Phil Jackson is the greatest coach in NBA history, with all due respect to Red Auerbach. Establishing two dynasties in the modern era is something the Celtic legend never had to deal with. Jackson did it with intelligence but also a remarkable knack for understanding his players. Perhaps the greatest coaching job he ever pulled off was his three years with Dennis Rodman in the 1990s.
Chicago Bulls fans have heard the stories. Rodman was one of the greatest rebounders and defenders in NBA history. He was also a head case. Maybe the greatest head case of all-time. There was just no predicting what the guy would do, on or off the court on any given night. Most head coaches would’ve washed their hands of that as the San Antonio Spurs did in 1995.
Jackson though persevered and it led to three championships.
How in the world did the “Zen Master” pull it off. During a running diary for ESPN The Magazine back in 1998, he credited a forgotten part of his past for showing him how to handle a personality like Rodman.
At 11:45, the phone rang at midcourt. “Do you want to talk to Dennis?” somebody asked, holding out the receiver. “What for? He’s not gonna be here,” I said. After a while, I came over and took the phone and said, “Dennis, what am I going to tell the press?” And he hung up on me.
That was the night he went to Detroit and wrestled with Hulk Hogan. The press really beat up on the whole team, but we survived because we know Dennis. People say I should be harsh with him, but they are ignorant. If people don’t know by now that Dennis is mentally handicapped, what can I say?
I have diagnosed him and I know he has a real problem with attention. I had 26 hours of graduate study in psychology and I know what I know. The harder you discipline him, the worse it gets. You just alienate a guy who has alienation problems already. What you have to have is patience. You have to accept him and say, “Give me the best that you’ve got.”
Phil Jackson is a case study on the value of learning psychology
Crazy as it sounds, there is probably no more value education a potential coach could get than psychology. It’s the study of the human mind, something they have to sway with their words and actions every single day. It’s not a coincidence that a lot of successful coaches actually have backgrounds of some kind in psychological study. Former Super Bowl champion Jimmy Johnson is another example.
Jackson never tried to control Rodman. That was a mistake other coaches made. He “managed” him. He made sure to keep reminding the competitor in Rodman that the team needed him to win and allowed for those inevitable bursts of rebellious behavior to not impact the team. Can’t say it didn’t work. Not only was Rodman the same great rebounder and defender, he also averaged a career-high in assists during his time in Chicago.