CHICAGO – Phil Jackson has been hitting it hard on his book tour this week, talking up his latest work on late-night TV and national radio broadcasts. Still, in a spate of appearances in the city where his unparalleled NBA coaching success began, the talk invariably has veered back to the one that got away.
The book is titled “Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success” (Penguin Press, 2013). People in Chicago, where rings are hard to come by, still wonder about that missing 12th.
Oh, there wasn’t much Jackson or anyone else with the Bulls could do about the 1994 and ’95 NBA titles seized by Houston during the first of Michael Jordan‘s three NBA retirements. And no one in the audience Thursday night at the Palmer House Hilton, where Jackson appeared as part of the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row literary series, cared much about the Lakers’ failure to win again in 2011 and finish off what would have been Jackson’s fourth three-peat.
But many in the Windy City crowd of about 750 wanted to know: What about 1999? That was the NBA’s first lockout-shortened season, a schedule that seemed perfect for a veteran-laden team like the Bulls.
And yet, they didn’t even try. The band broke up, the run was over. Jackson famously rode off on a fat motorcycle and Chicago’s NBA team all but went dark for the next half dozen seasons.
“I know how hard it is, so many people in Chicago say, ‘You could have continued to win,’ ” Jackson told the audience. “Yes – maybe.”
Ultimately it was Jerry Krause, the Bulls’ determined general manager, who brought that run to its end, the Hall of Fame former coach said.
As stubborn as Jackson or Jordan (and often butting heads with both), Krause had made it clear to the Bulls coach that his run there was over. Team chairman Jerry Reinsdorf asked him to return but Jackson declined. “I just felt our relationship had deteriorated such that, for me to come back, it would be too difficult for Jerry Krause.”
That was the first domino. Jordan didn’t want to play for another coach and, besides, he cut his finger – with a cigar cutter, the story went – badly enough to need surgery. Dennis Rodman essentially was done as an NBA player. Scottie Pippen, Luc Longley and Steve Kerr went elsewhere to get paid better than in their Chicago stays.
It’s doubtful Krause would fill a downtown ballroom on a night the NHL Blackhawks were active in the Stanley Cup playoffs, touting a book titled “Organizations Win Rings” or something like that.
“Right up until the end, we worked well together,” Jackson said, after acknowledging their different temperaments. “We had a wonderful time as a team for three years and we really appreciated it.”
In a 45-minute “conversation” – think “Inside the Actors Studio” format, with longtime Bulls beat writer K.C. Johnson in the James Lipton role – Jackson touched on a variety of topics, including:
- “Eleven Rings” is the seventh book written by the NBA’s resident Zen master. He might wind up with more books than rings eventually. “I guess being a reader is the reason I’ve written books,” said Jackson, who co-authored this project with Hugh Delehanty, his collaborator on 1995’s “Sacred Hoops.” “There’s that personal feeling that you get from dialogue with a reader and with an author when you’re participating in a book. I think it’s brought me closer to individuals. It gives an inside look at a very varied career that I’ve had.”
- The title was spun from “The Book of Five Rings,” a 1643 work by duelist and samurai Miyamoto Musashi. That book, according to Amazon.com, “is one of the most influential texts on the subtle arts of confrontation and victory ever to emerge from Asia.” Said Jackson: “That’s the concept of which 11 rings come out of. I was hoping it was going to be 12 – didn’t make it.”
- Doesn’t sound like he will, either. Similar to how he’s been responding all week through these interviews, Jackson said: “I have no intention of coaching. My fiancée Jeanie Buss says, when people ask you that question, say, ‘Jeanie thinks I can still coach.’ But I have no intention of coaching.”
- Getting pre-empted on a return to the Lakers in November – when GM Mitch Kupchak called Jackson at midnight Sunday with the news of Mike D’Antoni‘s hiring, rather than wait to hear Jackson’s decision on Monday – still appears to sting him. Yet he said: “The idea that I didn’t have to coach was a relief. Because it felt I was going to have to come back and … go through rescue process.” He had done that, he felt, when he went back to the post-Shaquille O’Neal Lakers in 2005. “Even though my fiancée is part of that family and part of that organization, I didn’t want to get pulled in.”
- Still, the idea of a basketball operations gig in Seattle – said to be Jackson’s for the taking, had entrepreneur Chris Hansen wrested the Kings out of Sacramento – holds great appeal. And for a very personal reason: “The sideline triangle offense that we promoted all those years and thought was such a fine system has really been denigrated over the last three or four seasons,” he said.
- Never mind Kurt Rambis‘ failure in Minnesota or the half-baked versions tried briefly elsewhere, Jackson said. “A lot of people point to all those situations and the triangle as too difficult to run and too difficult an offense for present-day NBA basketball. And I don’t think it’s true,” he said. “Basketball is still basketball. The princples of offense are still the same. And there’s a group of people who would be willing to listen to that.”
- Something Jackson loved about that offense – or maybe just his special place in the game, after tutelage from assistant coach Tex Winter, as its biggest proponent – was the buy-in it required from all involved. “One bonus about triangle offense,” he said, “it wasn’t a coach telling player what to do. It was about system, a standard to live up to.”
- Jackson’s favorite game as coach? “I guess it would be the first championship, the final game that helped us win [in 1991].” After that? Jackson quickly mentioned the 1993 title clincher against Phoenix, when the Bulls’ “blind pig” play eventually got the ball to John Paxson for the 3-point dagger.
- Asked which players actually read the books Jackson was known for distributing, he laughed. “I usually buy books appropriate for the players. “Beavis and Butthead” was one of the books I gave Stacey King (former Bulls center now working as the team’s colorful TV analyst).”
- Here’s Jackson on current Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, known for his workaholic tendencies. “Tom’s a good coach,” he said. “He works really hard at it and I just hope it doesn’t kill him.”
- Stepping away for a day from the Jordan-Kobe Bryant comparisons, Jackson found himself faced with a third superstar to evaluate: LeBron James. “He’s working on those rings,” Jackson said. “When he gets those rings, five and six, then he’s right there.”
- Of his recent entry to the world of Twitter as @PhilJackson11 Jackson said: “It’s a weird world out there. You have to have a thick skin.” He admitted that one of the few players he follows on the social media site is current Bulls center Joakim Noah, whose offbeat personality seems somehow in synch with the coach 40 years his senior.