Phil Jackson, The NBA's Zen-Master And Its All-Time Greatest Coach

On this day in 2002, Jackson achieved a three-peat for the third and final time
16:00, 12 Jun 2020

“Not only is there more than life to basketball, there’s a lot more to basketball than basketball.”

He is the 11-time NBA Championship winning coach. the only man to win multiple titles with two different teams. He has the highest win percentage of any title-winning coach to have presided over 500 games - and he has over 1600 under his belt. Between 1991 and 2010, if you’re looking for a Championship-winning team, chances are (11 times out of 19 to be exact) it was his side, and two of those seasons in that time period he wasn’t even in the game. He’s one of just two coaches to have managed the ‘three-peat’ of a treble of back-to-back titles… and he’s done that three times.

Phil Jackson is simply the Sir Alex Ferguson of basketball. If Alex Ferguson had coached both Manchester United and Liverpool.

His return to the west-coast outfit in 2005 eventually allowed him to overtake the legendary Red Auerbach's record nine titles with the Boston Celtics, a feat Jackson had equalled three years earlier in 2002. Though he and the Lakers were rewarded with a further two titles in that second stint, if Jackson could ever even incredibly consider a slither of regret, it would be the missed opportunity of a fourth three-peat that retrospectively was denied before it even began.

Jackson alongside Michael Jordan at the Chicago Bulls
Jackson alongside Michael Jordan at the Chicago Bulls

A 2008 Finals match-up harked back to the potency of the decade-defining rivalry of the eighties, with the build-up inevitably drawing out the old card to unleash the hype. However, he would ultimately denied the opportunity to start what no doubt would have become a frankly deifying fourth, when in 2008 Doc Rivers’ Boston Celtics secured a 4-2 Finals victory, for the Eastern Conference side’s first Championship in 22 years years, since the hallowed days of the Celtics/ Lakers, Bird/ Magic era.

Jackson’s legacy is, of course, imprinted on two of the most famous sporting franchises on the planet, the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Lakers already had an illustrious history, through the times of Wilt ‘The Stilt’ Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Magic Johnson. Chicago was a different story. The six titles in seven years, made up of two three-peats separated by a single year, at a club where he will concede he was blessed with the title-winning weapon of the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan.

Most coaches would consider themselves lucky to shepherd one bonafide superstar. But arriving in California, he had the Black Mamba himself, Kobe Bryant.

On June 12, 2002, he managed the three-peat for the third and last time, with the Los Angeles Lakers sweeping the New Jersey Nets 4-0 in the NBA Finals, with Shaquille O'Neal being named MVP.

The son of a pair of Pentecostal ministers, Jackson was born in Montana in 1945. His sporting prowess during his high school years led to him receiving a basketball scholarship to the University of North Dakota. Drafted to the NBA in 1967 by the New York Knicks, where he won a respectable two Championship titles. But it is the image of Jackson the coach, bellowing from the sidelines and calling the all-important timeouts, instructing and ringing in the knife-edge changes, and then lifting the Larry O’Brien Trophy, suited, again, and again, and again. It’s the reason his autobiography is titled Eleven Rings. A century from now that will be the legacy.

And though he had enjoyed success within his playing days, it is his college education that has been formative to the glory he gained as a coach. At UND he researched and started employing elements of Christian mysticism, Native American rituals, and Zen meditation. He is the so-called ‘Zen-Master’, whose contemplations and deep ideology on the power of sport as an almost mystical entity steered his success over a solid two-decade period that eventually elevated him without equal. Jackson didn’t just teach these towering slam-dunking Samsons how to play, he also taught them how to be still, practicing calmness, mindfulness, and meditation.

Jackson in his playing days with the Knicks
Jackson in his playing days with the Knicks

“The daily practice of meditation fits my style really well,” Jackson told Oprah Winfrey in 2013, “You’re beginning your day with a quiet mind and starting your day at peace.”

It is a philosophy that inflected his teams whenever they had to come back to centre-court.

“It’s such a great community that you have when you play the sport, especially if you get to play it at a high level,” he continued, “This is what esprit de corps comes from; that there’s this spirit among this connected group, a connected group of people.

‘This spirituality is not about religion, it’s about the ability to incorporate other beings in your plans, in your system, and my best nature also elevates their nature.

“And basketball and sport does this, even as watchers, as spectators. Say there’s a remarkable play, we want to see it over and over again because it brings an elevated spirit to us. This is not just an individual action.”

There was, however, one particular occasion where Zen went out the window, and it came not due to the actions of a particular player, but because of actors Matt Damon and Mark Wahlberg.

For Game Five of the 2008 Series, with it 3-1 in the Celtics favour, The Departed co-stars and Boston natives had tickets courtside, a breath away from watching Jackson in employment.

“This was in L.A, but the game before [Game 4] we had been down like 23 points in the third quarter, and we’d come back and won,” explained Damon candidly to The Ringer’s Bill Simmons in 2019, “So that game, we’re down, they’re at home - the Lakers, I mean - and we’re down 21, 22 points in the third quarter and Paul Pierce just goes full “Truth” mode and just goes bananas. And they had this unbelievable comeback.

“Our agent has four floor seats and [Mark] Wahlberg and I asked for two each - four of us were there and we’re screaming, you know. We’re cheering on the Celtics, as you do, and their run was capped by, I think, Pierce kinda sliced through the lane and laid the ball in to complete the comeback. By the time he went up to lay the ball in, Phil’s already up because he’s calling a timeout because he’s got to stop the bleeding.

Jackson with the late, great Kobe Bryant
Jackson with the late, great Kobe Bryant

“And Wahlberg and I are like “Oh my God!” and as he calls the timeout, he just spins on us and goes, ‘Sit down and shut the fuck up!’

“He was so mad. Which I get. I can’t imagine if I’m having a bad day at work, and there are fucking people cheering for my pain.

“But we’re like, ‘How’s the zen stuff working for you?”

The Lakers would in fact go on to edge ahead to win the game 103-98, but with the Series sent back to Boston, Game Six would finally put the title in the Celtics’ hands.

Heartbreak wouldn’t hold, as Jackson’s Lakers would however win the next two, with the 09 victory over the Orlando Magic and a revenge win against Rivers and the Greens the year after. While another three-peat hadn’t been achieved, Jackson had helped ascend Bryant almost up to the MJ echelon. For importantly, for Kobe, those latter two successes with Jackson meant putting to bed the taunts of his former Lakers teammate Shaquille O’Neal, alongside whom he had won those trip-rings in the early noughties, The Big Aristotle boasting a night-club freestyle that ‘Kobe couldn’t do it without me’ in footage that emerged in the wake of the ‘08 Celtics misery. Jackson and Bryant ultimately disproved that line of thought.

There were other magnificent men of the court who came under Jackson’s tutelage: Steve Kerr, Scottie Pippen, Derek Fisher, Shaquille O’Neal, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol and Dennis Rodman, among others.

He left the Lakers and retired from coaching in 2011, his triumphs unlikely to be matched for generations. One particular prayer Jackson is beholden of for regular recital: 

“Thou sustainer of our bodies, hearts and souls

“Bless all that we thankfully receive.”

Phil Jackson has received more than most. But no coach has ever put more heart and soul into achieving it.