When NBA coaches seek answers, Phil Jackson offers guidance
- Senior writer for ESPN.com
- Spent seven years at the Los Angeles Daily News
THREE DAYS HAD passed since Doc Rivers watched the first two episodes of “The Last Dance,” and he couldn’t get the predicament former Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson faced during that 1997-98 season out of his head.
“Can you imagine?” Rivers asked on the twice-weekly Zoom call he has been having with his LA Clippers coaching staff since the NBA season was postponed on March 11. “Can you imagine being told before the year that you’re going to get fired?”
As the 10-part docuseries details, the Bulls had just won back-to-back championships, and their fifth championship in seven years, but general manager Jerry Krause had decided that no matter what the team did that season, it was time to rebuild — and Jackson wouldn’t be the head coach.
“Can you imagine having the right mindset to teach?” Rivers lamented. “To get guys to buy into their role and do the right thing? I can’t even imagine the patience and serenity he had to have to be able to do that.”
Rivers has been thinking about Jackson a lot in recent days. He watched “The Last Dance.” Then he rewatched the battles his Boston Celtics had with Jackson’s Los Angeles Lakers in the 2008 and 2010 NBA Finals, when they re-aired on ESPN last week. And it made him realize he hasn’t connected with the Hall of Fame coach in a while.
“You’re making me want to call him,” Rivers said.
At first glance, Rivers and Jackson would seem to be longtime rivals. But Rivers said they used to talk on the phone and text a fair amount, coach to coach, about all sorts of things. A few years ago, Rivers even invited Jackson to speak at a clinic he was hosting at the Clippers’ practice facility, and Jackson accepted without hesitation.
“We had a good relationship,” Rivers said. “It’s funny, no one has a great one unless you’re in his circle, but we had a good one.”
For a coach of his stature, Jackson’s circle has always seemed relatively small. Only a few of his former players — Steve Kerr and Luke Walton — are current head coaches in the NBA. Most of his coaching contemporaries were too consumed with trying to beat the man who won 11 titles in his 20 years on the bench, to befriend him. Front-office executives were mostly annoyed he thought he would succeed in that type of role, without doing it the way they did.
So when Jackson retired from coaching in 2011, and stepped down after an unsuccessful run as president of the New York Knicks in 2017, there wasn’t a loud chorus singing his praises. If anything, there was a loud chorus airing out three decades of gripes and jealousies.
Those who found him aloof or arrogant while he was on top of the NBA world almost seemed to delight in seeing his triangle offense belittled by analytics wonks and pace-and-space devotees.
Those who ascribed his success to the good fortune of coaching all-time greats like Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, loved to point out how poorly squabbles with Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis turned out.
This is a familiar comeuppance for those who have succeeded at the highest level. Those you beat on your way to the top exact their revenge once you’ve been humbled. It was to be expected, and yet Jackson has done little to quiet or combat those who would besmirch his reputation.
He has made few public appearances and given even fewer interviews since he retired to his home in Montana. Even his previously engaging Twitter feed has gone quiet — last posting an article about meditation in June 2018.
And he has politely declined interview requests regarding “The Last Dance,” as he already said quite a bit in a four-hour interview for the project.
But that’s only the public side of things. Because as Rivers and a select group of current NBA coaches have found out, Jackson still has a lot to say about basketball — if the right person is asking the question.
“The man won 11 championships. Do I have that correct?” Rivers said. “Anybody that wins 11 championships should be celebrated every day. But I think because Phil was a loner in a lot of ways, a lot of people felt like he didn’t spend time with other coaches and all that stuff.
“If you asked him, he would, though.”
THERE IS NO secret code word. No special name for the growing group of coaches who have reached out and sought mentoring or advice from Jackson. There’s not even an obvious connection between them.
Rivers knew Jackson from coaching against him and through Tyronn Lue, who’d played for Jackson. Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown was introduced via Luc Longley and Coby Karl, both of whom played for Jackson. Chicago Bulls coach Jim Boylen asked his owner, Jerry Reinsdorf, and Jackson’s former player, John Paxson, for an introduction. Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse asked Alex McKechnie, his vice president of player health and performance, who’d worked with Jackson in Los Angeles. Lakers coach Frank Vogel got to know him through former Jackson assistant Brian Shaw. Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle just knows everyone, as president of the NBA Coaches Association.
What they all have in common is a desire to learn from the man they consider one of the greatest coaches of all time.
“I’ve always studied and admired his approach,” Vogel said. “I consider him the GOAT of NBA coaches.”
“Phil’s a great example of handling whatever comes his way,” Rivers said. “We all want the calm, and he dealt in the calm very well. But he also dealt with the storms extremely well. He got personalities and people to work together.”
Whatever rivalries Jackson might have had during his coaching career have been quickly cast aside.
“My Spurs world was very competitive with his,” Brown said. “So the opportunity to seek higher counsel was very much appreciated.”
And when coaches get on the phone with Jackson, or go to see him at his home in Montana, he is not always what they pictured.
