The Last Word

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:02 AM ET

Phil Jackson is the Zen Master. Sam Mitchell proudly carries a lunch bucket.

Jackson has coached some of the great names of the modern era, coaxing six NBA Championships out of his talented crews. Mitchell, on the other hand, is simply trying to make a little bit of chicken salad out of a ton of chicken feathers here in Toronto.

Jackson has an imperial, almost detached, presence. Mitchell wears his emotions on his sleeve, living and dying with each successive misplay.

Jackson, in his NBA coaching career, has been blessed with not one, but two teams of superior talent, having coached the Michael Jordan Bulls and the Shaquille O'Neal/Kobe Bryant Lakers. Some of his fellow coaches might be resentful of such riches. Count Mitchell among Jackson's admirers, both as a coach and a survivor of the unglamorous Continental Basketball Association.

Mitchell was a CBA player in the late 80's and Jackson a coach and they both have similar memories that make them appreciate the livin' large lifestyle of the NBA.

"The Cockroach Basketball League," said Jackson after his Lakers had dismissed the overmatched Raptors 102-91. "That's part of the league. That's it."

"I've known Phil for a long time, from back in the CBA, and I think he's smart," said Mitchell. "Some people would try to fix what's not broke. He didn't try to fix Michael Jordan, he just tried to add some pieces around him.

"He let Michael be Michael. Smart guy and I think his biggest strength is that when he took over in Chicago, he had the brains to leave No. 23 alone. How many coaches could resist trying to tinker?

"Michael was the kind of guy who, if you wanted him to do something, all you had to do was make little suggestions. Sooner or later, he was going to figure it out anyway. A lot sooner than later."

Long before Jackson became famous he was, like Mitchell, just another guy trying to get noticed.

"He was just like everybody else: trying to get out of the CBA," said Mitchell. "He coached his team and tried to prove he deserved a shot in the NBA."

Both Jackson and Mitchell fought their way to the NBA, Jackson as a coach and Mitchell as a hard-nosed player who lasted 13 seasons.

As far as the Raptors coach is concerned, Jackson deserves his place among the all-time great coaches because he's handled his talent well.

UP TO HIS STANDARDS

"If nine championships don't do it, then your standards are higher than a lot of people I know," he mused.

Mitchell, who is a fiery presence courtside, can even see himself in a more relaxed persona, given a veteran team with some established stars. That is a long way off, but Mitchell can dream, can't he?

"I mean, there are nights you have to let guys play through things and figure some things out.

"There are nights you have to use your timeouts to coach. I just remember when I was in Indiana and Larry (Bird) would call a timeout and we'd go over and he wouldn't say anything. We knew he was ticked off because we weren't doing what he wanted us to do.

"At the end, he'd say, 'You know why I called timeout. Just go and do it. Go do what you're supposed to do.' "

Ironically Jackson, in winning for the first time all season on the tail end of a back-to-back games, had his kids in the game at crunch time. The Raptors had no experience disadvantage in that department for one of the few times this year.

"This was a growth experience for some of these players," said Jackson. "They didn't crumble under the pressure."

And while it may have been a growth experience for the Lakers, it was simply a gross experience for the Raptors and their suffering fans, who gritted their teeth watching the Laker starters lounging on the bench at crunch time.

For Toronto, it was another excruciating loss to a very beatable team, legendary coach or not.

After all these years, not all that much has changed for Mitchell and Jackson: they're still a couple of ex-CBAers, trying to survive. 


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