The Art of Coaching

Throughout the 2010-11 Lakers season, Phil Jackson has maintained that this will be his last campaign, and his players are trying to send him out with a would-be ridiculous fourth three-peat, picking up their play to win 10-of-11 games out of the All-Star break.

On the other side of the Atlantic, some of Jackson’s core coaching principles are being carried out by a soccer (er, futebol), coach named José Mourinho.

The 48-year old Portugese skipper, currently of Spain’s Real Madrid, has led three different club soccer teams from the top leagues in Portugal (F.C. Porto), Italy (Inter Milan) and England (Chelsea) to 14 major titles, including soccer’s version of the world club championship, the Champions League, twice.

Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl recently profiled Mourinho (“What’s So Special about José Mourinho) for the magazine, where we learned of the connection to Jackson.

As Mourinho has risen to the summit, he has expanded his horizons, analyzing the management styles at Microsoft and Apple, reading Colin Powell’s autobiography and Phil Jackson’s books, studying John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success.

We had a chance to ask Jackson if he was familiar with Mourinho (yes), relayed Wahl’s quote about having his books read by one of the world’s best in a different sport and asked Jackson if he could see certain parallels between coaching the two sports.

“It’s a compliment, I’ll take it as such,” Jackson replied. “I think soccer is a game that’s very much like basketball in the fact that you’re almost running triangles. It’s a bigger group of guys, but it’s similar to what we’re doing in many ways because it’s about chemistry, it’s a flow game like basketball.”

Jackson pointed out that while the Lakers will score roughly 50 field goals per game, and Real Madrid two or three goals, other similarities exist, both technically and philosophically.

“The aspect of getting good shots and opportunities, setting it up and deploying the defense while committing to an extra pass or two (is similar),” he said. “To get guys to really commit to their teammates and what the purpose is of what you’re doing out there is where the similarity is.”

The latter being a central tenet of the greatest coaching career in NBA history.

“The thing that separates Phil is that he teaches his teams how to problem solve,” said Lakers star Kobe Bryant over the summer. “That’s the big thing, so we can make adjustments on the fly ourselves. As a result, you see him sitting back and we’re doing most of the talking, that’s because he’s taught us to be able to figure things out on our own.”

Jackson mentioned the word “flow” while describing soccer, recognizing that the coach can do little compared to many sports once the game begins. It makes creating a system that players buy into all the more important, as well as the aspect of motivation where Wahl says Mourinho excels.

Ask people what makes Mourinho unique, and one common response is this: His players almost universally adore him. Didier Drogba, the prolific Chelsea striker, says he felt “like an orphan” after Mourinho departed West London in 2007. “He’s a great man,” Drogba says. “You can see how close players are with him. He has a way of getting into players’ minds as a manager—and as a man, the kind of man who’s ready to give you all his confidence and trust because he expects that you’ll give it back.

“Getting into players’ minds as a manager” and inspiring “confidence and trust” are things we’ve long heard from Jackson’s players.

“He has a great knack for bringing guys together,” said Bryant. “He’s not a rah-rah coach. I think (certain coaches) lose attention because they’re always trying to pump guys up. He focuses on execution, the triangle offense, and a consistent message every single day.”

Lakers backup point guard Steve Blake has played 68 games under Jackson, and said he’s been fully on board from the onset.

“It’s been awesome,” he revealed. “We can win a great game or lose a bad game and still, it’s just, ‘Let’s just come in the next day.’ Most coaches will yell or scream after the game, or jump up and down after a big win…

“I just appreciate how consistent he is, how he continues to make us better at both ends of the floor. A lot of teaching, a lot of watching film and correcting ourselves. I really enjoy the consistency and the knowledge he brings every day.”

“Our personality of our team is made up of his thought process, his philosophies,” concluded Bryant.

Perhaps Jackson will flip on the TV after Lakers practice on Wednesday and see how Mourinho has imparted his philosophy when Real Madrid takes on Lyon of France in the Round of 16 of the Champions League.