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December 06, 2001

Lord of the Rings
By Dan Patrick

As he prepares to go after his third career threepeat of NBA championships as a coach, Phil Jackson remains a man who has not gotten his full due. That comes with the territory when you coach Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. Still, not even those four superstars are at the heart of Jackson's coaching genius.

Phil Jackson
Lakers coach Phil Jackson has eight NBA titles on his resumé.
As for Michael, Jackson is not surprised that he came back. He is also not surprised that Jordan is doing well. He will be surprised if the Washington Wizards make the playoffs, though. About the only unknown about Jordan's return to the NBA, as far as the Los Angeles Lakers' coach is concerned, is how Jordan will handle the losing.

Jackson knows that Jordan will never really accept losing, but it's clear His Airness will have to find a way to deal with it. After all, Jordan won a championship during the last six full seasons he played in the league. He lost a bit in the early days in Chicago, but that was four presidents ago.

The Lakers don't play the Wizards until February, but I don't think Jackson will need all of that time to devise a defense for his old friend. Jordan is a different player now than the one Jackson coached on the Bulls -- there is not the same lift.

But I think Jackson will enjoy the challenge.

Jackson enjoys challenges of all kinds. Last year, he was uncharacteristically quiet while O'Neal and Bryant worked out their differences. He finally said something about Kobe being selfish and he intimated that Bryant let his high school games stay close just so he could be a hero at the end. Bryant heard the message about the team coming first and the Lakers came together and won another championship. I didn't think they would, but Jackson's touch was right on the money. Again.

This year he has already told Shaq that something needs to be done about his foul shooting. He didn't wait like he did last year. There may appear to be no rhyme or reason to Jackson's tactics. But obviously there is. You don't coach teams to eight NBA championships by chance.

Difficult and individualistic players and personalities, like Bryant and O'Neal, are not a problem for Jackson. He was one himself. His 1975 autobiography was titled "Maverick." He experimented and tested limits. So he can handle it when players test him. After all, the calm and reasoned gray eminence on the sideline caused some grief for former Knicks coach Red Holzman.

That's why Jackson took on Dennis Rodman and Isiah Rider when others cautioned against it. Rodman certainly worked out in Chicago. And while Rider never really got it together in Los Angeles, he did not prevent the Lakers from winning a championship.

Jackson builds champions by convincing his guys that teams win championships. And that great teams have willing role players. He gets guys to fit in so they are later fitted for rings.
To me, though, Jackson's best gift as a coach is not handling the superstars or the troubled souls. Jackson builds champions by convincing the rest of the guys that teams win championships. And that great teams have willing role players. He gets guys to fit in so they are later fitted for rings. And, let's face it, that ideal is preached much more often than it is truly practiced.

Think of John Paxson and Steve Kerr on the Bulls. Horace Grant played the role of Everyman on those Bulls teams when he might have wanted more gaudy stats. He took the rings instead. These Lakers have Derek Fisher, who can score 20 one night and two the next and not complain. Rick Fox gives the team what it needs every night -- whether it be points, rebounds, assists or five minutes of good defense.

This season, Mitch Richmond will be asked to put away his star's attitude and join the team in L.A. They don't need him to carry anything. They just need him to be ready to help.

And that is the genius of Phil Jackson. He gets the stars to toe the line. He gets the troubled guys to focus during game time. And he gets the rest of the guys to sacrifice and think team first.

One more thing. He gets them all rings.

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