Phil Jackson is one of the most successful coaches in NBA history. Yet he didn’t believe the methods that made him successful in stints with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers would have made him as successful as the leader of USA Basketball.
Jackson looked like one of the best options to coach Team USA in advance of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. However, the Zen Master pointed to philosophical differences with USA Basketball and suggested his coaching style wouldn’t be conducive to leading a team of All-Stars.
The Chicago Bulls only became dominant champions after hiring Phil Jackson ahead of the 1989-90 NBA season
Former Chicago Bulls general manager Jerry Krause made the surprising move to replace former head coach Doug Collins with Phil Jackson just months after Collins led the Bulls to the 1989 Eastern Conference Finals.
That decision altered the course of franchise history.
Jackson quickly set about to implementing the triangle offense devised by then-Bulls assistant Tex Winter. The idea was to take the ball out of Michael Jordan‘s hands a bit more to create offensive opportunities for his teammates and make Chicago a more dangerous unit.
Jordan might have relented at first, but the triangle made the Bulls a more well-rounded group that could still turn to MJ in crunch time. Chicago won three consecutive championships between 1991 and 1993, then three-peated again from 1996 to 1998.
Jackson wasn’t just an Xs and Os coach. Realistically, that’s probably secondary in terms of his coaching attributes. The Zen Master’s most admirable trait was his ability to control egos and motivate players by any means necessary.
Jackson used internal turmoil portrayed in Sam Smith’s Jordan Rules book to bring his group together. During the second three-peat, he pitted players against the front office when Krause threatened to break up the team. The Hall of Famer also understood how to give his guys, notably Dennis Rodman, a little bit of rope to keep them fresh and hungry.
But despite his extensive successes, Jackson did not feel he was the right man to coach Team USA.
Jackson expressed skepticism about his ability to lead Team USA to Olympic glory
In 1998, Phil Jackson was gearing up to win his sixth championship in eight years. However, with USA Basketball preparing for the 2000 Olympics, he wasn’t asked to coach Team USA.
Jackson said in March 1998 that he felt USA Basketball officials weren’t exactly enamored with his personality and coaching style. He also wondered (h/t the Chicago Tribune) whether he could be as successful with a team full of All-Stars as he was with the Bulls over the course of an 82-game NBA season.
Jackson had another reason for shying away from coaching Team USA. He said international competitions could put “undue strain” on coaches, citing Don Nelson’s tenure and saying the experience didn’t look “fun” for Nelson.
In hindsight, Jackson might have been wise to avoid discussion about Team USA. A labor dispute in the summer of 1998 resulted in USA Basketball picking replacement players.
Ultimately, the lockout ended, and former Houston Rockets head coach Rudy Tomjanovich later coached Team USA to a gold medal in Sydney. However, Jackson avoided what could have been a tumultuous transition period in the middle of the lockout.
Assessing the validity of Jackson’s assertions
Phil Jackson never coached Team USA. Should he have? While it might have been accurate that USA Basketball officials considered Jackson a “maverick,” his quip about “short-term All-Star teams” is worth analyzing.
Jackson coached no shortage of All-Stars in his career, including Jordan, Rodman, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant, and Shaquille O’Neal, among others. He had plenty of success with those players. Who’s to say he couldn’t have made things work with Team USA? Moreover, Jackson’s past statements don’t necessarily hold water when assessing them in a contemporary setting.
Like Jackson, San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich likes to light a fire under his players. Some reports suggested members of Team USA were frustrated with Pop during the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo this past summer. Still, it didn’t prevent Team USA from winning the gold medal.
So, while Jackson’s desire to coach Team USA might have been fleeting, he almost certainly could have found a way to rally the talent around him and bring USA Basketball its fair share of successes had he ever pursued the job.