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Yes I know: He did win three championships in a row with the Chicago Bulls and then the Los Angeles Lakers. Yes, he won a record 11 championships with the Bulls and Lakers. But with the Bulls he had the best player ever in Michael Jordan. With the Lakers, he had among others Kobe Bryant, who probably ranks in the top five basketball players of all time and certainly the top 10. Not to mention Shaquille O’Neal when he was still the most dominant centre in the game. Doug Moe could have won with these guys. It wasn’t like he was dealing with Shawn Bradley and Mateen Cleaves.Jackson did make crucial adjustments when he came to the Bulls. He instituted the triangle offence that had an enormous positive impact on Jordan. But as Araton pointed out, it was not an original concept. He got it from the vastly underrated Tex Winter. It worked for the Bulls, so Jackson does deserve a lifetime supply of lotus blossoms.
But I think I am on pretty safe ground that Jackson, like every other basketball coach, did not make a single shot, or a single pass, or force a single turnover.
Coaches say. Players do. Getting up and calling for a timeout is not breathtaking strategy, although it required great exertion on Jackson’s part because he is 6-8. Nor is diagramming a down-to-the-wire play where most players, unless it’s the playoffs, dutifully huddle and fake listening when the far greater concern is which concubine in the stands to entertain to
Are there a few great coaches out there? Vince Lombardi was a master motivator. Bobby Knight, when he wasn’t acting deranged, also elevated players to a different plateau. Bill Walsh was considered a tactical offensive genius, but much of it was taken from Sid Gilliam. His best skill was in drafting players—Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott, Jerry Rice, Roger Craig.
I also have a special fondness for Joe Paterno, who at this point in his 80s, can’t see, is too slow to get out of the way of tackles on the sidelines and broke his leg as a result, doesn’t wear a headset so he has no clue of what is going on, and is an inspiration to Mister Magoo fans everywhere. But Paterno is a great coach, maybe the greatest, because of the enormous donations he has made to Penn State, in the range of $4 million.
Because of the media’s need to create instant heroes and villains, coaches are given far too much credit when the team wins and far too much criticism when the team loses. There would be no talk radio without them.
So the Zen Master is gone. Until he un-retires again because of boredom and missing the klieg lights and having a car trunk still stuffed with incense. And decides to next coach the New York Knicks until he realises that no amount of incense burning will ever change the most pathetic and screwed up sports franchise in America.
But Phil Jackson won’t be held responsible. The structural incompetence of the Knicks will be blamed. And Jackson is undoubtedly writing a sequel to his enormously successful Sacred Hoops, this one apparently called Zen and the Art of Making Millions.
Buzz Bissinger, a sports columnist for The Daily Beast, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of Friday Night Lights and Three Nights in August. He is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.