Lesson #6: Find a coach who will help you be your best self
by Jack M Silverstein (@readjack)
In the summer of 1996, after winning his fourth championship, Michael Jordan came within 30 minutes of signing with the New York Knicks.
“New York was right downstairs,” Jordan told Spike Lee in “Best Seat In the House.” “The Bulls — all they had to do was mess up.”
The Knicks had an offer on the table for Jordan: one year, $25 million. “We told (Jordan’s team) they could have all our cap room,” Madison Square Garden President Dave Checketts said at the time.
Jordan’s agent gave Jerry Reinsdorf an ultimatum: pony up or, ya know, start spreading the news. Reinsdorf submitted, giving Jordan a one-year contract for $30 million. This was the summer Shaq split for L.A., along with a million other high-profile moves, but nothing would have topped the reigning triple threat MVP — All-Star, regular season, Finals — leaving his lifelong team for his lifelong rivals which also happened to be the country’s biggest TV market.
You damn well better believe a Knicks lineup of John Starks, MJ, Anthony Mason, Charles Oakley, and Patrick Ewing would have been favorites to win the title in 1997.
Except one thing.
“My coach is everything,” Jordan told Spike. “Don’t know what kind of coach (Jeff) Van Gundy is. I know Phil.”
When Spike asked Jordan if joining the Knicks would have meant a championship, the ever-confident Greatest Of All Time had one answer: “I don’t know.”
That is the respect Jordan has for the player-coach relationship.
And that is the power of Phil Jackson.
The Chicago Bulls and the five stages of tribal development
In “Eleven Rings,” Jackson shares the five stages of tribal development from the 2008 book “Tribal Leadership.” Stage 1, which Jackson says is “shared by most street gangs,” is “Life Sucks.” Stage 2 is “My Life Sucks,” a step up from Stage 1 by suggesting its occupant can see hope outside his or her own life. “Think The Office on TV or the Dilbert comic strip,” Jackson explains.
Stage 3 focuses on individual achievement: “I’m Great (And You’re Not).” This is the stage the 1991 Bulls needed to escape to be champions. Once they did, they were in Stage 4: “We’re Great (And They’re Not).” This stage is “dedicated to tribal pride,” Jackson writes, adding that “this kind of team requires a strong adversary, and the bigger the foe, the more powerful the tribe.” It’s no wonder that Jackson views the first three-peat as a Stage 4 team, driven as they were by bitter feuds with the Pistons and Knicks.
The second three-peat, though, reached Stage 5, “a rare stage characterized by a sense of innocent wonder,” Jackson writes, combined with the belief that “Life is Great.”
Jackson’s impact on the team’s six rings is no side story. The argument that, “Well, any coach could win with Michael, Scottie, Shaq, and Kobe” is nonsense. Both Jordan and Shaq were the league’s most talented player before Jackson got hold of them, yet Jackson’s contribution was to provide the structure that elevated every player to his best possible self — the stars included.
“It really became Phil’s team after Michael retired (in 1993) because it had to be,” Steve Kerr told author Roland Lazenby for Lazenby’s biography “Michael Jordan, The Life.” “He was the dominant presence. … Scottie was never a guy who was going to seize control of a team from a leadership standpoint. He was everybody’s favorite teammate, but one of the reasons for that was he was vulnerable. And Phil was not vulnerable.”
The fingerprints of Phil’s leadership are all over the 90s Bulls. Along with giving Jordan a system that would enable him to win a title, Jackson also earned Jordan’s trust by never asking him for favors — no autographs or photos.
When the team entered the 4th quarter of Game 6 of the ‘92 Finals down 15 at home, Jackson called up the unexpected quintet of Pippen, Armstrong, Bobby Hansen, Stacey King, and Scott Williams to lead the team into striking distance before the other starters returned.
During Pippen’s 1.8 seconds of infamy, Jackson’s reaction was pragmatic: he confirmed with Pippen that he was not going into the game, and then found a new man to inbound the ball. He considered speaking with Pip afterward, but when Cartwright berated Pippen in the locker room, the matter, to Jackson, was settled.
“After (Cartwright) expressed himself, there was absolutely nothing left to say,” Jackson said. “We simply said the Lord’s Prayer and that was it.”
Jackson’s player-centric methodology was tested most memorably when the Bulls acquired Rodman, prompting a grinning Jordan to say in 1995 that Jackson “is going to call on a lot of that Zen practice that he uses.”
Krause was the first Bulls decision maker to feel confident about Rodman. Jackson needed to be next. The two men met Rodman September 30, 1995, a Saturday, and again the following day, October 1. Could Rodman master the triangle offense, Jackson wanted to know?
“That’s no problem for me,” Rodman said. “The triangle’s about finding Michael Jordan and getting him the ball.”
