Wednesday, February 3, 2010

How Will You Remember Me?

How will you remember him?

Wednesday night Phil Jackson passed Pat Riley to become the winningest coach in Lakers history. Of course, he is also the winningest coach in Bulls history.

Recently, Jackson discussed which of the two franchises he most identifies himself with. He was stuck in between.

"I'd have to have a jacket with both sides -- one side Lakers, the other side Bulls," Jackson said.

But it's not fair to choose both. He has to choose one. Well, obviously he doesn't, because he didn't. But the question remains: Which team do you associate Jackson with the most?

Personally, I think it's hard to say. To date he has won ten championships, six of them with Chicago. Two separate three-peats, as the overseer of Michael Jordan's decade of fame and dominance. As the late, great David Halberstam noted in his book about His Airness, Jordan was arguably the most well-known American - not just athlete, but American - in the world. He was bigger than not just the game but sports itself, and his outsized notoriety helped make the Bulls a vessel of media attention and national exposure. With Jordan, Jackson, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman (joining for the second three-peat), the Bulls were (as Halberstam put it) the Beatles of basketball, especially during the second half of the 90s. Thanks to Jordan's celebrity and its ability (along with the team's startling success) to make almost everyone around him a household name, the Bulls became the equivalent of an insanely popular rock band that everybody wanted to get a glimpse of when they traveled into town.

The Bulls were a national phenomenon. I guess the necessity that everyone felt to get a piece of them made them a circus, in a sense. But the Lakers were a circus in the truest meaning of the word. The Bulls had their drama - Rodman's crazy antics, the rift between Jackson and the players and management - but they couldn't touch the Shaq-Kobe-Phil Lakers in that regard. As has been well-documented, those teams were the epitome of dysfunction. O'Neal and Bryant coexisted uneasily on the way to three titles and four Finals appearances in the five seasons they played together under Jackson. They got along very well for one (2002), awkwardly but peacefully for another (2003, when Bryant, playing as single-mindedly as ever but receiving vocal endorsements from O'Neal, sort of informally took over as the team's first option on offense while still not taking full control of the alpha dog steering wheel), completely business-like in another (2000, with Bryant okay with the pecking order and fulfilling Jackson's ideal role for him), and were at each other's throats for the two others (2001 and 2004). And Jackson often found himself mired in the fray. While his spats with O'Neal were innocent and inconsequential, his clashes with Bryant were more serious, as he struggled to get his young pupil to conform to the parameters of the triangle offense and good team basketball.

By their final season together in 2004, with a rape trial hanging over Bryant's head, the Shaq-Kobe feud having grown more personal than ever, Phil and Kobe having come to an un-friendly truce (said Bryant at that year's All-Star weekend: "I don't like Phil as a person, but I love him as a coach"), the suddenly even greater expectation of a championship that came with the additions of Karl Malone and Gary Payton, Shaq's desire for a contract extension, and the uncertainty about the future that came with Jackson and Bryant's impending free agency, the Lakers were pretty much a team (and organization) in chaos. That team in particular may have received the most media attention of any single NBA team of ever, including the famed "Last Dance" Bulls of 1998, who had Jordan nearing potential retirement, nearly all of the pivotal components approaching free agency, and the players aligning themselves, behind Jackson, against GM Jerry Krause (Jackson's arch-nemesis) and owner Jerry Reinsdorf.

Neither O'Neal nor Bryant can or could single-handily match the starpower of Jordan, but together they pretty much equaled it. When L.A. went on the road they were always a guaranteed sell-out, too, and their appearances were also seen as events. Plus (and here's the kicker), Jackson had now become a superstar himself. He was wildly successful as the coach of the Bulls, but the bright lights of L.A. turned him into something more: arguably the most famous basketball coach of all-time. Only Pat Riley and maybe John Wooden could pose a conceivable threat to him in this regard. The nature of Los Angeles made Jackson the kind of star who could stand on his own, a force unto himself in the basketball world. He arrived with a sterling track record and proceeded to tack onto it in Hollywood. He left and came back again, winning another ring. His player-coach relationship with Bryant is perhaps even more notable than the one he shared with Jordan, and he has actually now coached in L.A. one year longer than he did in Chicago. And the city just fits him, what with his big ego and larger-than-life personality.

His contract in L.A. runs out after this season. Another title or two would likely floor the argument. But (and I admit bias on my part when I say this, as a diehard Lakers fan) if I had to lean in one direction, I think I can already say that I will remember Phil Jackson as coach of the Lakers. He and this team were simply made for each other.