Phil Jackson: The Man Who Elevated Jordan And Bryant To The Very Top

On this day in 2002, Jackson completed a three-peat for the third time in his glorious coaching career
07:10, 12 Jun 2022

You hear Chicago Bulls, you think Michael Jordan. You hear Los Angeles Lakers, you think Kobe Bryant. But there was one person who was with both men every step of the way as they racked up title after title. More than that, Phil Jackson made it happen for them.

He might have been furnished with some of the greatest players ever to step on a basketball court, with Jordan and Bryant chief among them, but the legendary coach was the key to uniting some of the greatest characters sport has ever known. And he did it over and over again, until he had made the kind of history that will never be repeated.

On June 12, 2002, Jackson completed the impossible. After achieving a three-peat of NBA titles with the Bulls from 1991 to 1993, and then doing it again between 1996 and 1998, he left for the Lakers and managed it for a third time. 

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The 2000 Championship win was LA’s first in 12 years, but by the time they secured the three-peat on this day 20 years ago the likes of Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal had been assured of superstar status.

The fact that he would go on to top the Boston Celtics’ coaching great Red Auerbach’s achievement of nine wins with two more in 2009 and 2010 with the Lakers simply put the argument to bed. In taking two different clubs to such dominance, he had proved himself to be the greatest ever basketball coach.

But it’s not just that he achieved an unprecedented 11 titles as a coach, it’s in how he did it too. He brought together seemingly dominating personalities to deliver a tactical philosophy. While his Bulls predecessor Doug Collins had set up a team to play for Jordan, Jackson knew that they had to be far more than that.

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“I wasn’t a Phil Jackson fan when he first came in because he was coming in to take the ball out of my hands. Doug put the ball in my hands,” Jordan told the 2020 documentary ‘The Last Dance’. “He said ‘I’m not worried about you, but we’ve got to find a way to make everyone else better. We’ve got to create other threats.”

And that’s exactly what he achieved. He switched Scottie Pippen from point guard to small forward, releasing him as an attacking threat. He also managed to harness Dennis Rodman’s incredible personality and give the entire team a belief in themselves rather than just in the guy wearing 23.

“He didn’t look at me as a basketball player, he looked at me as a great friend,” Rodman told The Last Dance. “He realised that I probably needed him for inspiration. He wanted to see me persevere.”

Point guard Steve Kerr, now a multiple-Championship winning coach with the Golden State Warriors, added: “I had never met a coach who was that different and genuine when it came to bringing the group together.”

What followed was a legendary spell, but it was destined not to last forever thanks to disagreements going on in the background with general manager Jerry Krause.

“Looking back, I think my struggle with Jerry taught me things about myself that I couldn’t have learned any other way,” Jackson reflected in his 2013 autobiography ‘Eleven Rings’. “The Dalai Lama calls it ‘the enemy’s gift’. From a Buddhist perspective, battling with enemies can help you develop greater compassion for and tolerance of others. 

“I wouldn’t exactly call Jerry my ‘enemy’. But our conflict certainly tested my inner strength. Though Jerry and I agreed on most basketball-related issues, we had opposing views on how to manage people.”

Having shown he knew exactly how to get the best out of people in winning six NBA titles in Chicago, Jackson was soon building another dynasty on the west coast.

“Everywhere the Lakers went – not just the superstars but the other players as well – they were greeted as heroes and offered endless, often lucrative, opportunities to bask in their wonderfulness,” he said of what he found in Los Angeles.

“My intention was to offer them a safe, supportive refuge from all that craziness and put them in touch with their deep – but as yet undeveloped – longing for real connection. That was the essential first step on which the team’s future success would depend.” 

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In 1999-2000, the Lakers finished 67-15 in their first regular season under Jackson, going on to beat the Indiana Pacers in the NBA Championship. They then beat the Philadelphia 76ers 4-1 in 2001, and swept the New Jersey Nets the following year.

Against the Nets, the twin pillars of O’Neal and Bryant had again dominated the stats but, just as it had happened in Chicago, Jackson had made it happen by making the most of the supporting cast.

This was a genius of a leader, ensuring that some of sport’s greatest ever names got the hardware that their brilliance deserved. Jordan, Bryant, whoever. Everyone around those most sensational of basketball clubs had Phil Jackson to thank for becoming as good as they possibly could be.

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