What was Phil Jackson like during his first championship run in Chicago? What characterized his interaction with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, or Kobe and Shaq? How did he play a critical role in MJ’s return from baseball? What was the 72-10 season like? How about Jackson’s transition to Los Angeles? Kobe and Shaq? Phil off the court? His legacy? What don’t people understand about Jackson?
To weigh in on such questions, we enlisted Chip Schaefer, the only person to literally be in the locker room with Jackson for each of his 11 championships. Schaefer, the head trainer with the Bulls from 1990-98, and a key member of Gary Vitti’s training staff in Los Angeles from 1999-present (currently, his title is Director of Athletic Performance/Player Development) Schaefer spent an hour with us on our Popcorn Machine podcast to relay many of his memories with Jackson.
For 20 NBA seasons, 13 ending up in the NBA Finals, Schaefer was often the first person to speak with Jackson at either the Bulls or Lakers’ facilities, and the topic of conversation could have been just about anything.
“The interesting thing, getting back to the point of there being so much more about Phil than just basketball, (is that) before you even touch on basketball you may walk in and there’s something in current events, politics or life in general that you might discuss for five minutes,” said Schaefer. “That’s one of the things that I found uniquely refreshing about him.”
There are plenty of personal memories of Jackson from many years as the coach’s trainer, as well as Schaefer’s reflections and observations of Jackson’s relationship with players like Jordan.
One story he tells is how Jackson reacted to Jordan’s abrupt retirement prior to the 1993-94 season, and how Jackson having Jordan’s best interest at heart (Schaefer said His Airness could sniff out B.S. in a second) helped create the environment in which Jordan could return to the team. When Jordan actually returned, Schaefer remembers the first conversation between the two, before most had arrived at the Bulls’ facility, when Jordan expressed his sorrow for Schaefer’s father having passed away shortly prior to that day.
To describe Jackson’s influence on players, Schaefer told an anecdote about how Jackson, fiery in his first few years in Chicago in particular, would get thrown out of at least a few games a season. Schaefer at some point asked former Bull John Paxson why the Bulls generally played so poorly when Jackson got tossed, as such an act can often spur better effort out of players.
“There’s just something about him, whether it’s the size, the voice, the command presence that he has,” Paxson told Schaefer, explaining that there was just a belief, a confidence that players picked up from Jackson that soothed or inspired during tough moments. Whatever “it” was, Schaefer said it grew and grew with each championship. Even so, Schaefer said the season that impressed him the most may have been 1994-95, when Jordan was playing baseball, and the Bulls still won 55 games.
Schaefer talks about how after the 1998 Bulls championship, he took a job with Oakley that board member Jordan helped set up, and subsequently what Jackson said to him on the phone to bring him onto his new Lakers staff. He described the differences between the first Lakers three-peat team and the current version that went to three straight Finals, remembered the Kobe-Shaq relationship more for success on the court than any personality differences off it, detailed the importance of Jackson empowering his assistant coaches in part so that the players didn’t drown out his voice as the season wore on, and more.
You can listen to the full interview by clicking here, or download the podcast from iTunes under “The Popcorn Machine on Lakers.com.”