Just hours after a jubilant Ferguson bowed to the Old Trafford faithful having effectively sealed a 12th Premier League title, his one rival as the greatest coach in world professional team sport of the past 20 years was bowing out of the NBA, his pursuit of a 12th championship in 20 years gone up in smoke.
At 65, almost a full five years younger than Ferguson, Phil Jackson was retreating from the glitz and madness of Los Angeles and its Lakers for the tranquillity of his native Montana, this time, he insisted, for good.
He didn’t go out like he deserved. The Lakers, chasing the fourth three-peat of Jackson’s career, were swept 4-0 by the Dallas Mavericks in the western conference semi-finals, losing Sunday’s Game Four, 122-86. It was the second-heaviest playoff defeat in Lakers’ history and the first time Jackson had been swept in a playoff series.
Worse, the Lakers betrayed everything Jackson had stood for. A pivotal moment in the Chicago Bulls’ transformation from chumps to champs in the early 1990s was when Jackson convinced Michael Jordan and his colleagues that retaliating against physicality and gamesmanship was distracting and self-defeating; instead they were to rise above it all and display “aggression without anger”. In last Sunday’s fourth quarter Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum were both ejected, anger written all over the pair of them. The last time someone as revered as Jackson went out as tastelessly as this in JR’s old town was way back in November 1963.
Yet typically, Jackson grinned afterwards about how it had been quite some ride. He even expressed relief that his team had been beaten, owning up, “It feels good that we ended the season, to be honest with you.” Imagine Ferguson saying that? If there is one figure in world sport though that stands up to Ferguson, it is that of Jackson.
While it might be grandiose and ethnocentric for Americans to elevate their domestic titles to the status of world championships, it would be fair to say the NBA is more Champions’ League than Premier League, meaning Jackson’s 11 championships more than measures up to Fergie’s haul.
In many ways the pair are polar opposites. A professional ballplayer himself in the ‘70s, Jackson embraced the counter-culture and would regularly set off on his motorbike to spend his summers hanging out in communes, learning the ways of the Lakota Sioux and meditating with the Mt Shasta group; you could never envisage Ferguson smoking peyote on some retreat, as Dallas’s coach Rick Carlisle pictured Jackson last Sunday.
Jackson was also professional sport’s first great exponent of the player-centred approach, a departure from the more authoritarian Mount-Rushmore figures of American sport such as Auerbach and Lombardi, or Clough, Busby, Ferguson — and of course Loughnane — ‘overseas’.
In Sacred Hoops Jackson wrote, “(Someone) once told me people were motivated by fear or greed but I think people are motivated by love.”
He appealed to his players’ spirit and intellect. Often the Bulls’ dressing room would resemble an afterschool debating society. When Jackson noticed one player carrying a gun on the team plane, it triggered a discussion about gun control. When Declan Kidney had Munster watch The Lion King it was probably because he’d read that Jackson would intersperse game footage with clips from Pulp Fiction and True Grit to relay a message. When Kidney would ask players to read books, it was probably because Jackson would have handed Denis Rodman ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’.
Ferguson himself is well able to talk as engagingly about Irish history as Jackson can about the native Americans.
Perhaps his greatest strength has been his capacity to change through the years, to become more player-centred like Jackson. Now Ferguson is far more selective in his use of the famous ‘hairdryer’, although the more mellow Jackson concedes such “righteous anger” can be hugely effective in jolting players, if only because he uses it so sparingly.
Just think of all the egos they’ve each had to handle through the years, the talent whose respect they’ve had to command: Jordan. Cantona. Keane. Kobe. Schmeichel. Shaq. Ronaldo. Rodman. Rooney. Pippen.
Yet Ferguson and Jackson’s real brilliance was how they managed those superstars’ “supporting cast”.
Ferguson will tell his Darron Gibsons and Wes Browns weeks in advance that they’ll feature against Wigan at home. Jackson also understood the need for every player to have a role and chance to play. “Selflessness,” he wrote, “is the soul of teamwork.” Another guru once professed much the same, saying, “Selfishness, cliqueishness are all death to a team; talent without unity of purpose is a hopelessly devalued currency.”
That guru from Govran knows why the Lakers suddenly became old and decrepit this season. You can’t win when Kobe and Pau Gasol aren’t getting on. But as only Ferguson might appreciate, maybe it looked so awful last Sunday because for decades Jackson made it look so easy.
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