Phil Jackson: Stranger Than Fiction

When Michael Jordan announced his return to the NBA in March of 1995, the Bulls were immediately heralded as the team to beat once again. After falling to Orlando in the 1995 postseason, the Bulls began 1996 with some of the highest expectations the league had ever seen.

WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - JUNE 16:  Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson attends a victory party for the team at the Mondrian Hotel June 16, 2002 in West Hollywood, California. The Lakers defeated the New Jersey Nets to win their third straight NBA championship. (Photo by Vince Bucci/Getty Images)

Living up to expectations has been something Phil Jackson has mastered in his time on the NBA sideline. Winning is very difficult in professional sports. Winning when everybody expects you to win is even trickier. By the time June of 1996 hit, Jackson had led his Bulls to a NBA-record 72 wins, while suffering defeat a mere 10 times. Jackson won his first, and so far only Coach of the Year award.

More importantly than the individual accolades was the team success. Jackson has always emphasized the role of the team, and has benefited because of it. To no surprise, Jackson’s Bulls won the title in 1996, defeating the Seattle Super Sonics, who were the Western Conference’s version of a sacrificial lamb.

The next two seasons weren’t much different. The Bulls cruised through the regular season, setting records left and right. All the while Jackson sat back and let his team take care of business, chiming in where he needed to. Unfortunately, small chinks in the previously impenetrable armor began to arise as a private feud between Jackson and Bulls General Manager Jerry Krause became public.

As the tension grew off the court, the Bulls continued to thrive on the court. Jackson was all-business, and helped his team fight through potential distractions. Looking back now, ignoring distractions has been one of the reasons Jackson has experienced such success.

Many coaches, in all sports, have seen their careers derailed because of how they chose to deal with a certain player or situation. Some coaches demand control. Others demand a level of professionalism out of their players. Jackson demands success. Very rarely has Jackson let a potentially infectious situation poison his team. This was evident in 1996, and is still obvious in 2010.

Of the many advantages Phil Jackson has had over other coaches and teams during his NBA tenure, his greatest advantage is the one pundits never bring up – psychological.

While the cancerous relationship between Jackson and the Chicago front office continued, the Bulls won two more championships in 1997 and 1998. They had pulled off an unprecedented ‘repeat three-peat.’ Once again Phil Jackson called the accomplishment ‘unreal.’ Funny how life works.

Next: A Messy Divorce and a Fresh Start

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