Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Bleachers' Brew #142 Chasing Red

Chasing Red
by rick olivares

Perhaps when Phil Jackson has finally given up for good on patrolling the sidelines will he be truly appreciated and lauded for his achievements. Critics dismiss his nine titles and vaunted triangle offense as the work of smoke and mirrors when he had the greatest basketball player and the heir apparent lacing up their kicks for him.

Purists point to Red Auerbach as still the greatest yet they conveniently forget how he routinely fleeced other teams and fielded an All-Star line-up in his years in Boston. Not to mention that he played in a weak ass league that only had teams in single digits for several years.

Red was a great coach and way ahead of his time. Whether it was his pioneering the sixth man or his use of the fastbreak to sprint their way to the NBA title year after year, one thing was for sure, Auerbach could coach.

But to say that Red is better than Phil or vice versa is difficult and arbitrary. Why not say that Red was the greatest coach in the nascent NBA while Phil is the best of the modern age?

Partisan fans never want to see the records of their heroes broken. Remember when Calvin Murphy erupted in glee when Larry Bird missed a free throw that would have allowed him to pass the former Houston Rocket’s consecutive free throw streak?

There’s the Los Angeles Laker’s 33-game win streak that they embarked on in their title winning 1971-72 season. The Houston Rockets won 22 straight last season until they ran into Kevin Garnett and the Celtics.

In the National Football League, it has become an annual rite for the 1972 Miami Dolphins to pop the bubbly when the last remaining and previously undefeated team loses a game.

And there’s Joe Dimaggio’s 56-game hitting streak in major league baseball that has stood for 67 years. Tony Gwynn, Wade Boggs, Johnny Damon, and Derek Jeter are but some of the name who attempted but fell short.

Most recently, the Boston Celtics were on pace to break the Chicago Bulls’ 72-win regular season record until they hit a late December to mid-January slump that ended all talk of matching one of sports’ Grail quests.

And there’s Phil Jackson now who this season has probably one last chance to overtake Red Auerbach as the coach with the most NBA titles. He’s had two opportunities in his last two Finals’ stints but his squads lost to Detroit and to Boston.

Instead of going, "Great job, man! Hope you get it," cynics rattle off the boring, repetitive, and cumbersome excuses of having great players and playing in an era where teams aren't as strong as they used to be.

Well, the players of yesteryear never had to contend with today issues and stock of athletes who could jump out of a gym. When former New York Knick great Bill Bradley was asked how he's guard Robert Horry who was just out of Alabama and playing for the Houston Rockets, the Senator said he scream for help.

Do great players win championships? Of course they do, but not all the time. The Boston Celtics of the 1980’s had their Big Three and some pretty good benches yet they only have three titles to show for it. Of course they ran into the Lakers who had their own Hall-of-Fame line-ups. The Philadelphia 76ers of Julius Erving were plenty good but in four title appearances only won one crown. The Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons, New York Knicks, Miami Heat, Phoenix Suns, and Utah Jazz of the 1990’s had solid line ups with all-time greats augmented by terrific players. At times even on paper, they had a much stronger roster than the Bulls.

The Lakers of the early 2000’s faced great competition from Sacramento, Portland, and San Antonio yet they won three straight.

Players and coaches do win championships. They go hand-in-hand like Karo syrup with pancakes. Cheese dip and potato chips. Night and day. And Bonnie and Clyde.

In a clash of egos and credit, former Bulls’ General Manager Jerry Krause drove away Jackson and the crew that won him six titles in eight years. The rotund executive intimated that he’d like to win a title after overhauling the old guard. He’s no longer around and the Bulls ten years after the Last Dance are as disappointing as ever.

Jackson, though not yet done in his career is already in the Basketball Hall of Fame. He has successfully and skillfully guided the Lakers post-three-peat, post Rudy Tomjanovich, and post-Frank Hamblen into a frightening unit.

He is the all-time best in regular season and playoff winning percentage and has 1,004 regular season wins and 193 play-off victories reaching it in by far the fewest games.

He’s had to deal with more on and off court distractions than Red Auerbach dealt with. Free agency, player-coach-management issues that was virtually non-existent during Auerbach’s heyday, the emergence of international players, and rampant and crass commercialism that has turned the game into the Stern Entertainment Package – these are just some of the issues that Jackson has had to deal with.

In an interview with former Lakers’ great Ervin “Magic” Johnson, Jackson, now 63 years old, said, "Dr. Buss has insinuated that he would like me to coach longer, but I said, 'Let's just do one year at a time right now.' So that's what we're doing. But we’d like to do it until 2009-10.”

When he was younger and thinking of pursuing a law degree after a coaching stint in the Continental Basketball Association, he was asked why leave basketball when it was clear that it was something he did very well.

Well, he hasn’t and it is clear that winning basketball games and championships is something he does well. As much as it is fun to watch Mike D’Antoni turn the Knicks around (see how Phoenix has floundered without him), it is a pleasure to see a genius like Phil Jackson chase Red Auerbach and sports immortality. But isn’t he there just yet?

This also appears in the Monday January 26 edition of the Business Mirror:

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