Jackson, Philip Douglas ("Phil")

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JACKSON, Philip Douglas ("Phil")

(b. 17 September 1945 in Deer Lodge, Montana), National Basketball Association player noted for his eccentricities who later coached eight NBA championship teams.

Phil Jackson's parents were Pentecostal ministers, and they seem to have instilled in him a great respect for spirituality, one of the characteristics that contributed to his becoming a great basketball coach. Early in life, Jackson found an outlet in playing sports, and in high school he played not only basketball but football and baseball.

From 1963 to 1967, he attended the University of North Dakota and played basketball under Coach Bill Fitch. He was six feet, eight inches tall, thin, and seemingly all angles and elbows. His aggressive defense and high scoring led to his twice being named an All-American. While in college, he pursued his spiritual interests, and when he graduated he was a Buddhist.

Had he played in the 1980s or later, Jackson would probably have been a first-round draft choice and a starter in the National Basketball Association (NBA), but in 1967 there were far fewer NBA teams, and he was a second round choice, seventeenth overall. He then had some tough choices to make. In general, NBA players were not paid as well as baseball and football players, and many college stars chose to take jobs with corporations, playing for corporate teams or in amateur ball, meanwhile building careers in business. Jackson had to decide between an $11,000 per year offer from the Phillips 66 Oilers, with a business career, or a $13,500 offer from the New York Knicks. He chose the Knicks.

He wore his hair long and followed spiritual practices that, in those days, were out of the mainstream. Yet, this seeming rebel learned Coach Red Holzman's unselfish style of play, and he became the team's "sixth man." He proved to be a fine defensive player; his jerky movements, shoulder twitches, and ever-moving hands annoyed opposing players and threw them off balance. He suffered several injuries while with the Knicks and had spinal-fusion surgery in 1969, causing him to miss the 1969–1970 season. He came back to be a pivotal reserve player who made the most of his opportunities, and he was important in the Knicks's 1972–1973 NBA championship season. By then, his antics and tough rebounding had made him a fan favorite.

Jackson was traded to the New Jersey Nets in 1978, and he retired in 1980, finishing with 3,454 rebounds, 898 assists, 199 blocks, and a 6.7 points per game average in 807 games—very good marks for a reserve player.

In 1982 he became coach of the Albany Patroons in the Continental Basketball Association. In five years of coaching the Patroons he compiled 117 wins and 90 losses, was named CBA Coach of the Year, and won the 1984 CBA championship. This experience led to his being hired as an assistant coach for Doug Collins of the Chicago Bulls.

On 17 December 1988 Collins was ejected early from a game, and Jackson took over. He spoke only briefly with the players, tinkering a bit with team strategy, and set the players loose. "It was like we were let out of a cage," said team forward Horace Grant. The team won. Even though the Bulls made it to the conference finals, where they lost, in 1989, Collins was fired, and Jackson was named to replace him. At the time, he seemed an odd leader for a high-energy sport. He was calm during games, kept his talks with his players during breaks to about thirty seconds, spread sweet grass in the locker room in Lakota-inspired ceremonies to drive out evil spirits and encourage good ones, and meditated thirty minutes a day with burning incense. During games, he treated his players as intelligent men who knew what they were supposed to do, but it was in practices that they learned what was expected of them. Throughout his coaching career, Jackson has insisted that practices are his chief pleasure in coaching, knowing that if twelve men worked hard as a team to master skills, they would be able to play as one.

The Bulls offense had focused on getting the ball to Michael Jordan, the scoring star, and Jordan had turned in magnificent seasons, but Jackson created a different pattern using the Triangle Offense, which emphasized ball handling, passing, and team play. Once Jackson sold Jordan and the other players on this idea, Jordan's scoring went down a little, but the team won championships, with NBA titles in 1991, 1992, and 1993. When Jordan's father was murdered in 1993, the superstar retired from basketball, later to play minor league baseball. The Bulls won 55 and lost 27 in 1993–1994—a fine record—but they slumped to 47–35 the next season.

When Jordan ended his retirement and returned, he made it clear that he would play only for Jackson. The Bulls won three consecutive NBA championships in 1996, 1997, and 1998, and Jackson was voted NBA Coach of the Year in 1996. Jackson's 1995–1996 season was the most spectacular of his career. The Bulls won seventy-two and lost only ten games, setting an NBA record for wins and for winning percentage. The Bulls went on to win fifteen games while losing only three in the playoffs, winning the NBA championship. Yet not all was happy in the offices of the Bulls. After the 1998 championship, several Bulls players were to become free agents, and Jackson had frequent, loud disagreements with general manager Jerry Krause over what to do about them; Jackson was forced out of his coaching job and retired. Jordan, true to his word, retired as well.

After a year off, during which Jackson enjoyed himself at his Montana home, the Los Angeles Lakers, with some urging from their star center Shaquille O'Neal, offered Jackson their head coaching position. When Jackson accepted the job, his wife June of twenty-five years left him over the issue of how much time he spent on coaching (twenty-four hours a day, he has said).

In an astonishing feat of coaching, Jackson convinced a team of independent stars to play his brand of unselfish basketball, and the Lakers won consecutive championships in 2000 and 2001. Jackson attributed some of his success to living every moment for itself, even while visualizing long-term goals, as well as to psychologically supporting his players, to being "in touch with them."

Jackson had earned some fame for his independent views with Maverick: More Than a Game (1975), coauthored with Charley Rosen. Pulled together from interviews conducted by Rosen with Jackson, this book was updated considerably for More Than a Game (2001) because Jackson had become more than an eccentric—he had become the coach with the second-most championships in NBA history. Another thoughtful book is Mindgames: Phil Jackson's Long Strange Journey (2000) by Roland Lazenby, an in-depth study of the man. Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior (1996) by Jackson and Hugh Delehenty offers insight into how Jackson applies his beliefs to managing basketball players, as well as to his life. Fun to read is The Gospel According to Phil: The Words and Wisdom of Chicago Bulls Coach Phil Jackson; An Unauthorized Collection (1997) by David Whitaker, a short gathering of remarks from one of the most quotable people in sports.

Kirk H. Beetz

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