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My Tribute to Phil Jackson

May 9, 2011

For non-basketball fans, Phil Jackson is the just-retired coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. For basketball fans, he retires as the most successful coach of all time – winning 11 championships and having the highest winning percentage of all time. He rarely if ever lost his temper on the court, perfecting the gracious annoyance look. He had a lot of chance to practice that last night. But I digress.

My tribute to Coach Phil comes from my only encounter with him. As very few people know, he began his coaching career at a little high school (Bigfork High) in Northwest Montana. It just happens to be a few miles from where I lived for many years. In the summers, after basketball was retired for the season, he would retreat back to that pristine area and enjoy himself with his wife and five kids.

1996 marked what may be the pinnacle of Phil’s career. His team, the Chicago Bulls won an unprecendented 72 out of 82 games. They went on to beat the Seattle Supersonics in 6 games to win another NBA title. Then, several of the Bulls went on to anchor the USA Men’s basketball team in the Olympics that summer.

During the Olympics, I was working out at the gym connected to the hospital where my wife worked. After my workout, I went upstairs to get a smoothie. As I sat watching the previews for that night’s basketball game, I heard this deep-throated chuckle beside me. It was Phil Jackson, getting a kick out of something his guys were doing on the screen. I figured if he was sitting out in public like that I could at least say something to him. But I didn’t want to faun all over him or say something stupid, so I adopted Workout Casual as my approach.

“So are you going to watch the guys play tonight?” I asked. It seemed casual and yet “with it” enough for banter.

He looked at me with a wry Phil smile and took a big gulp of his drink. Then he laughed. “Nope. I’ve watched WAY too much of all of them this year.”

I like a guy who takes his work seriously and then leaves it behind when he goes home. Have a happy retirement Phil.

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