Where the bodies are buried
Only the occasional Phil Jackson critic emerges in Los Angeles these days. For the most part, though, Jackson feels nothing but love in his second stint as coach of the Lakers. His "Zen Master" persona has proven to be a nice fit for the Southern California mind-set.
However, not everyone enjoys Jackson's unique approach. In particular, many Bulls staff members who had to endure his personality quirks were left harboring a long-burning resentment after he departed from Chicago. Jackson’s battles with team vice president Jerry Krause spilled over into an ugly display in 1998, but he also had many less-public clashes with the team’s community services, marketing, and media relations departments. To many of these people, his mind games seemed unnecessary and sometimes cruel.
On more than one occasion, Jackson reduced staff assistants to tears with a good public upbraiding. Fans have often heard about his brilliant touch of canceling practice and instead taking the Bulls on a ferry ride in New York during the 1994 playoffs. What isn’t known is that Jackson stopped the team bus that day as it was about to depart for the trip and ordered a longtime team publicity assistant, the only female on the bus, to get off. According to team sources, the woman was devastated by the move and has never forgiven Jackson for an unexplained and seemingly unnecessary humiliation (she left the team's employment a few months later).
Other staff members simply learned to adjust to Jackson’s ways. They came to understand that for Jackson there were two groups, the players and immediate members of the team, and then the rest of the world. Staff members belonged in the rest of the world, and Jackson didn’t like them getting too close to the players and team. This, of course, is an attitude found among other NBA coaches.
“Phil was a good guy,” recalled one Bulls staff member who worked with Jackson a lot. “Phil was Phil. He would bust your balls a lot, a lot of times for no other reason than to exert that attitude that ‘I’m the boss.’ He just liked flexing his muscles. He was unpredictable. A lot of it was to keep you off balance. If he saw you starting to feel comfortable at practice, in the locker room or on the team bus, he’d definitely put you in your place and let you know he was running the show. You always had to act subservient around him. He did that with the security guards, too. He had a way of saying things that would cut you to the bone.
“He wouldn’t let you get too comfortable. He liked to keep everybody on edge. It was his way of control. If you asked him about it, he would tell you that it was his way of fucking with you or playing mind games with you. He always used to say, ‘It’s like I tell my kids, always ask. Don’t assume things. Always ask.’”
This longtime Bulls employee said that as soon as he got comfortable around the team and forgot to ask if it was okay to make each move, then Jackson would cut him down to size.
“Then, all of a sudden, you felt like a dick. He didn’t just do this to me, but to everybody. It was never personal. It was just his way.”
Another longtime Bulls employee said that Jackson had become increasingly difficult over the years in Chicago as the Bulls gained more and more notoriety and there were increasing demands on the coach.
“You change a lot,” explained one staff member who worked closely with Jackson. “That’s because the landscape changes. We became the most popular sports team in the world. They all changed. The players. Phil. Everybody. Despite people thinking that he could be very, very arrogant, at times he could still be very funny. He could still take it all in stride and know that everything involving him was not the end of the world. But I can see where people would hate him. Those mind games after a while aren’t funny. Those games are easy to play when you got Michael Jordan on your side. When you got Michael, all your games are gonna work. All the dice come up sevens."
“Another thing you’ve got to remember,” the Bulls employee added, “is that Phil’s a former player. Just about all of those ex-players have this it’s-all-about-me syndrome. They’re taught to think that way and they never get over it. One other thing, Phil was the coach of the best basketball team in the world led by the greatest player in the history of the game. You have to have arrogance to coach a group like that. It’s gonna be tough day in and day out if you don’t. You do that job you better have some shit with you.”
Some Bulls employees saw Jackson’s approach as an outgrowth of his growing control battle with Jerry Krause. Anyone who held a private conversation with Krause over the course of the 1998 season heard his complaints that the Bulls’ success had gone to Jackson’s head, that he was an egomaniac hungry for power, that he had been disloyal to him, the one person who had allowed him back into the NBA, that the private Jackson was far different from the one admired by the public.
Tex Winter was a friend and counselor to both Jackson and Krause. He had witnessed their success, then watched as the relationship began falling apart in 1996, leaving Winter playing the middle over the next two years trying to keep the two men working together for the team’s sake. Winter acknowledged that there were things that Jackson could have done to make the situation more harmonious. But Winter privately pointed out that Krause had a difficult personality and that Jackson had spent years bending over backwards to accommodate that personality until Jackson finally wearied of that effort.
