One of the most studied leaders in sports is exiting stage left. Or at least we think he is. Phil Jackson, the winningest coach in NBA history, likely coached his last game on Sunday. While he was coy with his response at a press conference about whether or not he was retiring (“I haven’t answered that, have I?”), the move is widely anticipated, especially after Jackson called this season coaching the Los Angeles Lakers his “Last Stand.” On Sunday, he said of the embarrassing 122 to 86 second-round loss to the Dallas Mavericks that “all my hopes and aspirations are that this is the final game that I’ll coach.”
It wasn’t a good note on which to end, to put it mildly. The Lakers had a rough regular season. Despite making the finals, they collapsed in the second round, getting swept by the Dallas Mavericks in four straight games, the last of which ended with the Lakers unraveling in a humiliating 36-point defeat. Two players (Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom) were ejected from the game, the latter of whom summed it up best: “I don’t know where we lost it, that drive, that bond we had in the past, that cohesive drive in order to overcome adversity.” Jackson even received a $35,000 fine the same day for comments he made about officiating.
For a coach known for his focus on team building, it was an ugly end to a remarkable career. Jackson’s holistic, team-focused—some might even say spiritual—approach to leadership has been among the most studied in sports. He is known for letting non-star players take their turn in order to build a “collective, vested interest” in winning, in the words of Lakers point guard Derek Fisher. He has won 11 national championships, including three “threepeats,” or three-in-a-row championships, the fourth of which his team was shooting for this week.
All of which makes Sunday’s loss potentially all the more painful. Jackson may have looked like a man relieved in his post-game news conference, even saying he was glad the season was over. This is a coach, after all, who practices meditation and Buddhism, and surely has a better chance than most at coming to terms with the fact that his final game was a total flop. He did not seem like someone pining for the next chance to prove himself when he quoted Richard Nixon, saying, “You won’t be able to kick this guy around anymore.”
But to go out with your team performing in a way entirely opposed to the coaching style you’ve cultivated may be even too much for the Zen Master, as Jackson has been called, to take in. It’s human nature for retiring leaders to have the urge to end their career on an up note. This is a man who’s threatened to retire before, after all, and simply couldn’t stay away. All leaders want to keep their legacy intact and their ethos unscathed.
Still, while the series against the Mavericks will hardly go down as Jackson’s finest moment, it’s hard to imagine it will do irreversible damage to his reputation. Phil Jackson will be remembered for his unique coaching style, particularly of stars like Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, his (love it or hate it) zen wisdom and wit, and his 11 national titles. Finishing as he did Sunday—if indeed, he’s coached his final game—is hardly a moment for Jackson to be proud of, but neither would reversing his plan just to finish after a more successful win. Losses hurt, but leaders’ legacies are made over the course of a career, not a contest.
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