LOS ANGELES -- In the circus known as the NBA, Bill Russell has long been considered the ring master for the unprecedented 11 bands of championship jewelry he won in his 13-year playing career.
But when you think about it, Phil Jackson should be known as the league's true lord of the rings. The 13 rings Jackson earned -- two from his 13-year career as a player with New York and New Jersey, and 11 from his 20-year run as head coach in Chicago and Los Angeles -- outshine the rings of Russell, who is widely acknowledged as the greatest winner in team sports.
(Russell also won two championships in his eight seasons as a head coach, but they came in his final two seasons with the Celtics when he was player-coach, hence his ring collection wound up at 11 rather than tied with Jackson at 13.)
But Jackson's status at the top isn't something to celebrate completely for LOTR. Just like in J.R.R. Tolkien's tale, there's a bit of a dark side to a particular piece of Jackson's jewelry. Each ring for Jackson was special in the moment, but not all of them have served him well down the line.
There's an iconic photo of Russell holding all of his rings in his cupped hands as if they were gold coins and he was basking in his good fortune of just having discovered a leprechaun's pot o' gold.
The photo was snapped by the NBA's East Coast-based senior photographer, Nathaniel S. Butler, who was able to perfectly capture Russell's proud gap-toothed grin while holding the fruits of his labor in the league.
The NBA's West Coast-based senior photographer, Andrew D. Bernstein, told me during the Lakers' first-round playoff series against New Orleans that he would like to get a similar shot, perhaps with 14 rings from another triumphant three-peat, featured in the photo with that signature wry smile of Jackson.
It hasn't happened yet. The Lakers were unceremoniously swept out of the second round by the Dallas Mavericks, fast-tracking Phil's retirement with the sharp shooting of Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry and the rest of the Mavs.
The Lakers already had the deck stacked against them in Game 4 of the conference semifinals, as they were attempting to become the first team in league history to recover from a 3-0 deficit to win a seven-game series. But it wasn't the series record that did them in.
It was the ring that Jackson wore on his right hand to American Airlines Center that Sunday afternoon.
Call it the Curse of the Clown Ring.
THE RING KEEPER
Before we get to the curse, it's important to recognize just how much Jackson's persona is connected to the notion of the ring in both the literal and symbolic sense.
The ring is an accessory as synonymous with Jackson as the cape is to Superman.
Jackson's 11th championship ring as a coach coming from the Lakers' Game 7 win over the Celtics inspired blogger Taylor Voeltz to create this T-shirt design for Phil's "one for the toe."
On the opening night of the 2010-11 season, the Lakers received the rings they earned by beating Boston. When Jackson was handed his, he raised it into the air and proclaimed over the P.A. system to the Staples Center crowd that "This is what we play for!"
Even when Jackson is not wearing one of his championship rings, he still wears a ring every day. And it's not a wedding ring, either. He's not married to his longtime companion Jeanie Buss. He wears a flat-faced green stone ring on his left pinkie finger that looks kind of like a mood ring. Maybe it's a Zen thing.
What Jackson values the most when coaching a team is the community aspect. He relishes the opportunity to bring a group of guys of different ages and races from different backgrounds together to form a tight circle -- or the shape of a ring -- based on a common belief in one another and sacrifices made for each other.
THE RING ROUTINE
For the most of the year, Jackson's ring collection sits idly in his home and the homes of family members, the future heirlooms staying close to his lineage at all times.
He would put them to use two months every year, at NBA playoff time, when he would traditionally wear the ring of the last championship he won around the team during the postseason to remind his players what their goal should be.
This spring, Jackson curtailed tradition, opening his "last stand" playoff run against the Hornets by wearing his 1973 Knicks championship ring rather than the 2010 ring presented to him by commissioner David Stern on opening night.
"I think I'm starting at the beginning and working all the way through," Jackson said, explaining why he switched up his routine.
Actually, Jackson's initial ring as a player came in the Knicks' 1969-70 championship season, but he said that ring didn't fit his hand anymore. When a reporter suggested that he could have worn it on a chain around his neck, Jackson joked that that would be like he was "going steady with myself."
The Lakers opened the playoffs with a loss to New Orleans with Jackson wearing the '73 ring. They won the next two games with Jackson sporting his 1991 Bulls ring in Game 2 and his 1992 Bulls ring in Game 3.
Noticing Phil's change in jewelry became a recurring pregame question when Jackson addressed the media. Before Game 4, I realized that when the Lakers went on the road for two games, Jackson had to pack two rings. Talk about precious cargo. When the scrum dispersed, I asked him if he kept his rings in a safe at the hotel. "I just keep them in my room," he said, before adding "Don't print that, please." He didn't want to give potential thieves any ideas.
The Lakers lost Game 4 with Jackson wearing his first Chicago three-peat ring. They closed out the series with consecutive wins -- Phil wore the '96 and '97 Bulls rings -- and the Lakers were on to the second round.
Of course, that's where L.A. met the Mavericks' buzzsaw.
Four games. Four rings. Four losses.
Even though Jackson started one ring into his collection, he never made it all the way through. The Lakers only played 10 playoff games, total. He had 12 rings on the docket.
Which brings us back to the Curse of the Clown Ring.
The Lakers designed their 2002 championship ring in homage to the triangle offense. Even though it was a tribute to Tex Winter's system, Tex joked that it looked like the face of a clown, with the purple triangle in the middle representing the nose and the three triangle-shaped diamonds that surrounded it looking like the eyes and mouth.
Jackson wore the '02 ring when L.A. lost to San Antonio in 2003, he wore it when L.A. lost to Detroit in 2004 for his first Finals loss, he wore it in 2006 when L.A. lost to Phoenix in Game 7 of the first round after blowing a 3-1 series lead, he wore it in 2007 in another first-round loss to Phoenix and he wore it in 2008 when L.A. lost in the Finals again, this time to Boston.
When the 2009 playoffs rolled around, he showed up to Game 1 of the first round against Utah not wearing any championship ring at all.
"I was tired of wearing that ring," Jackson said of the 2002 ring. "I've been wearing it for seven years now, the same one."
He wore a variety of other rings in the 2009 postseason, avoiding the Curse of the Clown as he won ring No. 10 of his career on the sidelines by beating the Orlando Magic, passing the legendary Red Auerbach for most rings as an NBA coach.
The next year, he wore the 2009 championship ring en route to winning lucky ring No. 13 against the Celtics.
This year, the Clown Curse got him before he ever got to his '09 or '10 rings in his rotation.
THE ICONIC PHOTO
After the season was over, I sent Andy Bernstein an email to ask him if he remembered our conversation about capturing all of Jackson's hardware accomplishments in single photograph.
"I know I'd love to get a shot of Phil with 11 championship trophies grouped in a circle on the beach --very Zen-like," Bernstein wrote.
I hadn't told Andy about my findings regarding the Clown Curse. He had come up with the plan to shoot Jackson's iconic glory shot without the 2002 ring on his own, thus saving the photo the stigma.
But notice how he wants to arrange the trophies.
In a circle.
Or a ring.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.