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Phil Jackson, Part 1

6/15/2004:

Tomorrow, it will be exactly five year ago that Phil Jackson was named head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. (As this was being written, he was possibly leading them to their fourth consecutive NBA championship.) Today, we bring you part one of his story.

Here’s a quick run-down on Jackson’s six-foot eight-inch past: He was born in Deer Lodge, MT, in 1945 but grew up in Williston, where he was a standout basketball player nicknamed “Bones.” He then went to UND, where his unusual, left-handed, hook shot helped earn him consecutive All-American honors. During his senior year, his average was more than 27 points per game.

In 1967, the New York Knicks drafted Jackson in the second round. He rarely started for them, but he was always the first Knick off the bench, and he twice won the sixth-man trophy. Jackson’s wild and disruptive style played an important role in the Knicks’ 1973 NBA championship.

When Jackson started coaching, possibly his greatest talent emerged. As head coach for the Chicago Bulls, he led the team to six national championships in nine years. He took a year off, then joined the Lakers in 2000 and immediately guided them to the NBA championship, which he has done every year since. In fact, he was the first head coach to lead two different teams to multiple NBA Championships.

That’s Phil Jackson, the coach. But Phil Jackson, the man, is what makes the whole thing work.

Growing up during the ‘50s, Jackson’s parents were both fundamentalist ministers who didn’t indulge in luxuries. Their core values weren’t lost on Phil – he is a profoundly spiritual man who coaches his players by neither babying nor bullying them. Instead, he encourages them to understand “how to succeed” – a strategy that helped Lakers player Shaquille O’Neal, for example, earn the championship ring that had been eluding him.

As a player, Jackson was never a star, but he understood his importance in the broader scheme of the game. His broad pointy shoulders and awkward style earned him the nickname, “Head ‘n Shoulders,” but his highly effective rebounding talent earned him a different moniker: “the mop.”

Jackson’s New York fans liked that he rode to games on his bicycle and didn’t conform to the norm. They also loved that he never held back. In a UND interview, Jackson said that his high school teammate, Pete Porinsh, was the person responsible for that. “When I was a junior,” Jackson said, “Pete took me aside and said, ‘Look, the seniors on this team are working their butts off, and you’re just loping up and down the floor. It’s time you started going all out all the time.’ I never forgot what he said.”

Jackson’s big break came on December 17th, 1988, when the Bulls’ high-strung coach was ejected early in the game. Jackson understood the value of every team member, not just the Bulls’ superstars, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippin. The Bulls were trailing by 14 when assistant coach Jackson stepped in, tinkered with the defense and told his players to just go out and play.

Horace Grant, the Bulls’ forward, later said, “It was like we were let out of a cage. We won the game because we were so relaxed – and we knew that Phil should become a head coach.” The following summer, they got their wish, but it wasn’t an automatic success story. Fortunately, Michael Jordan recognized Jackson’s merits. “Michael respected Phil,” Grand said, “and it just carried over to the team.” Tune in tomorrow for part 2 of Phil Jackson’s story.