Chicago Bulls soak in wisdom from Hall of Famer Phil Jackson during trip: ‘I’ve always had great respect and admiration for him’

LOS ANGELES — When Phil Jackson arrived at their hotel Friday, the Chicago Bulls were prepared with a laundry list of questions for the legendary coach who helped secure the six NBA championship banners that hang in the United Center.

But Torrey Craig had a particularly pressing question for the Hall of Famer.

“Could you convince (coach) Billy (Donovan) to let me go to Vegas for like two days?” Craig joked, earning an uproar of laughter from his teammates.

The reference to Dennis Rodman — who took a two-day trip to Las Vegas midway through the 1998 NBA playoffs — earned a grin from Jackson. Donovan was prepared with an immediate response: “If you rebound like Rodman, I will.”

Jackson, 78, spent close to two hours with the Bulls during an off day between games in Los Angeles and Portland. Director of performance health Chip Schaefer worked extensively with Jackson in Chicago and Los Angeles. He facilitated Friday’s meeting, bringing Jackson in to speak to the coaching staff first, then the players.

The meeting was structured as a Q&A session, giving players plenty of time to pick Jackson’s brain about his lengthy, celebrated history in the league — he won two rings with the New York Knicks during a 12-year playing career, the six championships as Bulls coach and five more with the Lakers after leaving Chicago. Donovan said players were most hungry to learn about the history Jackson witnessed and participated in — his playoff series against the Detroit Pistons and the Boston Celtics and his time with greats such as Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Rodman.

Guard Coby White Jackson to describe the biggest difference between Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Jackson’s response: “Kobe didn’t have a conscience. Michael Jordan did.”

“Basically he said if after the game Mike wasn’t 50% from the field, he would kind of be disappointed,” White said. “Kobe could go 7-for-25 and he really didn’t care.”

DeMar DeRozan is the only player on the Bulls who went up against Jackson during his final days as a coach. One of his more recent interactions with Jackson occurred at the funeral of Kobe and Gianna Bryant, which he attended with Manu Ginóbili, Tim Duncan, Rudy Gobert, Gregg Popovich and Tony Parker in February 2020.

DeRozan said Jackson was one of the first people he saw at the funeral. He was taken aback with emotion watching Jackson and Popovich reconnect in that moment.

“I was in awe,” DeRozan said. “Just knowing the battles they went through, the success, the championships, the greatness. Just to be right there in your presence, seeing them having a conversation and interacting with one another, it was one of the highlights of my career to be able to be in the midst of those two greats talking and me being a fan of the game. I just remember that moment.”

For Donovan, the day was particularly meaningful as a New York native who grew up watching legends such as Dick McGuire, Red Holzman and Bill Fitch — foundational NBA players and coaches whom Jackson recalled as contemporaries.

“I’ve always had great respect and admiration for (Jackson) as a coach and what he’s achieved and the teams he’s been around,” Donovan said. “I always enjoy talking to people like that. There’s certain things in the game that just don’t change, things you’d have to do whether it was 50 years ago, whether it’s today.”

Jackson, who retired in 2011, still watches the Bulls and NBA at large while also becoming an NHL fan. He was equally eager to indulge in stories from the two-decade height of his career as a coach. He gave his input about how the game developed to favor high-scoring offenses since the 1990s.

Although he often spoke on the X’s and O’s of the game, Donovan said Jackson’s focus was on the fundamentals and intangibles of building a winning culture. Donovan said the insight and advice from Jackson was the most important — and the most influential — for these Bulls.

“A lot of those things carry truths today,” Donovan said. “They’re timeless, right?”

After less than an hour with Jackson, DeRozan said the only thing he wished was that the Bulls could have had more time with the former coach. But even that short experience was inspiring.

“I think that’s why they show infomercials at night, trying to get you inspired to buy the product,” DeRozan said. “Sometimes the right infomercial is going to have you buy in. Being a student of the game and being able to be in the same room with such greatness, you can’t do nothing but leave being inspired walking away from it.”