EL SEGUNDO, Calif. - Phil Jackson leans forward and lowers his gravelly baritone to a whisper.
"The ghost of Red Auerbach is present," he says. "It's very present."
Jackson stands upright again, raises his eyebrows in an all-knowing way, and looks around the Lakers' practice facility. As a player in the Celtics-Knicks rivalry of the early 1970s, Jackson learned to never underestimate the competitiveness and cunning of Auerbach. He expected "shenanigans" in Boston. He knew Auerbach "always had something up his sleeve."
These days, the Lakers coach takes no chances of upsetting the late Celtics patriarch, praising Auerbach for his coaching and executive skill. Jackson even half-jokingly credits Auerbach with returning the Celtics to championship contention this season, even though Auerbach died in October 2006.
"Danny Ainge and Kevin McHale, don't you think they collaborated on all this?" says Jackson. "Red's ghost swayed McHale to make the Kevin Garnett trade with Boston last year, rather than with someone else."
Jackson punctuates his supernatural conspiracy theory with laughter. But as he prepares to face the Celtics in Game 1 of the NBA Finals tomorrow night at TD Banknorth Garden, Jackson cannot escape Auerbach. Somewhere, Auerbach is probably pleased to know he can needle an opponent from beyond the grave. After all, if the Lakers defeat the Celtics, Jackson will have won more NBA championships than any other coach, breaking a tie at nine with Auerbach.
Jackson claims the record "doesn't really matter" and views championships as being won by players. He should know, considering each of his nine titles came with the NBA's top star on his side - from Michael Jordan to Shaquille O'Neal to Kobe Bryant. When Jackson stood on the verge of winning a 10th title in 2004 - until the Pistons beat his Lakers - Auerbach said Jackson "picked his spots."
"There's always a challenge from Red when you're on the other side," said Jackson. "He's always going to challenge you at some level, which always means you perform at your best. That was what was great about him."
While Jackson still has Bryant, no one would accuse him of picking his spots with the current Lakers team, which is made up largely of young, inexperienced players. Few expected the Lakers to be in the Finals, but Jackson guided them through the turmoil of Bryant's offseason trade demand, the transition of a midseason deal for Pau Gasol, and the treacherous Western Conference playoffs.
A 10th title will not necessarily silence critics, but it will give Jackson a special place in NBA history that many players feel he deserves.
"To win that many championships is kind of scary," said Bryant. "It's remarkable. It would be a great accomplishment for Phil. For him to continue to find himself in this position and to be able to do that, he's obviously figured out some stuff that nobody else has."
Managing the talentWith the Lakers running through shooting drills near the end of practice yesterday, Jackson surveyed the action in a long-sleeved T-shirt, sweatpants, and flip-flops. It seemed the perfect footwear for what often appears to be a laid-back coaching style. Standing with his hands on his hips and elbows pointing outward at impossibly sharp angles, he said little.
During games, Jackson doesn't rush to call timeouts when his team struggles. He sees value in letting players figure out the game, a philosophy that can test the patience of even the most meditative coach. But it is a philosophy proven to work with both star and role player. It also helps that he runs a system - "the triangle" - that keeps everyone involved.
"As a competitor and as one of the best coaches ever, I'm pretty sure the record will bring some gratification," said Lamar Odom. "Is that the reason he coaches? I doubt it. He loves the game.
"Every great coach had great players. Red Auerbach had Bob Cousy and Bill Russell and others. They go together, hand in hand. It's about what coach can bring out the best in those great players and other players, and why coaches are needed."
Despite coaching in different eras with different styles, Jackson and Auerbach share a special talent in managing players. Describing Auerbach's ability to handle players and fit the pieces of a team together, Jackson could be describing himself in some ways.
"The Celtics had six plays with Red," said Jackson. "When you can win the championship from a limited amount of what we would consider offense at this particular time in the history of basketball, it is remarkable. But it was about reading personnel and understanding your teammates' strengths or weakness. It's what coaching is really all about anyway. It doesn't matter how many plays people have now, if they have 100 or 150.
"The way Red handled people was remarkable. We could all speculate about how he got there, the personnel that showed up in Boston together. But that they played so well together for so many years was a lot of his creative genius in seeing it."
Anyone who has followed the Lakers from soap opera to championship and back to soap opera the past several seasons knows that coaching the team involves more than rolling out balls at practice for a superstar or two. Somewhere between Zen and the triangle, Jackson has managed to keep a changing group of personalities engaged and productive. When Bryant and others talk about this year's team being the closest he has played on, Jackson deserves a lot of credit for the chemistry and cohesiveness.
"I'm sure the record will mean something, continuing to add to what he's accomplished as a coach in so many different ways, with so many different teams and so many different players," said Derek Fisher. "At times, I think he's been slighted for winning championships because of the players he had on his team. I think there'll be a great feeling for himself and for our team if we can finish this mission."
Comparisons limitedPlaying for the Knicks in the 1973 Eastern Conference finals, Jackson remembers Auerbach, as team president, pulling out all the stops to win the series. For every game at Boston Garden, the Knicks were assigned a different locker room. Before Game 7, they found themselves unable to stand in a locker room with 6-foot-4-inch ceilings. They had to walk through the crowd to get to the court.
"It was one of those special moments where every shenanigan had been pulled on us in this series," said Jackson. "It was Game 7 and they had never lost a seventh game of a series. After we had won on the Garden floor, [New York coach] Red Holzman turned to me and he said, 'Sometimes you wish good could overcome evil, and this is one of those times.' "
While Jackson may want to be careful about telling that story with Auerbach's ghost lurking around the Finals, it hints at how the league has changed since Auerbach managed the Celtics, never mind coached them. Because of that, Jackson believes the comparison between them should only go so far. He might even get agreement from Auerbach on that.
During those 2004 Finals, Auerbach said he felt "secure and good" about his record and emphasized that he had been "involved in 16 championships, not nine or 10" with one team. Above all, he coached, built, and rebuilt the Celtics dynasty, stretching his legacy beyond the number of titles won pacing the sidelines.
Meanwhile, Jackson deserves recognition for winning in an era with more teams and more playoff rounds. From 1996 through 2003, in stints with the Bulls and Lakers, Jackson won a league-record 25 consecutive playoff series. He has coached nine of the last 17 NBA champions and owns the best winning percentage (.700) in NBA history. Impressive numbers considering the challenges faced by the modern-day coach.
"Now, we play teams that we don't know," said Jackson. "We haven't seen the Celtics since last year. You're facing a different group of individuals with different styles night in and night out in this game.
"The real issue is the game has evolved, people have evolved, and whatever was there [with Auerbach] was certainly remarkable. He was a standout coach that did things to the game that made everybody pay attention. With the Celtics, you have to be prepared."
Especially if, as Jackson insists, Auerbach's ghost is present.
Shira Springer can be reached at email@example.com