Phil Jackson, the NBA head coach with a Yogi Berra-type nose for championships, finally separated from the pack the other night by tallying his unprecedented 11th NBA championship as a coach, two more than Red Auerbach. With this, his seventh title defense, it's time to remove the asterisk that is usually implied when we mention his freakish numbers, and view him as reflected in the record books, probably the best coach ever.
Realizing that a debate over number one, in anything, is subjective, Jackson always seems to be dismissed for being handed the best players of the time, despite his dominance, as if having superstars guaranteed anything in professional sports.
There is no question that Phil routinely inherited great players, that's what he does. He manages super-egos, which are volatile enough to send coaches off shaking their heads. A person who says anybody can win with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen obviously forgot Doug Collins, who made quick exits from the playoffs as the Bulls' coach in '87 and '88, before Jackson was brought in from the Continental Basketball Association, where he won a title in 1984, by the way.
Unlike most coaches, Jackson made an immediate impact on the league. After only one season, he transformed the Bulls from a very talented team, to an unstoppable force, and contrary to popular belief, Jackson didn't just roll the ball out in practice while he meditated in a corner. The “Zen Master,” as he is called, infused his assistant Tex Winters' “triangle” offense, which was run to perfection. It would become his signature blueprint for championships and change the course of the league.
Nobody can say for sure how things would have gone with Collins still at the helm, but it couldn't have gone much better. Jackson's six rings from 1990 to 1998, where he squeezed Jordan and Pippen for every drop, is stuff of legend. When he took the next year off, however, his accomplishment was overshadowed by Jordan's dominance and he was viewed as a straw man who set the team on autopilot to catch a nap.
Then, after a one year absence, Phil Jackson relieved Del Harris, who had his hands full with the Lakers' mega-talented duo of Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. It was no secret that the two stars didn't fit together in the locker room and it seemed to be a mistake even bringing them in. Still, true to form, Phil brought the triangle and his Zen practice to the West Coast and won three titles in his first three years, giving him a total of six straight championships as a head coach.