Krause, though, portrayed Jackson as a two-faced character who really had very little regard for his assistant coaches, a perception that certain Krause associates in the Bulls organization had sought to spread about Jackson. At the height of the hard feelings in the spring of 1998, one of Krause’s scouts went to press row in Chicago’s United Center to explain to a reporter the insidious nature of Jackson’s ego.
Perhaps no NBA general manager had a more investigative nature than Krause, nicknamed “The Sleuth” for his secretive approach to scouting and compiling information about players and coaches. A Chicago native, Krause had worked in and around the NBA for four decades, which meant that he had a voluminous knowledge of the league’s secrets.
“I know where all the bodies are buried,” he had once bragged when asked about his own franchise.
It was Phil Jackson’s great misfortune that at the height of their discord Krause gained irrefutable evidence about one of Jackson’s own misdeeds involving the 1994 firing of assistant coach Johnny Bach.
Like Winter, Bach had been an elderly influence on Jackson when he joined the team. A spirited sort who was popular with Bulls players, Bach apparently fell into Jackson’s disfavor because he sometimes encouraged Jordan to follow his own inclinations and ignore the triangle offense. But Bach also was a strong supporter of Jackson’s, which leaves his dismissal as something of a mystery. There was something about Bach that annoyed Jackson.
“We were very different people,” Bach acknowledged.
At the time and in later accounts, Jackson portrayed Bach’s firing as a result of Krause’s anger over the 1991 book “The Jordan Rules” by Chicago Tribune columnist Sam Smith. The text contained fascinating inside detail on the team’s drive to its first championship, detail that portrayed Krause as something of a buffoon and Jordan as somewhat ruthless and selfish. Both Jordan and Krause hated the book, and Jackson later joked that “The Jordan Rules” was one of the few things the team executive and star player could agree about.
Krause alleged later that Jackson deceived him into believing that Bach was the anonymous source for most of the inside detail. Krause learned in 1998 that it was Jackson himself, not Bach, who was the source for much of Smith’s book. How did Krause discover this? He learned it from Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, who was told of the situation in confidence by none other than Sam Smith himself. Smith had revealed his sources to Reinsdorf with the caveat that he not tell anyone. Reinsdorf was not supposed to give that information to Krause, but he did.
Smith independently confirmed those events and Jackson’s role in his book.
“Phil and the players had much more of a role than Johnny Bach,” Smith said in acknowledging that he had told Reinsdorf of Jackson’s part in “The Jordan Rules.”
Jackson, though, had continued to explain Bach’s firing as a result of the elderly assistant coach’s involvement, clearly a prevarication on Jackson’s part.
"It was Jerry Krause’s relationship with Johnny Bach that created a very uncomfortable situation," Jackson said of the firing in a 1995 interview. "It made this have to happen eventually. It had gone all wrong. It was bad for the staff to have this kind of thing because we had to work together.
"Jerry basically blamed Johnny Bach for a lot of the things in the book. And there’s no doubt that Johnny did provide that information. Jerry felt that Johnny talked too much. And Johnny, in retrospect, felt that animosity that Jerry gave to back to him, the lack of respect, so Johnny refused to pay allegiance to Jerry just because he was the boss.
"It had gone on for too long a period of time," Jackson said. "I could have kept them apart, at bay from one another, I suppose for a while longer. But I didn’t like the fact that it wasn’t good teamwork. That was my staff and my area. I agreed to do it. I felt it was a good opportunity because Johnny had an opportunity to get another job in the league quickly. It worked out fine for Johnny, although I would just as soon have not put him through the disappointment, or have to go through the situation myself."
“Phil lied to me,” Krause said in a 1998 interview. “Phil actually got Johnny fired.”
“It was Phil’s idea to fire Bach,” Reinsdorf said in 1998. “Phil told me that the bad relationship between Krause and Bach had made things impossible. It was Phil’s idea. Nobody told him to do it.”
Contrary to Jackson’s later assertions that things worked out fine for Bach, Bach himself said the firing came at a terrible time in his life, after the 1994 playoffs, just weeks shy of his 70th birthday. The irony, Bach said, was that the coaching staff had probably never worked better together.
