[Hope this distracts you as much as it did me from a bi-polar weekend, alternating between horrible, crippling fear that we're going to lose to the Heat, and soaring, boundless joy at the possibility of beating the Heat. The agony of Fandom.]
I had roughly the following conversation with my Laker fan buddy over the summer:
Me: Do you think the Heat will win the title?
Me: Then who will?
Him: The Lakers. They were the best team in basketball last year and they got better.
Forget homerism, he was right. They basically replaced Luke Walton with Matt Barnes, who plays balls-out everywhere he goes and at all times (probably because he's always playing for a contract that never comes), and picked up Steve Blake under the reasonable assumption that he could be Steve Kerr. They resigned Shannon Brown, who looked like he was going to be a mini-monster. And Andrew Bynum was going to be healthy for the playoffs. And, oh yeah, Phil Jackson was coming back. If, as SBNation argued a while back, Tibs was actually the biggest free-agent pickup of the summer (and I'm not necessarily agreeing), Phil Jackson is basically Bill Russell. Or, you know, MJ.
Of course, MJ probably would have killed someone before he got hammered like LA did in game 4.* But consider this last lost Lakers season the equivalent of Mike's Wizards days. One comeback too many. In both cases, it was the moment where everyone finally saw beyond any doubt what made this guy great, but only because that gene, or talent or whatever, had finally become a weakness.
*[Bynum tried his best; now that Barea's OK I think we can all admit we were happy to see him get put on his ass really, really hard.]
MJ, as everyone loves to point out, possessed the complete and utter inability to turn down a challenge. What's that? The Wizards are crappy? They need a shooting guard? Allow me to tell you guys what I told Doug Collins, and every other non-Phil Jackson asshole that tried to coach me: give ME the damn ball. The 2003 All-Star game is hard to watch. You see MJ's legendary competitive spirit turning against him. He bricks shot after shot. He looks like his old self in slo-mo.
What made Jackson great was the faith he had in his players. He didn't scream and rant and rave, he didn't come out of every victory and title run looking like an extra in Saving Private Ryan. He got inside his guys' heads, learned about them, convinced them to do the same with each other, and then, having turned a bunch of rich, egomaniacal jerkoffs into a band of brothers (OK, fine, I'm getting a little rosie-eyed), he left the playing to them. His real coaching was done when the media wasn't looking. That's why he looks so calm on the sidelines: he's done his job before the game even starts. After tip-off, it's all bitching about the refs and psychically commanding Ron Artest not to shoot.
People like to say he was fortunate to have MJ and Kobe, like he Ringo Starr'd his way to greatness. Now, as Bulls fans, we defend our guy no matter what (and ignore that he coached the hated Lakers longer, just like we ignore Tibs being in the opposite camp during World War III - or as it's also known, the '09 Celtics series) but in this case there's good reason. We've all seen that Kobe Bryant has the real potential to be a whiny, self-absorbed game-ruiner who wants the ball in his hands and the cameras pointed at him. You know what? He could have been Vince Carter. Know why he's not? Phil Jackson. I might be wrong, but I doubt it.
You can't say the same about Mike, he was a force of nature. But Phil harnessed him. "Anybody" couldn't do it, obviously, since a couple of guys tried and ended up with 63-point playoff performances that ultimately meant nothing. "Anybody" doesn't take LSD and end up gaining insight into the deeper meaning of basketball and how to use it as a vehicle for extracting human potential. I ate a bunch of magic mushrooms with my buddy once, and the only "insight" we got was the fear that fire hydrants were following us*. It's easy to say Phil was lucky to get MJ and Kobe, but it's equally true that MJ and Kobe were lucky to get Phil. No one lucks into eleven championships. As Rasheed Wallace (probably) said in 2004, "Ring don't lie".
*[Also, a terror of the colors red and yellow. Coincidence? Hmm...]
Just like Mike trusted his game after it ceased to be unstoppable, though, Phil trusted his team after they ceased deserving it. Everyone quit. The whole team basically quit, except Kobe, who's ego, at least, is as great as Jordan's, and wouldn't let him. Odom didn't show up. Pau, let's face it, sucked balls. Artest didn't have the magic. Fisher is older than Yoda, and no one would have given Kevin Garnett a hard time for calling Steve Blake a cancer patient. Whatever IT is, IT was not present at any point for the Lakers against Dallas. Looking back at the Heat losses, to say nothing of the Cleveland loss, we can all pretend we saw it coming. We didn't, but we should have. On paper, this LA team is unstoppable, but a great "paper" team underachieving is proof that Phil's philosophy of basketball means something. There were collapses. There were bad losses on national TV to hated opponents. This, from a team led by Kobe Bryant's ego? There were Bynum's "trust issues". There were effort problems. At the end of his career, Jackson didn't have it in him to climb back inside his guys' heads and sort it all out. And without that, a team that once was invincible, that won a title and then improved its roster, collapsed epically*. What more proof do you need of his ability, his importance?
*[Oh yeah, also the guards played like shit and it fucked up the whole offense. But don't go all John Hollinger on me with your "facts", I'm trying to make a point.]
The hype is true, Phil's done. He was done last year, but his all-important faith in the guys he had won with took over and he let them convince him to come back. Four three-peats is a pretty number, but returning went against his instincts. And when Phil Jackson isn't trusting his instincts, you know it's the end.
So, so long, Zen Master. Sacred Hoops will always be my bible.