Tim Noonan

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 May, 2011, 12:00am


Admit it, this was how so many of you haters wanted it all to end. The Los Angeles Lakers, reigning two time NBA champions not only swept out of the play-offs in the second round by the Dallas Mavericks, but blown out by almost 40 points and exiting the stage in a classless and petulant manner for all to see.

Almost as delicious was the look of pure shock on the faces over at the NBA offices. When asked a few years back what his dream finals match-up would be, NBA commissioner David Stern said the Lakers versus the Lakers and that is no doubt because the NBA lives and dies for TV ratings. Lately, they have been living pretty well with Hollywood's favourite team, led by the irrepressibly charismatic Kobe Bryant, in the last three finals. But this year we could have the Oklahoma City Thunder in the finals and do you think we will still see the likes of Jack Nicholson, Chris Rock, Will Ferrell, Jamie Foxx and Justin Bieber sitting courtside in Oklahoma?

It would be patently unfair though to let the curtain fall on this Lakers mini-dynasty without acknowledging the work of their two catalysts. Despite his team's inglorious exit, Kobe's legacy is still secure as one of the top five players of all time. His body may be slowly breaking down but Bryant is a cold-blooded assassin on the court and will be for a couple more years. But the man Bryant took his orders from in winning five championships, coach Phil Jackson, will not be around. Jackson has all but conceded that his stint with the Lakers is over. Rumours abound that he may end up coaching in New York but Jackson will soon be 66 and looks every one of those years as he drags his surgically repaired hip around the court. And, more importantly, Jackson has spent the better part of his 20-year coaching career letting one and all know that there was much more to his life than basketball.

So walk away Phil, or at least hobble away in a convincing fashion, because I can't think of a more unique individual in the world of sport over the past 40 years. And with 11 championships won as a coach and two as a player, I can't think of a more decorated individual either.

Both Jackson's parents were ministers and his childhood in rural Montana was austere and strict. A college star at the University of North Dakota, Jackson was drafted by the New York Knicks and by the time he arrived in the Big Apple in the late 1960s, he seemed anxious to make up for lost time and embraced the counter-culture lifestyle of the day. He wore his hair long, grew a scruffy beard and played a cerebral and intense game while helping the Knicks win their only two championships. When his playing career ended he began coaching at the lower levels and quickly found that his so-called hippie past would thwart his ambition. Sports are rife with military metaphors and conformity. Coaches are generals, players their troops. An independent and free-thinking mind was too radical a notion for the old-boy network running sports.

But Jackson persevered and found himself as an assistant coach for the Chicago Bulls before being elevated to the top job on a whim when Doug Collins was fired. In his second season as coach Jackson would lead the Bulls to their first championship and in a nine-year span they would capture six titles in total. Led by Michael Jordan's peerless performances and Jackson's deft touch in managing disparate egos and personalities, the Bulls were a full-blown dynasty. Always cerebral and esoteric, Jackson became known as the Zen Master and did little to disown the moniker. 'Basketball, unlike football with its prescribed routes, is an improvisational game, similar to jazz,' he said. 'If someone drops a note, someone else must step into the vacuum and drive the beat that sustains the team.'

Jackson won numerous titles with the Bulls while Mike Ditka won a grand total of one as coach of the NFL's Chicago Bears. And yet it is Iron Mike - Da Coach - who still remains a Chicago icon while Jackson is perceived as something of an enigma. He would move on to Los Angeles and lead the Lakers to five championships, one more than Pat Riley did when he was in charge of Magic Johnson's 'Showtime' Lakers of the '80s. But mention Riley's name and Lakers fans of a certain age still swoon over his GQ style and movie-star looks. Jackson? Again, an enigma who could undoubtedly coach but was never embraced as one of their own by the beautiful people of Hollywood.

And I honesty believe that not traditionally fitting the mould in either Chicago or LA delights Jackson to no end. He openly chafes at the three-ring corporate circus the NBA has become and is renowned for being uncooperative in helping to promote it. And yet he has no problem accepting the exorbitant salary - he made US$12 million last year - that comes with the NBA's affluence while being every bit as cold and calculating in his career moves as the management he despises.

I will miss Jackson's wit and candour and even his endless complaining and mind games. But most of all I will miss that wry and sarcastic smile which seems pasted to his face. It's a bemused look that says to the corporate monolith known as the NBA and all that embrace it that I may be among you, but I am not of you. Phil Jackson figures he has made it to the top by being true to his counter-culture roots. Maybe he has and maybe he hasn't. But I for one certainly appreciate his efforts.