means of empowerment–his way of saying, “Figure it out yourself.”
He confronted star players and challenged them in ways other coaches seemed afraid to. During the Bulls’ championship run in the 1990s, Jackson routinely held team meditation sessions long before sports psychologists and yoga were in the vogue for professional athletes. He once gave O’Neal a copy of “Siddhartha,” by Hermann Hesse, in an effort to help the slumping big man find equilibrium. For Jordan, an infamously fierce competitor, he would routinely goad the star player with backhanded compliments to show illustrate that even with multiple rings and a maxed-out contract, he still wasn’t perfect.
So, in a strange, Phil Jackson-ish sort of way, it’s fitting that the old coach’s run would end with such an unfulfilling outcome.
It was just another part of the journey.