“There’s this perception of him as the Zen Master,” Boylen said. “No. He’s a basketball junkie. He’s a diehard hooper. That’s what I loved about him.”
There is one thing each coach who has made the effort to get to know Jackson seems to say afterward, however.
The time they spent with him was their time. Whatever they got from that time remains between them.
“I’m not trying to spill the beans on everything we did,” Nurse said. “But it was awesome. It was really awesome.”
NICK NURSE WASN’T sure what to expect when he reached out to Jackson in the summer of 2018, a few weeks after he was named coach of the Raptors.
He’d studied Jackson for years. As a young coach at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa, in the early 1990s, Nurse would often drive to Chicago, buy a standing room only ticket to watch Jackson’s Bulls, then drive the five hours back to Des Moines after the game. When he coached in England in the late ’90s, Nurse would order Bulls videotapes and study Jackson’s offense — Nurse’s teams ran the triangle back then — his rotations, his adjustments, even his sideline demeanor.
So when McKechnie offered to arrange a meeting with Jackson, Nurse couldn’t resist.
He’d already met with former Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon, Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay and Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney to get advice before embarking on his first NBA head-coaching job. But meeting Jackson would be different. The Zen Master invited him to his house in Montana — for three days.
“I didn’t know if I was going to go out there for a cup of coffee with him and that’s it,” Nurse said. “But I figured if that happened, I’d just take a few days [in Montana] to myself, to relax.”
That cup of coffee turned into a three-day coaching retreat. They drove around in Jackson’s truck, watched film together and broke down plays on a whiteboard.
Nurse couldn’t believe what was happening. He was nerding out with the coach he’d studied and admired for years.
“It was fun, because he was testing my knowledge of basketball a bit, too” Nurse said. “He’d be telling a story and say, ‘That red-headed kid’ and stop and see if I could fill in the blanks.
“Fortunately I’m enough of a historian — or a geek — to know. So I’d say, ‘Yeah, that was Matt Bonner’ or whatever. And I could tell he liked that.”
Boylen said he even studied before he went out to see Jackson in Montana.
“I think he researches people before they come. Because he knew some stuff about me — like, ‘I know you coach guys hard. … You’re a defensive-minded guy,'” Boylen said. “So I was prepared, too. I had notes, copies of rosters, personnel, coaches he’d hired. I read his books.”
Like Nurse, Boylen had no idea how much time Jackson would spend with him. They had plans for lunch at a local cafe and that’s it.
“I think the place closed at 3, and we left at 5,” he said. “Then we had dinner at this place that closed at 9, and we stayed until 10.”
The next morning he stopped by the bakery and had them make a quiche he could bring over to Jackson’s house for lunch.
“It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done,” Boylen said.
Throughout his two seasons in Chicago, Boylen says he has gotten frequent texts and emails from Jackson. At one point, Boylen asked him to watch the Bulls and offer critiques and suggestions. Jackson watched a few games, then sent a detailed note breaking down the team’s offense and suggesting some plays from the pinch-post that might unlock things.
“He confirmed some things that I believe in, which made me feel good, because he’s the best coach ever,” Boylen said. “But he also opened my mind up to some things, too.”
Jackson’s not sure what to call the relationships he has built with this group of NBA coaches either. Mentoring isn’t quite the right term. That feels too formal for what’s more like two coaches talking about the game they love.
But the coaches who’ve spent a couple days with Jackson, in Montana or Los Angeles, say it has had a huge effect on them.
“Phil is a longtime trusted friend,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. “I talk basketball at length with him two or three times a year. He’s a great resource and has been extremely generous with his time and knowledge to all coaches.”
THE MEETING STARTED at the Ritz Carlton Marina Del Rey in California, far away from the prying eyes and microphones of the New York City media looking for any sign of who Jackson was interviewing to be the next Knicks coach.
Frank Vogel had looked up to Jackson for years and had even hired Brian Shaw — one of Jackson’s top assistants with the Lakers — on his staff with the Indiana Pacers.
“Literally, for those two years that I had Brian,” Vogel said, “every decision that came up, I was like, ‘How’d you guys do it in L.A.? What would Phil do here? How did Phil travel with the team? Did he allow people’s guests to come on a plane? What was his morning shootaround routine?'”
But he’d only spoken to Jackson once, for about 5 minutes when he scouted for the Lakers in 2006, before he flew out to Los Angeles to interview for the Knicks job.
He was nervous, but excited.
The interview began at the hotel, then continued to dinner at a small pizza restaurant in Venice that Vogel is still trying to find his way back to. The next morning they had breakfast and spent five to six more hours on a whiteboard.
“We talked about everything,” Vogel said. “From life to our families to coaching, X’s and O’s on the court and offensive systems, whether it’s a triangle or another system, defensive coverages.”
Although he didn’t get the job, it was two days he’ll never forget.