“At the end of that year I had every reason to think my contract would be renewed,” Bach recalled in a 1999 interview. “The first person that told me was Phil. He said, ‘We’re not gonna renew the contract.’ I was stunned. Before I could say much in defense, he said, ‘It’s really best for you that you do leave. The organization has made up its mind.’ I was disappointed. Shocked is a better way of saying it. I didn’t quarrel. I just couldn’t believe it. I went to see Krause and he said the same thing. I just got up and left. I had a lot of crisis in my life at that time. I was end the divorce courts ending a long-term marriage. I had to move. I thought everything was collapsing around me that summer. Then I had a heart attack. It was all a shock, and it took some time to believe and trust people again.”
An excellent coach, Bach was later hired by the Charlotte Hornets. He subsequently learned that he was supposedly fired for the inside information he provided to Smith. Bach said he went back and read the book three or four times looking for damaging information he might have provided. His quotes, though, were on the record and relatively basic.
“I didn’t see a single quote in that book that was out of order,” he said. “Sam is obviously a good investigative reporter. There was a portrait in there that Michael did not like, based on whoever gave it to Sam.”
The book “was quite an accurate portrayal,” Bach said. “I don’t think Sam painted someone as he wasn’t.”
Krause was supposedly distraught more than three years later to learn that he had been deceived into firing an innocent Bach. By then, Bach was working in Detroit as an assistant coach. One night when the Pistons were in Chicago to play the Bulls, Pistons executive Rick Sund told Bach that Krause would like a word with him.
“I had mixed feelings,” Bach recalled. “You sort of protect yourself.”
He agreed to the meeting, however, and was more than a bit surprised.
“When Jerry spoke to me he was emotional, and so was I. I always thought the organization had made that move, not Phil. I thought it was a huge concession on Jerry’s part to come up to me. I thought he meant it,” Bach said of Krause’s apology. “And I accepted that.”
Bach said he had continued to greet Jackson whenever he ran into him and even addressed the issue with Jackson when they had a chance to sit down man to man over a drink. What he told Jackson that night will remain between the two of them, Bach said.
“I’d rather leave it be. Certainly he knew how I felt. I always thought we had a relationship that was strong enough. We had sat there on the bench together for five years. As an assistant coach, you don’t always know about these things that are going on. It was always foolish, kind of an indictment that I could never defend myself. Now the whole thing is not important. Once it was.”
The incident, however, begged several questions. Jackson had coveted the opportunity to coach the Bulls, just as he had worked diligently to build a relationship with Michael Jordan. Why would he risk his job or that key relationship in his professional life by providing a reporter with unflattering information about his boss and his star player?
One longtime Bulls employee who worked with Jackson on a daily basis figured the coach provided the information to Smith because it helped him gain more control over his team. The end result of the book was that it served to further alienate Krause from the players, thus securing Jackson’s role as “the leader of the pack,” the team employee said.
As far as the negative portrayal of Jordan, it was the ultimate mind game, a matter of “‘Let’s get down on Michael. Let’s whip this guy and keep him in line for my purposes.’ It was his way of getting on Michael’s side by alienating him from the media,” the Bulls employee suggested. “That was why Phil always used it’s the Us-Against-The-Media approach, the Us-Against-The-Organization approach, because if he did that, then he could be the leader of the pack. That’s why I’ve got a lot of qualms with the Zen Master. You’re not even smart enough to get along with your own bosses and your own fellow employees during the greatest run in basketball history. So how smart are you?”
These voices provide two distinctly different perspectives on Phil Jackson, of those who work for him and those who work with him. What emerges in both is his determination to control the competitive environment he inhabits. Some he cajoles and charms into line. For others, he reserves harsher methods. Regardless, his purpose beats as insistently as his drum, moving them about for designs that only he sees. Yet even those who don’t like him marvel at his mastery, at how he can do what no one else can.
Part of the employees’ resentment stemmed from Jackson’s insistence on shutting out everyone except the immediate group of players and coaches and trainers, thus dividing the organization into those within the team and those without. Jackson did this to increase camaraderie and group identification, but it led him to treat most approaching staff members as intruders. Regardless, the few staff members allowed a view of the team’s inner workings marveled at what they saw.
“He really did love his team, really deeply” explained a Bulls staff member who worked around the team daily. “And the team trusted him totally. He included every player, top to bottom. You really knew he cared about them, about the whole group on the deepest level.”
Roland Lazenby is a sportswriter and the author of numerous sports books, including Mindgames: Phil Jackson's Long Strange Journey and Mad Game: The NBA Education of Kobe Bryant. His work has been featured in such publications as Sports Illustrated, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and many others
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