Chapter 42: The Phil Jackson era
Last chapter: Pistons, round 2
A change at the helm
Although Michael Jordan and the Bulls did not reach their goal of an NBA championship, the season could be considered a success. The Bulls reached the Eastern conference finals for the first time with Michael Jordan, and defeated their highly favored opponents the Cleveland Cavaliers and the New York Knicks. The Bulls were eventually eliminated from the playoffs by the Detroit Pistons, but had proven their ability to go toe-to-toe with the NBA champions by pushing the series to 6 games.
The Bulls had plenty to feel good about for the next season. They had a popular coach in Doug Collins, an up and coming batch of young players (Pippen, Grant), and the best player in the game in Michael Jordan. And due to good moves by management, the Bulls also had three first round picks in the upcoming draft. Which is why it came as a shock to everyone when managing partner Jerry Reinsdorf fired coach Collins and replaced him with assistant coach Phil Jackson.
The rumor at the time was that Michael Jordan had initiated the firing, which was not true. The owners told Jordan of the move beforehand, but Jordan was unsure about it due to the strong season the Bulls just had. However, both Jerry Reinsdorf and Jerry Krause believed that the team had peaked under Collins and a new coach was needed to bring the team to the next level. Michael was also uncertain about the choice of Phil Jackson, since Jackson had told Michael on several occasions that he was scoring too much.
The former Knick
Phil Jackson first joined the NBA in 1967 as a player for the New York Knicks. Although not a great offensive threat, he used his intelligence and hard work to become an integral part of the team. Jackson missed the 1970 championship season due to a spinal surgery but helped the Knicks to a championship title in 1973 as a top reserve. In 1978 he joined the New Jersey Nets and retired from playing in 1980.
It was interesting to note that Phil Jackson tied for the league lead in personal fouls in the 1974-75 season with 330, which helps to explain his focus on defense as a coach. He also had the nickname of “Head ‘n’ Shoulders” due to his pointy shoulders and herky jerky movements.
Following Jackson’s retirement as a player, he became a coach in lower level professional leagues. He had a few coaching stints in the CBA (continental basketball association) and the BSN in Puerto Rico. He had his first coaching championship in 1984 with the Albany Patroons, which also earned him the CBA coach of the year honors. His coaching successes gave him an opportunity at a position in the NBA.
Back to the NBA
Phil Jackson finally reentered the NBA and joined the Chicago Bulls as an assistant coach in 1987. He worked along with fellow assistant coach and creator of the triangle offense Tex Winter. Jackson quickly became a devotee to the triangle offense and began teaching it with Winter to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
In addition to the triangle offense, Phil Jackson became known for a unique coaching style heavily influenced by Eastern philosophies. Jackson considers Robert Pirsig’s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as one of the major guiding forces in his life and would often hold meditation sessions with his players, earning him the nickname “Zen Master”.
Becoming head coach
Phil Jackson learned a great deal while working under the fiery Doug Collins. However, there always seemed to be a fair amount of tension between the two coaches.
On Dec 17th, 1988, Doug Collins was ejected early in a game against the Bucks. Phil took over as coach and put more focus on defense while leaving the offense alone. The players responded well to the changes and finished the game with a big win. Horace Grant said later in an interview “It was like we were let out of a cage. We won the game because we were so relaxed — and we knew that Phil should become a head coach.” Phil Jackson had his first taste of being a head coach, and he liked it.
Collins became worried that the Bulls were grooming Jackson to replace him, and he was right. The move to replace Collins did come as a surprise to most people, but it had been in the works behind the scenes.
The first win
Just like with Doug Collins, Michael Jordan wanted Phil Jackson to win his first ever game as head coach. The Bulls were playing the Cleveland Cavaliers, the team Jordan had eliminated from the playoffs the previous season with “The Shot”. Jordan came out firing and scored 54 points in a thrilling overtime win, and made sure that every Bulls coach he played for won their first game.
Getting that first win definitely helped Jackson’s confidence. But the big question on everyone’s mind was if Jackson can really take the Bulls to the next level. However the season turned out, this was the beginning of an entirely new chapter in Michael Jordan’s career.