Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

JACKSON, PHIL (b. 1945)

Born on September 17, 1945, in Deer Lodge, Montana, and brought up in Williston, North Dakota, Phil Jackson is one of the most successful coaches in the history of the National Basketball Association. Between 1990 and 2002 Jackson's Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers teams won nine NBA championships. Through the 2001-2002 season, Jackson had the highest career-winning percentage in NBA history in regular season games (.738) and play-off games (.742).

Jackson's success is a study in contrasts. At a time when the NBA vigorously promotes its individual stars, he wins by preaching selfless team play. In a game requiring the highest levels of physical skill, he emphasizes the mental and spiritual condition of his players. The coaching philosophy underpinning this approach is an amalgam of influences ranging from Jackson's native Great Plains to the Far East. "The day I took over the Chicago Bulls," he writes in his book Sacred Hoops, "I vowed to create an environment based on the principles of selflessness and compassion I'd learned as a Christian in my parents' home; sitting on a cushion practicing Zen; and studying the teachings of the Lakota Sioux." The son of two Pentecostal ministers, Jackson was a devoted student of the Bible, and his parents had hopes of him entering the ministry. He was also a gifted athlete, a pro prospect in baseball and a standout basketball player on the 1963 Williston High School state championship team. He accepted a basketball scholarship to the University of North Dakota, where he played under future NBA coach Bill Fitch. While twice earning all-American honors on the court, Jackson studied psychology, philosophy, and religion in the classroom and became involved in the charged politics of the Vietnam War era. He graduated in 1967.

A second-round draft choice of the New York Knicks in 1967, Jackson spent ten of his thirteen seasons with that team. He was never a star, but the gangly six-foot-eight-inch Jackson was a valuable role player on a team that featured several future NBA Hall of Fame players, including Bill Bradley, the future senator and presidential candidate. During this time Jackson broadened his personal horizons, exploring various religious and meditative traditions and conducting summer basketball clinics on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

In 1978 Jackson was traded to the New Jersey Nets and got his first taste of coaching as a player/assistant coach. After retiring as a player, he spent the 1980s learning the coaching craft and paying his dues in the Continental Basketball Association and the Puerto Rican summer leagues. In 1987 Jackson accepted an assistant coaching job with the Chicago Bulls, a team with a prodigiously gifted young player named Michael Jordan and a losing record. In 1989, frustrated by more mediocre seasons, Bulls' management offered the head coaching job to Jackson. Within two years, the Bulls were NBA champions. By the end of the 1990s Jackson was recognized as one of the game's all-time great coaches, a reputation solidified by his continued success as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers.

Roger Holmes Lincoln, Nebraska

Jackson, Phil, and Hugh Delahanty. Sacred Hoops. New York: Hyperion, 1995.

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