“I was raised in the Bobby Knight era of coaches,” Vogel said. “You know, MF-this. MF-that. And Phil never did that. I just felt like his approach was — and I’m by no means a Zen guy — but the calm mental adjustment is something that I try to always carry with any conflict or any adversity my team faces.
“I always admired that approach, letting guys play in. Not bailing teams with timeouts, letting them play through things, figure things out themselves.”
That calm demeanor under pressure is something that sticks out for Sacramento Kings coach Luke Walton, who played for the Lakers from 2003 to ’11.
“One of the main things that I try to take with me, from what Phil has taught,” Walton said, “is training yourself and your players to always try to be able to stay level-headed throughout and not get too emotionally high or too emotionally low.
“He would talk about The Peaceful Warrior, and say, that’s where you’re at your most dangerous, if you can stay in that area.”
LIKE MOST OF the players on the 1997-98 Bulls who were interviewed for “The Last Dance,” Kerr was sent links to preview the docuseries a few weeks ago.
Thus far, he has resisted the temptation to binge watch. He lived through all the drama, so watching it all again is a bit surreal.
Star forward Scottie Pippen was upset about his contract and missed the first few months of the season to have foot surgery as a sort of protest. Jordan publicly declared he wouldn’t play for any coach but Jackson, who management had already announced wouldn’t be back the following season. Mercurial forward Dennis Rodman wasn’t under contract for the following season either.
At one point, Pippen was so upset with Bulls management, he asked for a trade and vowed not to play for the Bulls again. Somehow Jackson coaxed all of that back together, into another championship run.
“That was my favorite part of the first episodes,” Kerr said. “How Phil connected to Scottie, and made sure Scottie was connected to us as a group by saying, ‘We’re going to sacrifice the early part of the season. But we have to bring him into the fold. He’s one of our guys. We’ve got to back him up on this.
“No other coach would say what Phil said.”
Jackson often talked to Pippen about his anger during that season. He wanted him to feel safe expressing that to him and hoped the trust he earned would eventually bring Pippen back around to fighting alongside his teammates, rather than against management.
With Rodman, Jackson had to take a different tact.
He brought in Jack Haley to be his de facto handler. He brought in a therapist to talk to him weekly, which often happened at the Taco John’s or some fast food place in the mall. He made a deal with Rodman that he didn’t have to be at the arena an hour and a half before games like the other players — he could show up an hour beforehand — but if he was late he’d be fined. And then he told the rest of the team about the deal he’d made, to make sure they saw it as pragmatism, not favoritism.
“It didn’t bother us,” Kerr said. “It wasn’t like some rookie who thought he was better than everybody else. This was Dennis Rodman. He was a great player but a complex person. And so we understood that Phil had a big job on his hands.”
Kerr also remembers a meeting in which Jackson showed video of Rodman’s acceptance speech when he was named Defensive Player of the Year in 1990 as a member of the Detroit Pistons.
“Dennis was crying during the press conference, talking about how much it meant to him,” Kerr said.
“And the reason Phil showed us that with Dennis sitting there, at least my read, was he wanted us to know even though Dennis was late and then getting kicked out and suspended and whatever. He wanted us to know how much Dennis cared.
“And he wanted Dennis to know that we all cared about him, too.”
KERR HASN’T TALKED to Jackson as much this season as he has in the past. Like Rivers, watching “The Last Dance” has made Kerr want to reach out again.
“I sent him an email this morning,” Kerr said, when reached on Saturday afternoon. “I should go check to see if he’s written back yet.”
He doesn’t worry about his old coach’s feelings or whether his reputation has been bruised in recent years.
“I think he’s fine,” Kerr said. “Phil was always so comfortable in his own skin.”
They talked often when Kerr was making the transition from broadcaster to coach in 2014. Over the years, Kerr had kept a book full of his beliefs about basketball and coaching. If he ever led a team, this was the book he wanted to bring to life.
Jackson told him that’s what he had done as a young coach, too: figure out what you believe in, then find a way to translate that to a team.
“We talked a lot about the triangle,” Kerr said. “He had searched for an offense for many years that would tie together with his philosophy.
“I had never heard anybody say something like that before. The triangle was not just an offense to run, it was part of a whole philosophy of teamwork and connectivity. And I totally felt it when I was playing there. I never felt more important as a player than I did in Chicago.”
Kerr wanted to bring that to his team, when he became a head coach. To find a philosophy, a mantra, a system, that made every player on the team feel as important as Jackson had made him feel as a reserve for the Bulls.
“For me,” Kerr said. “That was ‘Strength in Numbers.'”
The night before his first training camp with the Golden State Warriors, he showed his new team a video.
“I had Marv Albert narrate,” Kerr said, laughing at the memory. “I had a lot of movie references, movie clips and humor. All these things that Phil did.”
He wasn’t going to run the triangle, but, “I wanted that same philosophy of everybody being valued, everybody touching the ball. Everybody being empowered. That was so powerful to me as a player. And all that came from Phil.”
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