Phil Jackson will be remembered as the greatest basketball coach in the history of the NBA. His greatness laid in the fact that he was an outstanding manager and team organizer who cared deeply about every single player on his team. It comes as no surprise that almost everyone loved playing for him. Moreover, he was able to convince some of the most illustrious basketball players of all time to buy into his system and become great teammates.
Known as the Zenmaster for much of his career, he was adept at keeping his players focused on the moment, empowering them to achieve the task at hand, and helping them to avoid unnecessary distractions. His philosophy was wildly successful; earning him 11 championships in 20 years of coaching.
But while the Zenmaster has an allegiance with Buddhism, I believe that his coaching style and technique was also influenced by a great Biblical personality: Aaron, the High Priest.
In addition to being an extremely righteous, devout, and religious person, the rabbis pointed to one specific character trait that made Aaron unique. He had the rare ability to massage ego’s and placate those who felt slighted. Crisis prevention and management was Aaron’s forte. Indeed, Aaron was referred to as “a lover of peace and pursuer of peace.” He could convince rivals to sit around a table to work out their differences. What made him deserving of the office of the High Priest was not the fact that his brother was Moses, but that he had a warm personality, that exuded care and concern for others, that gave them the confidence to trust in him.
Phil Jackson has followed in the footsteps of Aaron. No coach was able to massage overblown egos as well as he has. He was able to coax such disparate and temperamental superstars as Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen and Shaquille O’neal and Kobe Bryant into working together, when most other coaches would have failed. He brought a sense a peace, calmness, and steadiness to his ball clubs. He was never too high or too low in his demeanor, which allowed his teams to thrive for a complete season and in the playoffs. As a religious Jew, I propose that Phil’s nickname be changed from the “Zenmaster” to “The High Priest.”
Phil’s legacy will live on in the NBA for many years to come. As former basketball coach turned analyst Jeff Van Gundy, remarked, every coach in the NBA has adopted a measure of his style of play, technique, and approach. In other words, he was a master teacher. In this regard too, Jackson was similar to the High Priest, a position that was reserved for the greatest teachers of their respective generations.
Admittedly, it was Moses who was the pre-eminent leader of his generation and Aaron was his sidekick. But Aaron was a leader in his own right. What made Aaron so different from his brother is that he led from behind the scenes. He wasn’t the type to give motivational talks or to chide the people with angry speeches. Likewise, he didn’t rule with an iron fist and force his underlings to follow his commands. Aaron led by stressing collaboration: listening to the concerns of the people and empowering them to believe in themselves and their abilities to be successful as individuals and as a nation.
Phil was no Moses: he didn’t rule with an iron fist, he wasn’t known for his inspirational talks; he rarely got in his players faces and gave them hell. Phil got them to buy into his system. He took interest in his players; giving them books to read and showing them how to improve their game as individuals and as a team. He let them learn how to play through adversity, helping them to understand what it takes to come together as a unit. Phil was the glue that held everything together. But all the work was done behind the scenes. That’s why his demeanor on the sidelines was almost always subdued.
While Moses received the credit for being the greatest Jewish leader, his effectiveness would have been diminished without his brother working behind the scenes to bring calm and peace to the nation. Similarly, many people have attempted to minimize the greatness of Phil Jackson calling him ‘overrated’ and citing that it was the Moses’ of the NBA that made him look so good: Michael, Scottie, Dennis, Shaq, Kobe, & Pau. If they only knew how he handled himself and his team behind the scenes, they would know that these legends would not have been as great without him.
As a life-long Laker fan, I wish the final journey would’ve ended differently for you, Phil. But keep this in mind: Aaron never made it to the Promised Land. You got there 11 times. We’ll miss you!