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Beginning with Michael Jordan in Chicago, and now Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles, Phil Jackson has a unique gift to persuade great individual players to harness themselves to a team concept of play.
For the casual observer this seems an oversimplification, when in truth it is extremely difficult. To ask the great player to give up controlling possessions with the ball so that a not so skilled teammate can have it is like asking the gifted painter to hand the palette and brush to an apprentice who will then begin to apply the strokes to the canvas. It takes considerable persuasion to motivate the great one to hand away the instruments of his greatness. And in the same scenario, the one now holding the brush needs the confidence to begin to apply paint to the picture.
Both in Chicago and Los Angeles, Jackson had willing superstars. They wanted championships and accepted his system. He institutes a total team offensive system that wants to get its scoring opportunities by exploiting the opponents defense. Known as the triangle offense, it is a free movement of five players on the floor with some restrictions. To newly introduced players it is confusing. They are more comfortable with scripted, set plays. Jackson’s offense negates this. It is built on the concept of finding where the defense is weak, and then the offense moving in to take advantage.
Of course, any superstar within a team offense is not going to 100% faithfully stay with it. At moments in a game great plays are needed, no matter what the defense, and the superstar shifts gears. But over the course of 82 games, opposition scouting reports focus on the great player – how to double- and triple-team them – and to cope with this balanced team play had to be ready, willing, and able.
Then Jackson shifts to the team’s defense. He emphasizes the team’s offensive evolution has to come first from a pressure-like defense. This allows the team to get more scoring opportunities. Additionally, defense demands large amounts of energy, and ideally Jackson prefers a 10-man rotation. This allows to sustain more intensive defense throughout a game – and more players to be actively involved in the game keeping morale higher. Over the course of a long season when injuries, fatigue, and other events can hamper a team, Jackson’s teams seem better equipped to manage because of the reserves preparation.
Jackson’s greatest skill is the ability to corral a group of individuals and then deliver a continual message of the power of each doing less for themselves, and more for the group. His ability to use pieces of the philosophy of Buddhism, and Indian lore, and even Christianity to communicate "a pitch" that will last a basketball season is a special art. For example, he has the confidence to walk into a pregame shoot-around with a tom-tom. Methodically striking it and chanting while walking among the players and staff is absolutely out of the norm for an NBA coach – but this is Jackson, and the players do respond. He is like the actor who can do more than just act. He can sing and dance. And each season he does this while delivering his message of team unity, and his cast of players take "the Jackson’s system" to the playing floor.
At times there are bumps in the road – it is a people business. They get mad at each other, feelings are hurt. His team meetings and most practices begin and end with everyone holding hands in a circle and Jackson leading this moment with messages of using togetherness to achieve the team’s goals.
Jackson’s practice of working with today’s professional athletes and their trappings of wealth and fame is truly unique. Veteran players accept his ways because they are so successful. Young players are willing to submerge themselves into it to reap the rewards. Others coaching in the NBA simply will not or cannot or would not be allowed to exhibit this kind of eclectic behavior. But it is well scripted for Jackson. He is intensely competitive and has smartly mapped a way to achieve in professional basketball. It is different, it gets maximum effort from players, and it is goal oriented. And it has become the Zenmaster’s way. In the 1980’s it was the Celtic mystique that formed the formidable dynasty. Then in the 1990’s Jackson the coach started to rival it.
The opposition, come next April and May, in a playoff series against the Lakers, at a decisive and defining moment, know they will face the fire – that has been the key to Jackson’s teams – they find the pressure moment as a booster to defeat the enemy. Playing the Lakers means taking on the invisible aura. But it is fragile, non-guaranteed.
"15 of those in the hunt" in mid-April know Jackson and his tom-tom will be preparing. Even as they prepare to dethrone him, the are keenly aware of "the beat".
Dan Wilson is a freelance writer who covers the NBA, and is currently working on a book depicting the revolution of the league since the drafting of Michael Jordan
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