Philip Jackson’s legacy

Now that we have a few generations of organized sport under our collective belt, we have more options for assessing the greatness of its participants contextually. While many of the major sports, especially hockey and baseball, have become internationalized through broad player entry, coaching pools remain markedly small. Moreover, many of the coaches are (professionally, and occasionally familially) related to each other. Trace a current head coach’s resume backwards and you’re likely to find that he worked as a coordinator or assistant alongside other current head coaches underneath a prominent head coach of the past generation. Looking prospectively, these relationships often are described as “coaching trees” (click here for a detailed look at some of the NFL’s coaching trees), and, beyond any championships won, seasonal records set, or individual players developed, these coaching trees can represent a coach’s most lasting impact on the game. Some of the most extensive coaching trees read like the first chapter of Matthew (the begattitudes), and these relationships are important not just because a handful of people used to work together and now are running their own teams, but because they represent shared philosophies of coaching– strategy, tactics, personnel management, etc. Sort of like long-gone U.S. presidents can continue to affect public policy through their lasting legacy of federal judicial appointments, athletic strategists can find their schemes in play long after they’re gone, directed by their coaching legacies and operated by modern stars they may never have met. Having a large, relevant coaching tree is a major indicator of coaching success.

Which is why it’s surprising to realize that professional basketball’s greatest coach, Phil Jackson, essentially has no coaching tree whatsoever.

Last month, Grantland’s Chuck Klosterman wrote a piece on Jackson and the Triangle offense that offered little insight on Jackson or the Triangle. It did conclude with the following, however, and while the last sentence frames this partial paragraph as a preemptive obituary for the Triangle, the substance of the quoted portion functions to conscribe the legacy of Jackson himself:

Jackson is widely viewed as arrogant. He engenders jealousy among his rivals (and seems to enjoy doing so). His acolytes are few and far between. Unlike most coaches who’ve had major success, he hasn’t spawned a significant coaching tree of former assistants — his only real tentacles into the league have been recently fired Timberwolves coach Kurt Rambis and ex-Mavs coach Jim Cleamons (currently working in China). Neither ran the Triangle in totality. Jackson’s NBA impact has been massive, but his ongoing influence will be muted. It appears that he will not be remembered as the NBA coach who ran the Triangle best; in all likelihood, he will be remembered as the only NBA coach who ran it at all. If the Triangle truly dies, it dies with him.

The man and the scheme are inextricably connected, of course, and we’re far too close to Jackson to estimate or predict his total legacy and future perception, but at a time when the many of the best coaches are seen either as the grand culmination of an existent coaching tree or, especially, the roots of a new one, Jackson appears rather isolated, which is sort of how we’ve always thought about him anyway.


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