No Debate: With 10 Titles, Lakers' Phil Jackson Is the Greatest Coach

By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, June 16, 2009


It's been so insulting all these years that Phil Jackson has often been dismissed, even by some allegedly intelligent basketball people, as merely the benefactor of great talent. Right through the pregame moments of Game 5 here Sunday night, the players were the benefactors, because they were being coached by Jackson.

Quick story: The Lakers, their coach included, were concerned in the hours before Game 5 that they were overly excited about trying to close out the NBA Finals. So many coaches, even the great ones, would have actively tried to calm their players in the moments leading up to tip-off, but not Jackson.

His solution?

"Sit and be quiet for a few minutes before the game," he said. Rather than "filling up our brains with information," Jackson said he would have his team "take a few moments of silence."

No other coach in the NBA would have taken that approach; then again, no other coach in NBA history has won 10 championships. We don't have to confine the praise today for Phil Jackson to just basketball either. No manager ever won 10 World Series. No coach ever won 10 NFL championships. And it isn't just an issue of longevity; Jackson has won 10 of the last 19 NBA championships, and didn't even coach in two of those seasons.

He's had great players and just as importantly -- probably more importantly -- they've had him. Michael Jordan never won squat before he played for Jackson. Shaq never won before he went to Los Angeles to play for Jackson. Bryant couldn't even get the Lakers to the playoffs during the season Jackson was on a self-described "sabbatical."

The great Celtics boss Red Auerbach, with his nine NBA titles, and the wondrous John Wooden of UCLA, who won 10 NCAA championships in 12 seasons, have to move over. Same goes for Scotty Bowman, who won nine Stanley Cups with the Montreal Canadiens, Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings. Blasphemous as it may sound, they've been surpassed.

Occasionally, even in a subjective arena, there is objective criteria for judging greatness. Jackson's 10th championship is the equivalent of Tiger Woods winning a 19th major championship to surpass Jack Nicklaus.

"If I'm right," Orlando Coach Stan Van Gundy said before Game 5, "the guy has won 51 playoff series now. Check your record book and see how many coaches have even won 50 playoff games. It's fewer than 20 [actually 18] and this guy has won 51 playoff series. It's incomprehensible."

Van Gundy expressed just the right annoyance at the notion that Jackson has somehow had an unfair advantage because he coached three of the game's greatest players. "I don't know of a team," Van Gundy said, "that has ever won it once that doesn't have great players. I mean, tell me the team that didn't have great players that won a championship. I'm unaware.

"And yeah, he's had great players, but the guy wins all the time. . . . You can't give him short shrift. I don't know Phil Jackson at all. You guys know him better than I do. But damn, you look at the guy's record. It's undeniable."

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