Phil Jackson's ability to turn malcontents into champions makes him the greatest

By Mike Wise
Wednesday, June 2, 2010; D01

There is but one argument for Phil Jackson as the greatest coach in the history of big-time pro sports in America, and surprisingly it has nothing to do with Michael or Kobe or even a record 10 NBA titles.

It has to do with what I call the "Knucklehead Quotient," and if used properly in compiling a coach's true overall record the formula easily puts the coach of the Los Angeles Lakers ahead of Vince Lombardi and Bill Walsh in the NFL, Joe Torre and Casey Stengel in baseball and Scotty Bowman in the NHL.

What do Ron Artest, Isaiah Rider, Dennis Rodman and the late Bison Dele have in common, other than being finalists for the Mount Rushmore of NBA Malcontents? Jackson got every one of those coach-killers, all of whose antics and behavior at some point detonated their own careers, to play on an NBA Finals team.

All except Artest won a championship ring under Jackson in either Chicago or Los Angeles, and Ron-Ron could be two weeks or less away from making the Knucklehead Four a perfect 4 for 4.

"Think about who he's gotten to fit in," said Frank Hamblen, Jackson's longtime assistant in both cities. "The system has helped a lot of guys who couldn't make it in other situations -- let alone the league -- find a place to be productive and part of a group as opposed to just staying individuals. I think that gets overlooked sometimes."

I asked Charles Barkley, who opines on a lot of things besides basketball, if he would rank Phil No. 1 all time in the pro game (I won't disrespect John Wooden, who in my opinion is the greatest coach of all time in any sport).

"I'd have to say Phil or Red [Auerbach]," Chuck said. "I like Scotty Bowman. You can't discount all those titles won in three cities [nine in Pittsburgh, Detroit and Montreal]. Lombardi, I never saw. I was too young. So when I think NFL, I think Bill Walsh. But it's either Phil or Red in my opinion."

Auerbach won his nine championships as the Boston Celtics coach without the help of four bench assistants, a video coordinator and all the amenities coaches of today are afforded. But Red's NBA had less than half the teams to go through for a title back then, and the idea that only Jackson had the greatest talent to work with is dispelled by Bill Russell, Bill Sharman, Bob Cousy and numerous other Hall-of-Fame Celtics. Red had horses too, and he hoarded them in his day.

I often hear this question asked in relation to Jackson: "If Phil had Larry Brown's players, would he have been able to win like he has?" That used to be an unanswerable question, until Jackson returned to coaching in 2005 with Smush Parker, Kwame Brown and a cast of role players around Bryant that was worse than anything Jordan had around him during any Bulls playoff season.

And in just two years, Jackson had several players from that team in the Finals. Last season, Bryant won his first championship without Shaquille O'Neal and not another bona fide Hall-of-Famer on the roster.

The question also gets at the heart of the argument against Jackson, the idea that having the two greatest wing players of the past three decades (and maybe all-time) somehow disqualifies a coach with 10 championships from the equation.

Which is almost as unfair as Jackson having won just one NBA coach of the year award in his career (Don Nelson, who's never been to the Finals once, has won three awards.) Because it hints at an incorrect theory -- that having a bona fide star on your roster automatically puts a team on top.

Like the Knucklehead Quotient, Jackson's ability to get Kobe and Michael to bend their wills to fit the needs of a championship team is vastly underrated.

The No. 1 talent of a coach in large-revenue professional sports is the managing of egos, and no one has done it better than Jackson.

Because there are only 12 roster spots, an NBA player's salary on an average dwarfs salaries from football, baseball and hockey. Molding a genuine team from those players is what Rick Fox described several years ago.

"You're basically managing 12 CEOs, who are the head of their own companies and have their ideas about how the world should work because they've been given an inflated sense of their worth by their agents, their families and all that money," Fox said. "Around all that, Phil gets people to buy into something bigger than themselves."

As far as the NBA goes, Brown is still the best teacher in the game. And Pat Riley has got to be up there in the conversation. But where Jackson has differentiated himself is his ability to stay contemporary and not permanently alienate himself from his star players.

The tug-of-war for Bryant's trust in the process is one of Jackson's greatest accomplishments. He basically convinced a player that could do everything better than his teammates that he needed them just as much they needed him.

And if Riley and Jackson have proved anything the past 30 years, it's this: Millionaires in gym shorts actually want guidance, structure and discipline. Subconsciously, they crave it because the people who live off them rarely tell them what they need to hear.

Even players like Rodman, Dele, Rider and Artest -- who might just be the defensive intangible the Lakers need to avenge their loss to the Celtics in the 2008 Finals.

Auerbach never had to deal with Sharman spitting at a heckler, or Cousy trying to open the emergency-exit door on the Pistons' a team plane -- at 30,000 feet! (Dele). Russell never wore a bridal gown while signing copies of his new book (Rodman.) And Satch Sanders never threw a roundhouse at a fan he thought tossed beer on him, igniting a melee on the road (Artest.)

Phil Jackson hasn't just wisely directed Michael and Kobe to the heights; he's been a guidance counselor for NBA problem children everywhere.

It's why they are so worried he might leave Los Angeles after his contract expires this season and owner Jerry Buss won't fork over the same $10- to 12-million figure he has the past couple of years.

"Everybody thinks I have something to do with Phil staying," said Jeanie Buss, the Lakers' vice president, Jerry's daughter and, okay, Phil's longtime girlfriend. "I would never do that. I would not emotionally blackmail Phil so he would stay. If he needed to coach somewhere else, I would understand and we would work it out.

"I mean, if I had any control over what Phil did I would have a ring on my finger already," Jeanie added. (She was talking about an engagement ring as opposed to the four NBA championship rings Phil has already given her.)

Jackson would not delve into a conversation about perhaps being the greatest coach of all-time. But when asked if he would consider marriage again, he replied, "That's only something I would do after I finished coaching again."

Good news, Laker fans: The best coach in American pro sports is definitely coming back.

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