Saturday, April 18, 2015

Review: Phil Jackson - Lord of the Rings (2013)

By Peter Richmond

Sometimes it's easy to be a little frightened by reviews.

I'm not talking specifically about movies, although certainly that can happen. Who wants to go a film that the experts say it hardly worth your money?

It can happen to a book too. That brings us to Peter Richmond's book, "Phil Jackson - Lord of the Rings."

The reviews on Amazon.com are quite harsh. Admittedly, there aren't many equivalents to the late Roger Ebert reviewing books on there, and in this case only a handful of reviews have been posted - all neutral to unfavorable. It was enough to keep this unread in my household for quite a while.

Still, having finally completed it, I think the other readers probably underestimate the book. It's not an instant classic, but it has its pleasures.

If you've been following basketball for the last few decades, you know Jackson's story. He came out of the Midwest (North Dakota, mostly) and arrived in New York to join the Knicks as a player - just in time to see that franchise go through the most glorious era in its history. The Knicks won titles in 1970 and 1973, and Jackson contributed to the latter team's success. (He was hurt in 1969-70.) That New York squad had a variety of memorable characters, but stories reveal that Jackson was the one mostly likely to be a coach.

It took a while, but he finally got his shot at an NBA coaching job. Not only was he ready for the big time, but he had some great company. Ever hear of Michael Jordan? The Bulls ran off six titles during their dynasty, and Jackson did a fabulous job of keeping the band together during that stretch. No coaches can win without talent, but not all coaches can win with it, and Jackson held together those Bulls teams of Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Co.

Then it was on to Los Angeles, where Jackson fell in with Shaq, Kobe and Co. Same story there, and more rings - an eventual total of 11 in his career. No one has more in basketball history. Richmond calls Jackson the most successful coach in basketball history, and the author has a case. Jackson finally left the Lakers a couple of years ago, but landed as the head executive of the Knicks last year. He's still looking for the next Jordan or Bryant in New York; good luck on that.

Richmond mixes a variety of sources to try to paint a picture of Jackson, certainly one of the most interesting personalities to come along in any sport. He's obviously smart and thoughtful, and comes across as considerate and adaptable when it comes to people. Those are all good qualities for a coach. Many of those who crossed Jackson's path are quoted here, some with direct quotes through interviews.

The author does have one good source for material - Jackson himself, but not directly. He refused to be interviewed for the book, although he promised not to do it any harm either. No, Jackson has written several books himself over the years. The first of those was called "Maverick" in 1975. I recall buying that book, which listed at the time for $7.95, for 88 cents at a used book store and thinking that I had overpaid. Richmond thought it was on the sour side as well. Imagine my surprise when I saw that copies of the book now were going for 100 times more than what I paid for it. Ugh.

The author also quotes several other books and interviews in the search for insight. Any book about Jackson will have some sections devoted to some non-traditional topics by basketball book standards - meaning that Jackson's interest in Native American and personal philosophy come up here. It's all part of the package.

The critics' biggest complaint centered on some silly errors in the text, remarks I usually associated with baseball fans and books on that subject (many such enthusiasts seem to take pleasure in finding such errors). It is difficult to believe that the Bulls were called the Bullets once in this book, and that some game details on playoff games came out wrong. I was surprised that the name of the Buffalo Braves' arena was botched, and that John Havlicek's injury in the Boston-New York series of 1973 didn't come up in the recap - obviously a huge part of the story.

Maybe more to the point, Jackson seems like a person who is hard to pin down here - even in a book that runs more than 300 pages. Of course, to many that's part of his charm.

Richmond has some flair in his writing, and has done some good work elsewhere. He certainly gave this an honest effort, and the book goes by pretty quickly. "Phil Jackson" might not turn out to be the definitive look at this coaching legend, but it does offer some insights that are part of the puzzle.

Three stars

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