For Phil Jackson, endings have always been much more powerful than beginnings.
But what would you expect from a guy who was raised by two itinerant fundamentalist preachers? Jackson grew up a son of the Northern Plains, in one Montana community after another, always facing “the rapture,” the belief that the world was soon coming to its glorious end.
"Every Sunday since I was born, the apocalypse has been coming next year," Jackson once told Knicks teammate Bill Bradley in trying to explain his parents’ view of life. Jackson’s young world would be shaped by a growing awareness of his mother’s intense devotion and her focus on the moment of Christ’s return, what she called “the rapture of the saints,” and he would spend his childhood years anticipating that rapture.
Those childhood experiences brought him moments of terror, he once revealed.
And so he learned the power of endings. Anyone who doubts that only has to recall how he used the “end game” to motivate and focus a crazily fractured and distracted Chicago Bulls team to win the 1998 NBA championship. Jackson employed every mind game possible to squeeze a sixth title out of that club and even gave it a tagline as he was doing it, “The Last Dance.”
Hey, he’s a guy who’s made millions off a book titled “The Last Season.”
So Jackson’s recent noise about retiring after the 2010 campaign has to be taken with a grain of context. And that context is this: With Phillip Douglas Jackson you never know where the mind games end and the stark reality begins. That’s part of his motivational success in a business where you’re trying to shape, guide and control headstrong young millionaires in short pants.
We do know this fact. Tex Winter has worked with Jackson closely for years. He’s the guy’s mentor. Winter says that he’s never seen Phil tighten down the control like he has this season.
That, of course, has everything to do with the fact that he’s trying to push a talented young team to a championship, a talented young team that had its mental fragility exposed last year against the Boston Celtics.
It wasn’t easy for Jackson growing up with the isolation of being a son of the Holy Rollers, those folks who worshipped in tents and talked in tongues and based their lives on the notion that the world was going to end any day. But that experience is just one of many things in Jackson’s powerful bag of tricks, things that he has drawn upon over the course of his masterful career.
When Jackson coached the Bulls, some people in that organization chafed at things that he did, as have other coaches around the league. There’s the perception that he’s supremely arrogant.
But as one Bulls official once told me, “If you’re going to coach Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen you better have some shit with you.”
Jackson has always had some shit with him.
Maybe he is planning to retire. Maybe he isn’t. Only Phil knows. And maybe even he doesn’t know.
But we all know this: nothing in life is guaranteed. The opportunity for the Lakers to win is now. The sense of urgency must be huge.
That would seem simple and clear enough to most folks. But the young people in the NBA cash very big checks. They are veal, fed on the milk of potential. It’s always about what they’re going to do down the road. That’s how they’re evaluated. That’s why it’s so easy for them to miss the point, to make huge assumptions that just aren’t true. And in the process, they let the opportunity of a lifetime slip away.
That’s already a bitter cud that Jackson and Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal will have to taste every single day for the rest of their lives. Their silliness in 2004 (when they broke up a team that had won three titles) has cost the three of them dearly in terms of championships won.
They all acted like big brats and left huge winnings, the winnings of a competitive lifetime, on the table. They could have challenged Bill Russell and his Celtics. Instead, all they challenged was our patience. The three of them have been stalked by that truth since the day they parted in 2004 in a fury of bad adolescent gas.
So, it’s rapture time for Phil and his boys. It’s one of his many ways of saying it’s time to put aside childish things, time to focus furiously on the task at hand. There is no tomorrow.
Repeat that. There is no tomorrow.
If you think any other way, you’re just not a competitor. If you entertain any other thought, then the only rings you’re going to have are the smoke rings you’re blowing up each other’s asses.