Basketball: Jackson, NBA legend, Zen Master and acid dropper, bows out

The most successful coach in American major league sport has just retired. Rupert Cornwell reflects on an amazingly colourful career
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The Independent Online

This time, it seems, the Zen Master of the NBA really is gone – and it was not how the most successful head coach in history, not just in basketball but in all American major league sport, was supposed to bow out.

Phil Jackson's Los Angeles Lakers had just been thrashed 122-86 in the NBA play-offs by the Dallas Mavericks, who wrapped up a four-game sweep in the best-of-seven series. Never before had the great man suffered such an indignity. Making matters worse, a couple of his players had been ejected and he had just been fined $35,000 (£22,000) for criticising the game officials. A mere bagatelle, true, for someone paid $10m or so a year, but it hurts nonetheless.

Above all however, the impossible dream was not to be. Jackson had already achieved what no coach had ever done. In 20 seasons, first at the Chicago Bulls and then at the Lakers, he had won 11 NBA championships, a sustained dominance that makes him the American equivalent of Sir Alex Ferguson.

On three separate occasions – twice with the Bulls and once with the Lakers – he had led his teams to three consecutive championships. After the Lakers had won the NBA crown in 2009 and 2010, a fourth "three-peat" was attainable this year. But, worried about his health, Jackson was unsure whether to stay on. Finally, he signed up for a single extra year in Los Angeles. He called it The Last Stand. But in Dallas last Sunday, the Lakers were overrun.

Jackson has twice before quit only to return after a year, but at 65 he seems to mean it this time. In his post-game press conference after the defeat, he could not quite close the door but finally acknowledged: "Yes, all my hopes and aspirations are that this is the final game I'll coach. This has been a wonderful run."

Indeed it has, a run that – in style as well as substance – American sport will surely never witness again. Like many an outstanding manager or coach, Jackson was a good but not a great performer in his playing days. He was ferociously competitive and a deep thinker about the game, but was primarily a reserve on the New York Knicks teams that won championships in 1970 and 1973.

In that second year, though, epiphany came – not on the basketball court but on a beach in Malibu, California, thanks to the ministrations of LSD. Jackson was a child of the drug era and had become fascinated by the counterculture during his years at the University of North Dakota. Drafted by the Knicks in 1967, he soon made a reputation as the hippie of the team.

Robert Pirsig's celebrated philosophical novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance became a seminal influence, as did the spiritual practices of Native Americans. So too, did various proscribed substances, including the high-quality acid of which he partook in Malibu. Jackson has described that day as one of the most important of his life. Out of it grew a philosophy called "enlightened basketball", based on the conviction that the right mindset and a team spirit that overcame self were the keys to victory.

By 1980 his playing days were done but, despite some notable coaching successes in basketball's lower leagues, he failed to secure a job in the NBA – in part because of his reputation as a wild spirit (which a remarkably frank autobiography, Maverick, did nothing to reduce). In 1987, however, he was finally taken on by the Bulls as assistant coach, and secured the top job two years later. The rest is legend.

The reasons for Jackson's phenomenal success as a coach were not unique to him. He protected his team and fostered an extraordinary spirit, taking the pressure off his players while instilling the belief that together they could achieve anything.

Most important perhaps, and exactly like Ferguson, he has always had an uncanny ability to handle superstars and their outsized egos. The latter come no more outsized than those on Jackson's teams: Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant in his latter years at the Lakers; Denis Rodman, Scottie Pippen and most famously of all Michael Jordan at the Bulls, when Chicago won six NBA championships in the space of eight seasons during the 1990s.

What set Jackson apart were his methods. What other coach (and surely not Ferguson) would have held meditation and yoga sessions for his players, or given them special books to read, and specially edited movies to watch? "I grew up under him," Bryant said on Sunday. "The way I approach things, the way I think about things, not only in basketball but in life, a lot of it comes from him. Without him, it'll be weird."

Jackson has his detractors, of course. For some, his obvious intelligence translates as arrogance, his cool comes across as condescension. Others are unnerved by his calm, never more on display than Sunday, when another coach might have screamed or wept. And some simply put his success down to the players: with the likes of Jordan, Pippen and Bryant on their team, who could not win the NBA? On Sunday though, speaking to reporters, Jackson shrugged it all off with a smile. "Like Richard Nixon once said, you won't have me to kick around any more."

Of course, he could well return as a coach. After all, Ferguson is approaching 70 but seems further from retirement than ever. And Jackson would not be the first player or manager to find life impossible without competition and the adrenalin rushes of big games, and the opportunity to prove once again that you are the best.

"My belief is that he'll retire for a while," said Rick Carlisle, the Mavericks coach. "But I don't know how long you can go to Montana [where Jackson lives during the off-season] and meditate and smoke peyote." Informed of the comment, the Zen Master was dismayed at this ignorance of a cactus, either chewed or taken as tea for its hallucinogenic properties. "First of all," he chided, "you don't smoke peyote. That's one thing you don't do."

'Basketball is like jazz': A brilliant and bizarre career

Born 17 September 1945, Montana

Playing career

1967-78 New York Knicks,

1978-80 New Jersey Jets

Coaching career

1989-99 Chicago Bulls

1999-2004 & 2005-2011 LA Lakers

Honours 11 NBA Championships, 6 Eastern Conference Championships, 7 Western Conference Championships.

Did he really say that? How Jackson gave the press and the fans something to think about throughout his career...

* 'We call this a Brokeback Mountain game, because there's so much penetration and kick-outs.'

* 'I gave it my body and mind, but I have kept my soul.'

* 'Love is the force that ignites the spirit and binds teams together.'

* 'Wisdom is always an overmatch for strength.'

* 'Basketball, unlike football with its prescribed routes, is an improvisational game, similar to jazz. If someone drops a note, someone else must step into the vacuum and drive the beat that sustains the team.'

Did he really do that? One controversial motivational technique Jackson was said to have used prior to the 2000 play-offs was to show his team images of the Edward Norton neo-Nazi character in the movie American History X – bald head, with a swastika tattoo – alternated with photos of Sacramento's white, shaven-headed and tattooed Jason Williams. He also displayed images of Adolf Hitler interspersed with pictures of the Sacramento coach Rick Adelman. Jackson's methods inevitably came in for criticism – but the Lakers went on to win the series and the championship.

Alex Corrigan