The best comment I’ve heard in months came from Jeff Van Gundy during the Bulls-Warriors game Wednesday.
One of his ESPN telecast partners was telling the story of how Hall of Famer Bill Walton used to write motivational quotes on his young son’s lunch bags. The inspirational words about life and success were always from legendary UCLA coach John Wooden.
Van Gundy wryly wanted to know if the words were Lew Alcindor, Bill Walton, Sidney Wicks, Marques Johnson, etc.
Player talent wins games. It won 10 NCAA championships for Wooden, and it’s helping Luke Walton, Bill’s son, win a ton of games as interim coach of the Warriors.
It certainly helped Phil Jackson, who is revered in Chicago for amassing six NBA titles with the Bulls. There was a player on those teams who was pretty good. Michael somebody. His name will come to me in a bit.
So that makes Jackson the best coach among Chicago’s living legends, right? Six titles in an eight-season stretch? If that’s not coaching ’em up, what is?
But hold on. Shouldn’t the Blackhawks’ Joel Quenneville be in the discussion for the No. 1 spot? Three Stanley Cups in the past six seasons? Against a very challenging salary cap? In a more capricious sport?
Just to be clear, this conversation is about those still among us. If you hear that someone just bought George Halas a drink for his six NFL titles in 40 seasons as Bears coach, you have yourself a story.
So … Phil vs. Q, two very different men.
Jackson is still revered in town for those six titles, for his bemused bench manner and for his Zen leanings.
Quenneville is revered for his Canadian reserve away from the bench, his death stare on it and his I’ve-got-your-no-delay-of-game-penalty-right-here crotch grab in 2014.
In terms of brand, neither can touch Mike Ditka, whose 1985 Bears were a combination of talent and eccentricities that continue to captivate the city. He has had more endorsement deals than moustache trims. But roster talent does in Da Coach when it comes to our discussion. The Bears in that era were loaded with great players but won just a single title. Talent can make reputations, and it can hurt reputations.
Jackson had Michael Jordan. Now, we could probably stop there and dismiss Jackson as being lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time with the right best player of all time. He also had two other future Hall of Fame players in Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman. Not bad, if your goal is to be one of the most successful coaches in NBA history, which Jackson is.
Quenneville doesn’t seem to get nearly the lucky-dog abuse that Jackson does. But Q has four players on his team who are locks for the Hall of Fame: Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Marian Hossa.
Then again, Quenneville doesn’t have Wayne Gretzky, the way Jackson had Jordan.
How many other coaches would have had the same success coaching those Bulls and Hawks teams? It’s a question that can’t be answered, of course, but it’s fair to say that at least a handful of coaches in both sports would have been capable of winning titles with the rosters Jackson and Quenneville were presented.
But you don’t know. Maybe Jackson’s ability to make players with massive egos sacrifice their games for the good of the team is something no other coach could have replicated. Maybe Quenneville’s habit of spinning line combinations like slot-machine fruit is an integral part of the Hawks’ success.
Getting players to perform their best is the sign of a great coach. Those coaches find a way to bring it out, whether through praise, mind games or benching. X’s and O’s don’t matter so much in basketball and hockey.
Jackson’s triangle offense was great with the Bulls and with the Lakers, who also had … wait … it’ll come to me … Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. But the triangle didn’t work so well when the Knicks switched to it after Jackson was named team president, perhaps because the Knicks were talent-poor.
Quenneville didn’t win a championship during coaching stints in St. Louis and Colorado, perhaps because he didn’t have Toews and Kane equivalents.
I’m going to declare a tie here. Quenneville pulls even with Jackson because of the number of good role players the Hawks had to jettison because of the salary cap. And he has kept winning in a sport that has more strange, game-changing bounces than basketball does.
There are no losers here, though. Just two winners blessed with great players.