As he dialed a pay phone inside the American Legion Hall in Lima, Ohio, the young general manager of the Albany Patroons prayed Phil Jackson had changed his mind about coaching basketball. Jim Coyne had desperately tried to get him to take the Albany Patroons job months before, believing that an old New York Knicks star would sell tickets in upstate New York.
"He was fed up with basketball and didn't want anything to do with it," Coyne says now. So he hired Dean Meminger, watched him struggle to 15 losses in 23 games to start the 1982-83 season, and soon Coyne was calling back to Montana, begging Jackson to reconsider his stand on coaching. Just finish the season out, and see what you think of the coaching, Coyne told Jackson. Beyond that, there would be no commitments.
"Call me back in an hour," Jackson said.
When Coyne did, Jackson said "Yes," packed his bags, moved to Woodstock, about 50 miles south of Albany, and started that long, strange hippie trip to Springfield, Mass., for the Naismith Hall of Fame enshrinement on Friday. Twenty-four years ago, Jackson started work in the Continental Basketball Association on the rehabilitation project that Red Auerbach insisted that he never dared try. For those six years in the 1980s, Jackson loved to drive the vans to Toronto and Bangor in the CBA because there was more leg room in the driver's seat. Jackson always gave himself, and his players, space to operate in a sport where coaches' grips grow tighter.
Within weeks in ‘83, Jackson had the last-place Patroons beating the CBA All-Stars in a game.
Within a year, he won the league championship.
What worked in the Washington Street Armory in upstate New York would work in Chicago and Los Angeles for him.
"He brought a different vibe, an air of confidence," says a guard on those Patroons, Phil Seymore, now the women's coach at Providence College. "He made the game really simple; his instructions, they were simple.
"You know, once, we drove the van to Maine, got dressed right there on it, went out on the court and they were killing us. I'm thinking, ‘Call a timeout man,' but he would never call it. Afterwards, he'd explain, ‘I want you guys to figure it out on the court, instead of me doing it for you.' He did that a lot, and you grew to understand the value of it."
As did Jordan and Pippen, Shaq and Kobe. Jackson was forever a student of the simplicity that his Red, the Knicks' Red Holzman, taught him on those great champions in the early 1970's. As history goes, the debate about the greatest of all time will rage between Auerbach and Jackson. Despite Kobe Bryant's summer of discontent, the Los Angeles Lakers are no closer to getting Jackson his 10th title to pass Auerbach. Jackson will probably stay at nine titles, and that tie will energize the debate forever.
As it turns out, these Lakers have turned into the NBA rebuilding job that Red Auerbach insisted he never had; only Jackson the coach doesn't have Auerbach the GM on his side. Best coach ever? Jackson and Auerbach come out of different NBAs, different circumstances. They sure coached basketball a different way: Auerbach used fear and intimidation, and Jackson has always appealed to a ballplayer's sensibilities and intellect. Auerbach challenged his players' manhood, the way that Jackson challenged their minds.
Yes, Jackson can be arrogant, even pompous, but that air of aristocracy added to his aura. Of course, nothing Jackson ever did was as insulting as lighting a cigar on the bench of a basketball game to rub an opponent's face in a loss.
Five years ago, Jackson was on his way to tying Auerbach with his ninth NBA title, and Auerbach, legendary curmudgeon, was hardly blanketing himself with grace. Whatever the record books said, Auerbach wanted everyone to believe that he was still history's greatest coach. He had reminded everyone that Jackson had found ready-made dynasties, that he had walked into Chicago with the Jordan-Pippen Bulls, and Los Angeles for the Kobe-Shaq Lakers. Auerbach was determined to give Jerry Krause and Jerry West responsibility for constructing those dynasties, because it diminished Jackson's impact.
After Jackson told a room of reporters that a third party had reached out to him in 2002, told him that Red wanted him to know that he was misquoted, that he never really meant those words, I made a call to Auerbach to check on it.
"So what did Phil say," Red grumbled. "That I said I was misquoted? About what?"
When told, Auerbach said "Well, what I said is true. What isn't criticism – it's true. He's done a fantastic job with the teams he's had – either Chicago or Los Angeles. All I said is that he never tried it the other way. He's never tried building a team and teaching the fundamentals … When he's gone in there, they've been ready made for him. It's just a matter of putting his system in there. They don't worry about developing players if they're not good enough. They just go get someone else.
"But hey, when the guy has won as many close games as he has, he has got to be pretty damn good."
He goes into Springfield now shoulder to shoulder with Auerbach, an old hippie who made the commute between Woodstock and Albany before Krause ever brought him to Chicago, and West to the Lakers. Coyne, the old Patroons GM, still thinks about that telephone call from the American Legion Hall in Lima, Ohio.
"Had I not made it, who knows where his path would've taken him?" he said.
Now, it takes him to the Hall of Fame, where every coaching bust must measure itself with that of Phil Jackson. Red will roll over in his grave, but Jackson stands shoulder to shoulder with him into basketball's forever.