ORLANDO, Fla. – Red Auerbach loathed Phil Jackson. He never hid it. Every word out of the Boston Celtics patriarch about the Los Angeles Lakers coach dripped with dismissive sarcasm, downright disdain. Deep down, Auerbach believed his record of nine NBA coaching championships was invincible. Times had changed, and dynasties were at the mercy of free agency and expansion. Even the great coaches no longer stood the test of time and turmoil.
Yet, Jackson had good fortune, good timing and a good time chasing an unimpressed Auerbach. "I expect a cigar," Jackson suggested on the cusp of his ninth NBA championship seven years ago in the Jersey swamps.
"I'm going to send him a congratulatory wire," Auerbach grumbled over the phone later that day.
Close, but no cigar.
Red Auerbach could barely utter a gracious word on Jackson, who still speaks reverently of his elder. Those days are over now, because the Lakers' 99-86 Game 5 victory over the Orlando Magic on Sunday changed the course of history.
Roll over Red. Phil Jackson is the greatest coach ever. He passed Auerbach with his 10th NBA title Sunday night and he will go down as the greatest coach in NBA history. For everyone who says they would've won with Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal(notes) and Kobe Bryant(notes), understand this: There are few coaches alive who could've commanded the respect of those players for all those years, all those championships. Maybe just one, just Jackson.
As much as anyone, he understands that the genius of coaching isn't in the X's and O's but the humanity of it all. "He coaches unity and chemistry and togetherness," Bryant said. He coaches the human condition. All those coaches who say, well, give me Kobe Bryant, just understand: He would've eaten most of them alive.
There's little left to argue, little left to debate. These times are far more demanding on a coach, far more difficult to dominate. The old guard of the NBA hold Auerbach and that Celtics dynasty sacred, but sport evolves and so did the coaching profession. All these years later, Jackson has been gracious in passing Auerbach, respectful of his legacy, the way that that old curmudgeon Auerbach never bothered with him.
"I think Red could've won two or three more championships, but I think to keep [Bill Russell] involved, he turned the team over to Bill," Jackson said.
Auerbach knew that the Celtics needed another voice in 1966 and ultimately believed that the only coach who could motivate Russell was Russell himself. Boston won two titles – the 10th and 11th of the center's career – with him as a player-coach. Bryant doesn't run the Lakers, but Jackson deftly turned over a bigger burden to Bryant and his teammates this season. To watch those huddles, to listen in the locker room, it's easy to see that Bryant replaced Jackson as the dominant voice.
"I've always felt as a coach you have to push your team, and I told them they have to push themselves," Jackson said. "I wasn't at the stage of my life where I could get out and do the things that I had done 10 or 15 years ago to push a team. And they pushed themselves."
After winning nine titles in nine trips to the NBA Finals, Jackson lost with the Lakers in 2004 and 2008. He had walked away with the Kobe-Shaq breakup in 2004, and returned at the behest of his girlfriend, Jeannie Buss, in 2005, for the reclamation project with which Auerbach believed that Jackson never validated himself.
Back in '02, Auerbach still held this over Jackson. Well, this changed when Jackson returned to a Shaq-less Lakers in 2005 and found himself a 17-year-old high school center, Andrew Bynum(notes), who the owner's son, Jim, insisted that the Lakers draft. Jackson talked an enraged Bryant out of forcing a trade two summers ago, developed Bynum, incorporated Pau Gasol(notes), built a sturdy bench and returned to the NBA Finals in '08 and '09.
"He's never tried building a team and teaching the fundamentals," Auerbach told me seven years ago. "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."
NBA Finals coaching titles
Year of championship
91, '92, '93, '96, '97, '98, '00, '01, '02, '09
57, '59, '60, '61, '62, '63, '64, '65, '66
82, '85, '87, '88, '06
49, '50, '52, '53, '54
San Antonio Spurs
99, '03, '05, '07
Mitch Kupchak has done inspired work as the Lakers GM, but Jackson has played his part restoring this roster. Most of all, he coached Bryant. Had someone else been in his seat, you wonder: Would they have had the guts, the credibility, to do anything but suck up to him? Jackson has never been afraid of his stars – never Michael Jordan, never Shaq, never Bryant. Jackson didn't live in fear of a coup, or players leaving as free agents.
His icons respected him for it, and ultimately, it elevated their talent.
It made them champions.
Jackson, 64, never did address his future on Sunday night, and it's easy to think that with his hip problems, with Red's record, why would he return to this grind again? Well, these Lakers have a chance to win multiple championships and that's why the Buss family will pay Jackson as much as $12 million a year. In these economic times, plenty of millionaires have lost millions in the market. Everyone is trying to make money back these days, and don't underestimate that motivation for Jackson.
If Jackson left, it is hard to believe that the Lakers would turn a defending champion over to untested assistants Kurt Rambis and Brian Shaw.
Bryant will lobby Jackson hard to stay here. Bryant is impressed by Portland's Nate McMillan and Jeff Van Gundy, but Kupchak could re-visit his 2004 courtship of Duke's Mike Krzyzewski. When he was offered a $40 million package, the Lakers had Bryant and little else. Now, Krzyzewski has a relationship with Bryant and the Lakers roster is far more appealing. Duke is no longer a perennial Sweet 16 – never mind Final Four program – and circumstances could've changed enough for Krzyzewski to re-examine a lifelong commitment to the college game.
Nevertheless, Jackson dutifully noticed that Auerbach left behind a couple coaching championships when he left Russell in '66 to become just the GM. Jackson won't move upstairs with Kupchak but back to his ranch in Montana. The Lakers still haven't seen the best of Bynum, and Pau Gasol has moved into his prime and maybe there's a way that they can re-sign Lamar Odom(notes) and Trevor Ariza(notes). Bryant, the Finals MVP, is still one of the planet's peerless talents. The winning can go on and on.
No one is sure if Auerbach ever did send that congratulatory wire seven years ago, but he never did send a cigar. "It'll stunt his growth," Auerbach sniffed.
Seven years have passed since Auerbach was so dismissive of Jackson tying him at nine, and so, Sunday night in the Lakers locker room, Bryant pulled Jackson into the team's celebratory circle. The coach took his glasses off, thrust back his head and let Bryant douse him with a bottle of bubbly.
"It's been a long time since he had a champagne bath," Bryant said.
Too long for the two of them, and now Jackson passes Auerbach for a 10th NBA title and the Lakers coach, a devoted student of history, must make his own choice now: leave titles on the table like Auerbach and walk away, or run up the record for history's sake?
Whatever his choice, history is forever on Jackson's side. The debate's done. Phil Jackson is the greatest coach in NBA history, and the Celtics patriarch's no longer around to make his own case. Somewhere, Auerbach must be rolling over. Red loved that record, and he sure loathed this coach.