Jackson stressed that they were one piece away from a ring. “We can’t screw it up,” he said. “We’re in the position to win a championship and we really want to get back there.”
The three met the next day to review team rules. Rodman again assured them he would not be a problem and guaranteed a title.
Jackson conferred with Jordan and Pippen later that day. As Rodman tells it, they all met at Krause’s house, with Jackson instructing Rodman to apologize to Pippen for his hard fouls during the Bad Boys days. Pippen accepted the apology; he and Jordan signed off on the trade.
Jackson, Rodman said, asked him how he would feel joining the Bulls.
“I don’t give a damn if I’m here or not,” Rodman said.
“Congratulations,” Rodman recalls Jackson saying. “You’re a Chicago Bull.”
Phil’s 7-year theory
The question of “Why Rodman?” is fairly straight forward: he was the best player the team could acquire.
The better question is “Why Perdue?” as in: Why trade Will Perdue, the man who started all 78 regular season games in which he played in 1995, instead of Luc Longley, who was still learning the system and was a regular recipient of Jordan’s wrath? Perdue even cost less than Longley and would cost even less in 1996 since Longley’s contract was expiring and could earn a pay bump as a big body in demand.
Part of the reason is that the Spurs specifically asked for Perdue. “(Perdue) brings a consistent work ethic — and I put the emphasis on ‘consistent,’” said then-Spurs GM Gregg Popovich. “He doesn’t care about anything but the team in the truest since of the word.”
Part of the reason is Perdue’s role on the team. Per “Second Coming,” Jackson viewed the team’s three centers like this: Longley had a “physical presence” and was someone who could block the lane “even though he was maligned for his play”; Perdue was “the good offensive rebounder” who “knew our system of offense as well as anybody and could play the backside of our offense”; and Wennington had a great jump shot.
Of those three, the largest overlap in skill set with Rodman is Perdue: rebounding, intelligence, ability to play the backside of the offense.
But the other huge reason for trading Perdue stemmed from Jackson’s father Charles, a Pentecostal minister. The Jacksons traveled throughout Phil’s childhood, going from one town to another to preach to new parishioners.
“You can only stay in one place five years and then your message starts falling on deaf ears,” Jackson recalls his father telling him.
A minister may have only gotten five years, but a coach, Jackson felt, got seven. And that’s how the 1996 Bulls were built. Jackson liked the 1994 team because of the infusion of new minds to mold. His contract was expiring after the 1996 season, his seventh as head coach, and in 1995 he told Krause that he would only return if the team cut loose of every player from the championship years, including Pippen.
Jackson wasn’t even sure if he would return at all, telling Isaacson, “I’d like to fulfill my contract and then I’d like to re-evaluate.” Reinsdorf had suggested to Jackson that a one-year sabbatical should be part of a coach’s job description, and Jackson liked the sound of that, even doing it for the 1999 season between his stints in Chicago and Los Angeles.
So what would have happened if Michael didn’t retire in 1993? Well, the Bulls almost certainly would have won championship #4. But the forces pulling this team apart would have been stronger than after 1993. Any of the following would have been in play:
- Horace grows even more fed up with his place in the franchise following the four-peat, and becomes an even hotter free agent. He leaves.
- Pippen and Jordan don’t learn the lessons they did apart.
- MJ has even less to prove after four straight rings, and he retires after 1994.
- Seattle doesn’t squash the Pippen-Kemp trade because the fans aren’t worried about Pip’s attitude because the 1.8 seconds never happens.
- Phil decides to take his one-year sabbatical, but he doesn’t have Pippen to return to, so a retired MJ doesn’t have Phil to return to.
- Or maybe Jordan doesn’t retire but the Bulls trade Pippen and Phil wants to take a year off, and Jordan blesses the team trading him for a crazy bounty, and the Bulls enter the ‘94-’95 season with Kukoc, Kemp, Ricky Pierce, the Jordan Bounty, and whoever they get with Grant’s money, but without Phil Jackson.
I mean really, who knows?
Instead, Jordan retired, Pippen and Jackson stayed, Grant left, the roster turned over, and when Jordan returned the first three-peat holdovers were down to Pippen, Armstrong, and Perdue. The Bulls let Armstrong go in the expansion draft, shipped Perdue for Rodman in October, and just like that, Jackson’s needs were met and the players from the first three-peat — aside from the two most important — were gone.
In their place was a new group whose collective experiences led to the greatest three-year run the NBA has ever seen.
“I think we’ve got a collection of weapons that somehow Phil’s going to blend to where we give ourselves the best shot,” Jordan said in an interview early in the 1996 season. “It could be dangerous if we get everybody on the same page and do the right things that we know we’re capable of doing.”