Los Angeles Lakers head coach Phil Jackson is at it again. He has his team in the National Basketball Association playoffs. That’s nothing new. He is trying to lead the Lakers to another championship. That’s nothing new. And he is trying to win three consecutive NBA championships. That is also nothing new.
However, everything that Jackson accomplishes or does not with the Lakers this year will be new. Win or lose.
If Jackson can lead the Lakers to another NBA championship, he would become the first head coach in league history to win 12 championships. This would give him three more than the man in second place legendary Boston Celtic coach Arnold “Red” Auerbach. No one else comes close to these two men. Former Lakers and Miami Heat coach Pat Riley has five as does John Kundla who did it when the Lakers were in Minneapolis.
Jackson is already the only man in the 65 year history of the NBA to win two or more championships with two different teams. The first six of his championships were won with the Chicago Bulls from 1991 to 1998. So far, he has won five with the Lakers dating back to the 1999-2000 season.
Of course, this makes him the only coach to win back to back titles with two different teams. Jackson has not only won it back to back four times he has won three in a row three times. And if the Lakers can win it this year it would make four “Threepeats!” This is just completely unthinkable. Add the fact that he would do it twice each with two different teams and it becomes even more unthinkable.
If Jackson does not win the championship this year it would be ther first time that he would not defend the title after winning it consecutively.
For added emphasis, Jackson would accomplish all of this in a 21 year span. Even if he doesn’t win this year Jackson has already won more than half of the NBA’s championships in the last two decades. And Jackson did not coach in 1998-99 or 2004-05.
The only thing in NBA history that compares to this is the Boston Celtics of Auerbach and Bill Russell winning 11 championships in 13 years from 1956-57 to 1968-69. Auerbach coached the first nine of those teams winning seven straight from 1959-60 to 1965-66. Russell the last two while winning it back to back in 1967-68 and 1968-69. It is highly unlikely that this will ever happen again.
But one could make a case that if Bulls guard Michael Jordan had not sat out the entire 1993-94 season and most of 1994-95, Jackson could have won eight championships in a row with the Bulls. But Jordan did and Jackson didn’t so case closed.
And what Jackson has done may be more unthinkable than the Celtics run in that he has done it with two different teams in two different decades. He has done it in the Eastern Conference and the West. And he has done it with four different groups of players. Sure he had Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen for all of the Bulls titles and Kobe Bryant for all of the Lakers. But go back and look at the rosters of the four teams that Jackson has tried to win three in a row with and you will see at least a fifty percent change in the rosters from one ‘threepeat” team to the next.
So how does what Jackson is doing compare to coaches in the other major sports of professional baseball, football and hockey? Let’s take a look at the coaches with the most championships in each of these sports and compare what they have done to Jackson.
In baseball that would be Joe McCarthy and Charles Dillon “Casey” Stengel who both won seven World Series while managing the New York Yankees.
McCarthy won his seven titles from 1932 to 1943. His best stretch was a string of four in a row from 1936 to 1939. This was the only stretch where any of his teams defended their titles. McCarthy had three other chances to repeat after winning the World Series in 1932, 1941 and 1943 without success. Before managing the Yankees, McCarthy managed the Chicago Cubs. After the Yanks he managed the Boston Red Sox. He did not win a World Series with either team.
Stengel won his seven from 1949 to 1960. He outdid Jackson starting his career with the Yanks by winning five consecutive from 1949 to 1953. Like McCarthy, Stengel did not repeat as a champion again after his five year reign. The Yankees had chances to do it after the 1956 and 1958 seasons and did not. Stengel managed three other teams besides the Yankees. The Brooklyn Dodgers, Boston Bees and New York Mets. He did not win a World Series with any of them.
Moving on to football it is not hard to believe that no one has come close to what Jackson has done, because of the turnover in player personnel from year to year due to retirement and injury.
In pro football history, Cleveland Browns coach Paul Brown won seven championships. He won the first four in the All-American Football Conference from 1946 to 1949. He won the next three in the NFL from 1950 to 1955. Brown’s five pro football championships in a row (four in the AAFC and one in the NFL) are an American football record. So are his seven championships in ten years. As coach of the Browns, Paul Brown is the only man to repeat as champion in two different major pro leagues, the AAFC and the NFL. After leaving the Browns, Brown owned and coached the Cincinnati Bengals. He did not win a championship with them.
Then we get to the National Hockey League. This is where we find the man who probably comes closest in comparing to Jackson in Scotty Bowman.
Bowman won nine NHL Stanley Cups. He won five with the Montreal Canadiens, one with the Pittsburgh Penguins and three with the Detroit Red Wings. With the Canadiens he won four consecutive titles from 1975-76 to 1978-79. He won consecutive championships with the Red Wings in 1996-97 and 1997-98. In between, he coached the Penguins to a Stanley Cup trophy in 1991-92.
This makes Bowman the only coach to win pro championships with three different teams. This is unlikely to happen again in any sport. Bowman is the only coach besides Jackson to win back to back titles with two different pro teams in the big four sports.
McCarthy, Stengel, Brown and Bowman have all done amazing things along with Auerbach. And there is a very good chance that no one will do any of the things that they have done.
But if Phil Jackson can win the championship again this year with the Lakers (there is still a lot of basketball to play and the law of averages says that he will not) he will stand apart from all of these great coaches.
He will stand apart, because of the 12 overall championships. He will stand apart by leading two different teams to six championships. He will stand apart for leading two different teams to three consecutive titles twice. He will stand apart by coaching his teams to three consecutive titles four times.
He will stand apart, because he will have done the unthinkable.