Exclusive: Phil Jackson talks about his time with the Bulls
by LACY J. BANKS firstname.lastname@example.org March 10, 2011 11:40PM
Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
It’s a shame that if the Bulls don’t play Phil Jackson’s Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals this season, we might have seen — at least at the United Center — the last of this 65-year-old Hall of Fame coach who guided the Bulls to their first six championships.
Though there has been speculation this week that Jackson could wind up coaching the Miami Heat next season if beleaguered coach Erik Spoelstra is fired, Jackson squashed that rumor during an exclusive interview with the Sun-Times that included a tantalizing story about how he was hired by former Bulls general manager Jerry Krause and his thoughts about the current edition of the Bulls.
“This is my swan song,” Jackson said. “After coaching in the NBA for 20 years, this is my last year of coaching, and I’ve really enjoyed it. The Lakers and I have a great relationship, and we’re getting prepared for it. After that, I don’t want to stay on in any management position. I’m retiring for good.”
We caught up with Jackson because the Bulls are holding a halftime ceremony Saturday night to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their 1991 championship. But Jackson will be a key figure missing from the event because his Lakers will be playing in Dallas that night.
“And I’ll really miss that,” Jackson said of a reunion that will feature Hall of Famers Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. “It would have been great to see that team come together again.”
Jackson’s retired jersey will be hanging from the rafters. And his records as the Bulls’ winningest coach still overwhelm the Bulls’ media guide. But Jackson’s last appearance coaching at the United Center would be that 88-84 loss to the Bulls on Dec. 10.
“It won’t be the same without him,” said Pippen, who teamed with Jackson and Jordan to win all six titles. “He’s definitely the best coach of all time.”
Jackson won’t go that far praising himself, even though his 11 coaching rings are an NBA record, surpassing the 10 won by former Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach.
Winningest coach? Jackson bristles.
“I’d say I’m the luckiest,” he said. “I don’t believe anybody else has ever coached the talent I’ve been blessed to coach for my whole career.”
How special was the 1990-91 team?
“Winning each championship was great, but the first was the sweetest,” Jackson said. “After that, it was a matter of us gaining more confidence, skill and chemistry because we could no longer sneak up on anybody. We knew we had to bring our best game because the other team was bringing its best game.”
Jackson, a son of Assembly of God preachers, nursed the notion of becoming a preacher himself before following his 6-8 frame to play four years for the University of North Dakota and 13 years in the NBA before coaching in the CBA and then the NBA.
“I definitely believe that the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step,” the Zenmaster said. “My first step was being hired by the Bulls, and it all happened in the strangest way. My birthday [Sept. 17] just happened to fall on the day [in 1987] when the Bulls had lost assistant coach Gene Littles, who left to accept a job coaching the Charlotte Hornets.
“My telephone number just happened to be on Jerry Krause’s desk when somebody called him asking for it because they said they wanted to wish me a happy birthday. So since the Bulls had to pick up another coach at the last minute, those circumstances all came together to put me in the right spot at the right time. So Jerry called and offered me the job. I took my first step when I accepted the job, and the rest is history.”
Two years later, Jackson replaced Doug Collins as head coach. In just his second year, Jackson coached the Bulls to the first of six championships in eight years. Since that first championship, Jackson has traveled more than 1 million miles coaching the Bulls and the Lakers, won 1,028 regular-season games, 200 playoffs games and 10 more NBA championships while also being inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
“The hardest part of that first championship was teaching our players that they had to learn to beat the Detroit Pistons around Michael Jordan,” Jackson said. “They could not win a championship using him as a pacifier every time they came down the court. Once they bought into [assistant coach] Tex Winter’s triangle offense, accepted roles and played team ball, the rest was easy.”
Jackson remains upset about the way Krause pulled the plug on the dynasty — just when they could have won a fourth title in a row during the 1998-99 season that was trimmed to 50 games because of a labor dispute.
“As warrior champions, we had earned the right to keep winning titles until we couldn’t win anymore,” Jackson said.
But contentious contract negotiations between the Bulls and Jordan and Jackson made it difficult to continue.
Especially because Krause allegedly told Jackson that even if the Bulls won 82 games that season, “You’re [bleeping] gone!”
“There were other challenges we’d have to overcome to win again,” Jackson said. “After Dennis Rodman had played at such high level for three years, at age 35, he still could have played athletically. But his other distractions on the floor, his emotions and mind-set could have tipped in the wrong direction. Scottie and Michael could have played through their injuries. But we would have needed Rodman to dominate as a rebounder, defender and passer to put us over the top.”
As for the current Bulls and the way they are winning behind the leadership of Derrick Rose, other talented players and a new crop of outstanding coaches, Jackson says he is very impressed.
“They are an emerging team,” Jackson said. “They’ve gotten seasoning playing teams like the Celtics. Now it’s time for them to move forward into the playoffs, and we’ll see how far they can go. But Rose is having a great season as a player and a leader on that team.”