BOSTON -- One coach thinks he invented basketball, thinks he's the Alexander Graham Bell of the sport. Phil Jackson drips with ego, believing there is the universe and then him and not necessarily in that order. Jackson's a great coach, and he'll tell you so.
The other coach is, well, less egocentric. His coaching acumen is underrated and so is his graciousness. He dispatched Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and the thin-skinned Orlando Magic, shocking the basketball world. He remembers your name, talks with you, not down to you, his feet firmly on terra firma. If there was a vote for nicest guy in the world, Doc Rivers would be in the running.
|Doc Rivers' Celtics got the better of Phil Jackson and the Lakers in the 2008 NBA Finals. (Getty Images)|
The two coaches are back in the NBA Finals as the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics face off for the title, and again, there couldn't be two more different personalities, in magnetic opposition, both on the court and off.
It's glam vs. ground chuck, crass against class, a guy nicknamed Doc vs. someone who probably believes he is one.
Jackson thinks he could kick Jack Bauer's ass. Rivers would invite Bauer over for a beer.
"You could say we're different," Rivers told me, laughing. "But I have great respect for his accomplishments. He's a great coach."
No doubt about that. Jackson is going for his 11th ring, and though he has ridden the backs of some of the game's most elite and historic players -- **cough** Michael Jordan **cough** -- rings are rings.
But Jackson has also evolved into the 21st century version of Red Auerbach. While Auerbach is remembered as a gentle old genius, he was also arrogant and a sore loser, like Jackson. After all, Auerbach used to ritualistically light victory cigars while still sitting on the bench.
Yet Auerbach has nothing on Jackson, who once called Kobe Bryant "uncoachable" in a book and openly criticized him. He fought with former Chicago general manager Jerry Krause and turned Krause into a villain as a way to rally Bulls players. Krause called Jackson two-faced and arrogant.
East finals: Celtics hold off Magic to advance
West finals: Lakers eliminate Suns in six games
In many of his dealings with players, the media and others, Jackson displays the kind of arrogance that would make Kanye West blush.
Rivers is the anti-Jackson. If Jackson is the Zen Master, Rivers is the Hen Master. He's extremely well-liked and trusted by almost everyone in the sport.
That includes his players, who in the past have expressed skepticism about some of Rivers' tactics but remain true believers. The latest example came this season when Rivers took the highly dangerous gamble of resting key Celtics players late in the season. When Boston finished 27-27 over the final four months, there were doubts even in the Celtics locker room.
"As players, we kind of fight a little bit," Ray Allen said. "We need to do this, we need to do that. Doc would come into the locker room and say, 'We're not changing anything.'"
That's yet another perceptual difference between the two. Rivers actually coaches the Celtics. In Los Angeles, Kobe Bryant does.
In the 2008 Finals, it was Rivers who outcoached Jackson. In these playoffs, he has outcoached everyone while using a team concept. Of course, Rivers has a bevy of Hall of Famers at his own disposal, but he has gotten those sometimes frustrated stars to jell and believe in the Rivers way. He uses guile and immense people skills without losing them.
There is just one thing the two men do share, and that's potential retirement plans. It's possible both may leave the game at the end of the season, with Rivers going back to television.
That's where the commonalities end and the fun begins.