Phil Jackson May Be The Greatest Coach Ever

Coach Phil Jackson

I do not want to take anything away from Lakers head coach Phil Jackson. Over almost all of the last 4 decades, Jackson has distinguished himself as both a player and a coach in the NBA. The Los Angeles Lakers’ victory over the Orlando Magic in this year’s finals, solidified Jackson’s lofty place in the history of the game of basketball. But, is he the greatest coach ever? Can such accolades even be quantified over time? Or, has basketball become, like nearly everything else, a great PR hype machine in search of real heroes?

The news today is replete with all the regalia of a momentous occasion in the annals of sport. From Kareem Abdul Jabbar to Jackson himself (and everyone in between) celebrating and pre-supposing that Jackson, with his 10th NBA Championship under his belt, is the greatest basketball coach ever. This news, and all the hoopla surrounding it, makes this old basketball nut try to recall any time when anyone has been proclaimed “almighty” so enthusiastically.

Adolph Rupp - Coach Phil Jackson

Winning Beyond Numbers

Competition gets down to winners and losers always, but as in all things, one must weigh such assertions carefully, “the greatest” implies characteristics beyond reproach, and takes into consideration far more than hype in an age where PR and “talk” is cheap. Jackson has won more NBA Championships as a coach than anyone in history. But, can we ceremoniously award him the that coveted pinnacle of “greatest of all time”? Given the character of the man, and what he has seen over these years, I think that in his noble heart of hearts, there has to be a humble streak crying out “not so fast” I myself can think of some times when”.

Red Auerbach, coached the Boston Celtics teams to 9 championships (and a heap of valiant encounters as well) way back when the legends took to the court, and made it possible for today’s “gangsta” heroes to pull down tens of millions. I think the NBA today, and other professional sports too, are over inflated and mediocre talent venues in search of the next great hero. Face it, there simply are no Chamberlains, Jordans, Ervings or even Auerbachs around these days. Jackson knows this, as I think he knows his team just hammered a bunch of nobodies into the court. Also, I never remember the Celtics beating anyone followed by riots either on or off the court.

Old School Legends Coach Phil Jackson

I think Jackson, given his character and accolades, would want someone to put his achievements in perfect perspective. Has he won more championships than anyone, yes. Is he the greatest basketball coach ever, this is a very subjective issue. As someone once said (I believe it was Connie Hawkins); “The greatest basketball player who ever lived, never wore an NBA uniform”. Though Chamberlain and a very few others stands out as arguments to the contrary, we can at least imagine some kid on the streets of Harlem or Philly, taking the hard breaks and being legendary if only in the “what if” category.

Auerbach won championships against a “who’s who” of NBA legend. I think even Jackson (perhaps especially Jackson) would acknowledge this in his statistical or perhaps “heart of basketball hearts”. Jordan and company certainly defeated any number of relative “nobodies”, as has been the case for most championship teams this last decade or two. I do not want to have to travel down the list of opponents Auerbach (or many others) had to overcome, or the situational aspects either. I think it is just much more classy for writers and even the participants to pay homage and be a little more humble. The following video, I know, will remind Phil Jackson of a time far removed from today’s – where legends trod – now that was a coaching spectacle.

Regarding With Respect – More Than Just Due

Don’t get me wrong, I hated and still hate the Boston Celtics. They always beat my favorite teams (Lakers included). Auerbach led a sometimes almost paraplegic array of heroes past forces the likes of which basketball can never see again (namely Chamberlain, West and Baylor or Chamberlain, Luke Jackson, Cunningham, Greer, Walker and co.). I need not even go into the legendary likes of John Wooden, Holzman, Riley or a cavalcade of collegiate genius. When it comes to coaching, as in playing, the term “greatest” involves a lot more than numbers of championships or winning percentages. As a player, anyone knows, 40 points in a game against midgets is not the same as 20 against giants.

So, my admonition to the NBA aficionado, sports reporter, player or coach of today, is to dump modern PR hype dogma, and try on a little humility. Perhaps embrace something called “honor among giants”, rather than heralding this era as anything but mediocre by comparison. Phil Jackson is one of my favorite examples of an excellent human being, as a motivator, player, coach, competitor, and mostly as an example of what I always call “the spirit of true excellence”. He may eventually be considered the greatest basketball coach who ever lived, but somehow it does not seem appropriate to pass such a prestigious crown down after a shellacking of Lilliputians. I will leave the reader with a quote our of my own repertoire, and in memory of giants so far larger than Kobie Bryant and the like, as to eclipse their memory forever.

Greatness is not a numeric measure of foes defeated; instead, it resides in the character and magnitude of the combatants. It is a far more noble and heroic deed to fall before giants, than to prevail above mere mortals.

Phil Jackson knows this if anyone does. I applaud him for his character and his impact on a great game. The greatest of all time? This remains to be contemplated. As for the LA Lakers of this championship season, I know Phil would agree, leading the Magic past LA would have been a far more compelling story of coaching greatness to encapsulate an exemplary (even legendary) coaching career. For those of you enjoying these sports arguments for and against accolades of greatness, check out a rather definitive article I found in doing the research for this one.

It speaks volumes about a few of the “giants” I am referring to, versus today’s facsimiles. As for Phil Jackson’s legacy, I am more than sure his supreme excellence and incomparable gifts will take care of that.


  1. Tom says

    I hate the Celts also. I can’t wait until my rockets get back together in the finals. Nice article Phil. Us old school people really enjoyed this one.

  2. says

    Phil, great article. Really enjoyed the balanced look at it (minus the hate for the Celtics. Man!)

    But the John Wooden photo at the end reminded me of a TED talk he gave on True Success. I never got to see him coach, and honestly hadn’t heard of him til I saw it, but he comes across as a very genuine, forthright person, and a good coach in life, not just basketball.

    His talk is here:

    • Phil Butler says

      Ahh Matt, Do not actually hate the Celts, they just disappointed me a few dozen times. Wooden was extraordinary, so is Jackson in his own way. As you denoted, the article is more about another kind of excellence that even Jackson was part of. Today, well, the news of Shaq’s Twitter comment to Kobie, or the riot after the celebration seems to be what people are about. Maybe the hollow feeling from these pseudo-victories is what makes them need more?

      Thanks Always Matt,

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