Road Less Traveled
How Phil Jackson became the NBA’s most successful coach in history.
by Nick Rotunno
The way is long and the pavement is rough, but the road to Flathead Lake is a good journey for those who seek peace.
You drive swiftly toward the rising sun, through sandy, sagebrush-covered country, through green rangeland surrounded by steep, forested hills. And then Route 28 falls away and the sky opens in the distance, and far below you see the big lake, blue and windswept and shimmering, and on the eastern shore the mountains rise tall and radiant, still flecked with June snow, rolling away to the north and the great spires of Glacier National Park.
So this is Montana, you think, and this is Flathead Lake. Here, where the water meets the mountains, Los Angeles Lakers head coach Phil Jackson will spend a quiet summer. He’ll retreat to Big Sky country, to his home on the shores of this beautiful lake, and he will escape the crowds and the smog and the media, and he will breathe the deep, easy breaths of an 11-time world champion who has nothing – absolutely nothing – left to prove.
You envy him for a moment, thinking of his rings, his millions, and you wonder if he’s here right now, tooling around in a big speedboat out on that blue gemstone of a lake. You wouldn’t be surprised if he was.
The 64-year-old Jackson comes to Flathead every offseason, often celebrating yet another NBA title. It’s a vacation of sorts, a respite from the rigors of the NBA life, and it is, in a way, a return to his roots.
Jackson was born in Deer Lodge, MT, the son of Pentecostal ministers. He grew up in a very strict and sober household; his parents were rigid and tough, their rules unbendable, their laws absolute. Misbehavior was not tolerated. The church and the Bible were the cornerstones of Jackson’s childhood – indeed, his mother and father had steered him toward the ministry when he was a boy.
Yet Phil Jackson was no man of the cloth, despite his parents’ wishes. There was a certain rebelliousness to him, a tendency to lean left, to break the conservative ministerial boundaries, and Jackson would eventually embrace the hippie lifestyle of his evolving era, experiment with drugs and become a true child of the restless ‘70s – all while playing for the New York Knicks, a very good team at the time.
He would also, of course, guide the Chicago Bulls and L.A. Lakers to 11 NBA World Championships, coaching such superstars as Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. He would win hundreds of basketball games and break record after record. He would establish himself as the preeminent coach in the NBA, by far the most successful head coach in the history of the League.
He would become, in a word, nonpareil.
But all that fame and fortune – the titles, the Hall of Fame career, the rise of a coaching legend – would come later, much later. First there was Montana, and the high lonely plains of the Dakotas. First there was New York, in all its bright shining madness.
First, there was an education.
Jackson was still a boy when his family relocated to a small town in North Dakota. He attended Williston High School, where he excelled at baseball (he was a fantastic pitcher) and basketball.
After leading the Coyotes to a state championship his senior year, Jackson caught the eye of Bill Fitch, head basketball coach at the University of North Dakota. Though not especially gifted, Jackson worked hard on the court, hustling for loose balls and corralling rebounds. He was tall and willowy, long-limbed, and he was very effective in the low post, where his towering hook shot – both right and left-handed – was a deadly weapon. Fitch knew Jackson could help his team, and he convinced the big forward to come play for the Fightin’ Sioux.
Jackson blossomed at UND. Bill Fitch was tough, an old-school kind of coach who believed in brutal conditioning and relentless defense. He rode his players hard, and Jackson improved year by year. Before long his hook shot was all but unstoppable, and his once ungainly, awkward movements became more fluid, more graceful. By his senior year Jackson was the linchpin of the offense, scoring over 25 points per game.
The Fightin’ Sioux qualified for the postseason; they lost to Louisiana Tech in the now-defunct NCAA Small College Division Tournament. But the next day, playing in the tournament’s consolation game, Jackson scored 51 points and set a gym record.
He was talented; that much was certain. The statistics didn’t lie. But even then, while still a very young man, Jackson also possessed an uncanny court sense – the vision, the timing, the prescience; that elusive quality that’s most commonly identified as “basketball IQ.” He did not have superior athleticism, or all-star talent. He had, simply, the mind of a coach, and with that mind he could understand the game’s nuances, its many intricacies and variations, and he could play it very well.