Buck Harvey: Phil says goodbye, as if he’s human

DALLAS — I always liked Phil Jackson. I liked his wit, and I liked how he saw the world, and I liked how he filled my notebook.

I liked how he coached, too. What the Triangle offense didn’t impact, his calm did.

But along the way, as he won 11 championships, Jackson was treated as if he were above the details that affect other coaches. That’s where his last day as a Laker came in.

Then, Jackson reminded everyone he’s human.

I didn’t like everything about Jackson. The asterisk label he put on the Spurs after their 1999 title, for example, was both arrogant and unfair.

Using seemingly every loss to critique officiating became a tiresome habit, too, and David Stern apparently felt the same. He gave Jackson a farewell gift Sunday: a $35,000 fine for his latest complaint.

Still, the vast majority of Jackson’s coaching career was as impressive as it was entertaining. He sparred with his bosses in Chicago while connecting with Michael Jordan, and those who played for him loved him.

Steve Kerr, a Jackson disciple, made for a good reference.

Jackson was the same Sunday. Then, he quoted Richard Nixon and Casey Stengel in a funny, relaxed final press conference.

When someone asked him about Rick Carlisle’s assessment of his retirement, that he doesn’t “know how long you can go to Montana and meditate and smoke peyote,” Jackson’s counter was classic.

“First of all,” he said, “you don’t smoke peyote.”

Jackson said this the way he walked off the floor Sunday. He looked, as always, bemused.

But neither his words nor his expression could hide what had happened over the previous few hours. Then, his Lakers — his two-time champions — came apart in every way a basketball team can come apart.

Was Jackson stunned by this, since just a week ago he was still coaching the conference favorite?

“No,” Jackson said, because he’s never stunned. That’s been his attitude, too.

But somewhere between Jason Terry throwing in 9 of 10 3-pointers and J.J. Barea dribbling through the Lakers’ defense, stunned should have been an appropriate reaction.

This was stunning, too: The Mavericks ended with 86 bench points Sunday, or as many as all of the Lakers.

Worse for Jackson, though, was the Lakers’ counter to the Dallas surge. With confused rotations and unwilling close-out defenders, the Lakers played without a discernible strategy.

Jackson had always believed in letting his guys work it out, and it was clearly an easier approach when his guys included a Jordan or a Kobe Bryant in his prime. But this past week, his timeouts came more quickly and more urgently, until Jackson went out of character in Game 3. Then, he bumped Pau Gasol in the chest.

So you’re changing your approach this late in your career, he was asked minutes before Game 4?

“Whatever it takes,” he said. “You do what you have to do coaching.”

This what-you-have-to-do thing goes on in Sacramento and Charlotte and even San Antonio.

His players followed his lead, losing their cool, too. Consumed by frustration, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum opted for dirty. Their actions gave the Lakers three ejections in the series.

So when the Lakers weren’t ill-prepared, they were lazy and childish. Isn’t coaching responsible for some of that?

Carlisle defended Jackson afterward. “Look, we’re talking about the greatest coach in the history of our game,” Carlisle said. “This shouldn’t taint what he’s done.”

Carlisle is right. Jackson’s legacy won’t be affected by one series or one game.

As for me: I like him now as much as I ever did.

Still, Sunday showed what has always been true. Jackson has coached great players to great things, but he’s always been as vulnerable as his peers. He’s always been vulnerable to aging players, and to red-hot opponents, and to games that don’t go his way.

And in his final one?

A bemused look couldn’t hide what had happened.


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