Jazz: Together again, Sloan and Jackson tango
El Segundo, Calif. » And here comes Phil Jackson, again. Somehow, some way for Jerry Sloan, there always seems to be Jackson. Jackson and his nine rings. Jackson and his uber-talented NBA player of the moment. Jackson and his laid-back cool. Jackson somehow always blocking Sloan's way. No matter how good the Jazz are, there's Jackson in his latest incarnation playing the spoiler.
It was not Sloan who ultimately turned his beloved Bulls around, but Jackson. Jackson's Bulls who twice defeated the Jazz in Sloan's only two NBA Finals appearances. Who showed up in the Western Conference with the Lakers and promptly won three more titles. Then, after Sloan masterfully rebuilt the Jazz into a young, promising power, Jackson returned to the Lakers and knocked the Jazz out of last year's playoffs.
And don't look now, but should the Jazz beat out the Suns for the eighth playoff spot in the West, their first-round opponent would almost certainly be . . . the Lakers.
The Lakers who arrive tonight at the EnergySolutions Arena with the best record in the NBA. Having just knocked off the Celtics and Cavaliers on their homecourts. Again feeling confident and of championship timber.
Somehow Jackson is the constant spur in Sloan's NBA path, his unintended personal nemesis.
"I never thought about that actually,'' Jackson said. "I thought Michael Jordan might have been at one time, stepping in the way of [Karl] Malone and [John] Stockton's efforts.''
Jackson and Sloan have known each other for 45 years. When their basketball paths first crossed, Sloan initially emerged the victor. Their college teams advanced to the NCAA Division II Final Four in 1965. Sloan led the University of Evansville to its second consecutive title, knocking off Walt Frazier-led Southern Illinois in the title game.
Frazier's team had defeated Jackson's North Dakota squad in the semis. The two would later become teammates on a pair of New York Knicks teams that won NBA titles.
"I've been watching him play and coach for a long time, and also do the things he does on the floor and has his players do on the floor,'' Jackson said. "It's emblematic of who he is.
"I have great respect for Jerry. We have what I call a good working relationship in the NBA.''
Just a tad one-sided. Sloan is one of the most esteemed and successful coaches in NBA history, fourth on the all-time victory list.
Jackson is sixth, but first in winning percentage for both the regular season and postseason. Jackson, somehow, always with the one-upmanship.
Some shadows aren't around that much.
Their personalities and coaching styles seem polar opposites, but there is obvious mutual respect. And in truth, they may be more alike that at first blush.
"I think they're more similar that what appears on the outside,'' said Lakers guard Derek Fisher, the ex-Jazz. "The packaging is different but they're the same. Any coach who has been around as many years as both these guys have and had the success they've had, they're doing a lot of things alike. There's a certain commitment and a certain discipline with which they expect their players to play with that is equal.
"And they're both really, really competitive. They show it differently. I guess just in the style. Jerry is more demonstrative. Looks like he's always raising his voice, and kicking and screaming. When you're around him from day to day, that's not really the case. He's pretty chill.
"Phil's pretty laid back all the time. He's pretty consistent in his demeanor, in terms of taking it more relaxed and kind of free-wheeling it and finding your own approach to the game.''
The Jackson who brings the Lakers to Salt Lake tonight will look only slightly dissimilar from the one who guided them in his first stint with L.A. Gone is the soul patch and mustache. The closely cropped hair now gives way to short, soft gray waves. He walks more gingerly after two hip replacements.
Yet the fire still burns for another title. And although he clearly has another deeply talented team, it can be argued this current Lakers edition may become his finest coaching job.
Despite Kobe Bryant, the Lakers missed the playoffs in 2005 and were eliminated in the first round the next two years. Then Jackson unexpectedly led the rebuilt Lakers back to the Finals last year.
"If he likes coaching, where's he going to go?'' Sloan asked. "He's got the best job in the world, coaching one of the best players in the world. And their team is very good and he has to take some of the responsibility for that because he helped put them together.
"The rings and all that stuff, there's a lot of guys that haven't won rings, but that doesn't mean they can't enjoy playing or coaching. I enjoy coaching. Everybody would like to have a ring but not everybody has that kind of team to get there.''
That is almost exactly the response Fisher anticipated a day earlier when asked at the Lakers training facility if Jackson didn't always seem to be blocking Sloan's dream of a title.
"If you know Jerry, I don't know if winning a championship is really his dream like that,'' Fisher said. "He loves the game, loves teaching and coaching the game.
"But I don't know if winning a title, if he loses sleep over that part of it. Maybe that's where the contrast is between Phil and Jerry. Where I think Phil -- in my opinion rightfully so -- obsesses over being a champion. Jerry may, but if you ask him, I don't think he would tell you that. He just enjoys basketball, being around the game, teaching young guys.''
Jackson seems at peace with his current Lakers edition, light years removed from the melodrama of those Kobe-Shaquille O'Neal teams. It is a young team coming together, focused and open about pursuing a title.
"It's always better when you win because you sleep better, you rest better simply because losses accrue and wears at you, wears at teammates,'' Jackson said. "The mood is always better around winning. That makes it easier to coach guys and easier to function.
"But I always enjoy the relationship the staff and team builds around each other. Just getting together and talking basketball and doing those things you do when you know this game. That's the enjoyable part of it.''
Jackson is signed for another season with the Lakers. After that, he's said it's uncertain whether he will want another contract. At 66, Sloan is three years Jackson's senior. If it's easy to picture Jackson relaxing on a tropical island or at ease at his offseason Montana home, it's hard to imagine Sloan doing anything but coaching.
The two's paths have crossed in college, in over 10 years playing in the NBA, coaching in the CBA and now most of the past 20 years as NBA coaching rivals. Less arch enemies than frequent adversaries. If more one-sided than one would prefer.
Tribune staff writer Ross Siler contributed to this report.