Why Phil Jackson needs 'The Last Dance'

Marc Stein, The New York Times

Posted at Apr 23 2020 08:04 AM

(On Basketball)

When the Chicago Bulls were assembling a 72-10 season in 1995-96, Nick Nurse was a young Phil Jackson fan in England, earning roughly $20,000, along with housing and a car, as the new head coach of the Birmingham Bullets.

His favorite indulgence at the time, at the cost of 10 British pounds per week, was the weekly delivery of VHS tapes of Bulls games from a European company called PonTel. Whenever he could make time, sometimes in the company of his American players, Nurse voraciously studied Jackson’s triangle offense, his substitutions and everything else.

“There was nothing on TV but soccer and cricket, so I was watching every game I got 10, 12 times,” Nurse said. “Phil was my mentor, and he didn’t even know it.”

Nurse and Jackson didn’t meet until the summer of 2018, shortly after Nurse was hired as coach of the Toronto Raptors. Alex McKechnie, the Raptors’ vice president for player health and performance and an alumnus of Jackson’s staff with the Los Angeles Lakers, connected them. Soon after, Nurse was in Montana — summoned for what became a three-day coaching retreat with the Zen Master.

It was a hard-to-believe prelude to what became a fairy-tale rookie season on the Raptors’ bench with their run to an NBA title.

“It was a big thrill for me,” Nurse said of his summit with Jackson.

When reached Monday night — on the first day that “The Last Dance” documentary, about the Bulls’ 1997-98 season, had been distributed outside the United States by Netflix — Nurse was home with his family in Toronto, engrossed in the first two episodes like so many viewers had been Sunday night.

Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan were at the forefront of the Bulls' 6-title run in the 1990s. Handout

Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan were at the forefront of the Bulls' 6-title run in the 1990s. Handout

Michael Jordan’s career and life are the overwhelming focus of the 10-part series, but Nurse was always drawn more to Jackson’s career arc — thanks to his rise from five coaching stops in a league far, far away from the NBA galaxy in England; through the NBA’s developmental league; and then to the Raptors.

Not everyone watching, of course, will be as familiar as Nurse is with Jackson’s own improbable climb from the Albany Patroons of the Continental Basketball Association to securing Jordan’s undying loyalty. Yet that is what positions Jackson to emerge as one of the big winners when “The Last Dance” completes its five-week run next month.

This documentary, with a title Jackson inspired, will remind viewers of the coaching colossus Jackson was before his unsuccessful detour into management at Madison Square Garden.

Jackson may be the ultimate winner among NBA coaches, with 11 championship rings, but it has been a while since his copious success with the Bulls and the Lakers was the first thing people referenced about him. Such is the unyielding consistency of the James Dolan-owned New York Knicks in besmirching the reputation of seemingly every marquee name who has tried to steer the franchise back to respectability over the past two decades.

As a result, Jackson has heard far more in recent years about his front-office foibles than the bench excellence that preceded it. You wouldn’t think a coach who owns two more rings than Red Auerbach would have legacy concerns, but Jackson’s rocky three-year stint as the Knicks’ president of basketball operations cast that sort of shadow.

It will thus be a huge boost for Jackson, at 74, for basketball fans of all ages to be reacquainted with (or introduced to) his lofty place in the hierarchy of a dynasty that ruled the NBA six times in an eight-season span in the 1990s.

No one in “The Last Dance,” mind you, wins more than Jordan.

Despite a woefully mediocre run as owner of the Charlotte Hornets for the past 10 years, His Airness has broken away from his long-held reclusive tendencies — at just the right time to reclaim the rapt attention of the American sporting public that, thanks to COVID-19, was forced to quit its normal viewing habits cold turkey. The likely result: Irrespective of any criticism to come from the fact that he clearly had more control over the project than advertised, so much fresh documentary buzz seems certain to help Jordan reestablish a gulf between him and LeBron James or anyone else you wish to nominate as basketball’s best player of all time.

Next up, though, it’s Scottie Pippen and Jackson who appear poised to land closest to Jordan when the documentary’s ultimate list of beneficiaries and villains is compiled.

“I never even felt like Phil got enough credit when it was happening because of Michael’s presence, or when he went to LA and having Kobe and Shaq there,” said Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, another key figure in the documentary after spending 3 1/2 seasons as Jordan’s teammate under Jackson.

“I think people always underestimated Phil’s talent as a coach, but he was so brilliant and so unique in his style,” Kerr continued. “With all the fame and notoriety that surrounded the team and Michael in particular, Phil was just an incredible leader and coach. Very few, if any, people would have had the right skill set and temperament to keep a team like that together and moving forward.”

None of this is meant to absolve Jackson’s mistakes with the Knicks. He took a job he clearly didn’t have the background for after consciously staying out of personnel matters throughout his coaching career; and he will always take the hit for Joakim Noah’s horrendous contract, his frayed relationships with Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis, and his two questionable coaching hires (Derek Fisher and Jeff Hornacek) after Kerr spurned New York (and, yes, Phil) to take the Golden State job.

It’s likewise true that Jackson — so often branded as smug by rival coaches and critics in the news media and the source of occasionally caustic quotations (and tweets) — was never going to generate much sympathy, even when we have heard or seen little from him since his exit from the Knicks nearly three years ago.

Yet it’s striking in the film to repeatedly see how devoted Jordan was to Jackson and hear so clearly that he was willing to play for no one else in Chicago. Ditto for the complexities Jackson faced in managing Pippen, Dennis Rodman and the two Jerrys — Jerry Reinsdorf, the Bulls’ owner, and Jerry Krause, the general manager — who indefensibly conspired to hasten the breakup of a dynasty rather than doing everything they could to hold it together.

Bulls general manager Jerry Krause (left) and team owner Jerry Reinsdorf celebrate winning the NBA championship in June 1998. Jeff Haynes, AFP/file

It also turns out, as confirmed by his counsel to Nurse, that Phil does have a softer side. Nurse booked a three-day trip for their Montana meeting two summers ago unsure of what to expect.

“I figured if it was only for a cup of coffee, I’d just hang out for a couple days and regroup,” Nurse said. They ended up sharing meal after meal over the course of Nurse’s stay and spent so much time on various aspects of the craft that they never really got around to swapping Rodman stories — with Nurse having briefly coached a 44-year-old Rodman with the Brighton Bears in England in 2006.

“He was really gracious with his time,” Nurse said. “We talked a lot of basketball, we talked a lot of leadership, we talked a lot of basketball history, and we talked a lot of just commanding the team.”

As he waits out a pandemic now like the rest of the NBA, unsure how soon the defending champion Raptors will be allowed to return to work in a league in which 29 other teams sit on the opposite side of the United States-Canada border, Nurse can’t help but hark back to his Birmingham Bullets days — back when the Friday drop-off of those Bulls tapes was the highlight of the week.

“I feel like I’m reliving my own life watching this,” Nurse said.

For Jackson, too, it must feel like a very welcome rewind.

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