MINNEAPOLIS - Phil Jackson has collected nine championships and won at a higher percentage than any other NBA coach, using his mastery of motivation, Zen philosophy and mediation.
Though Flip Saunders has the league's second-longest tenure, he remains very much in Jackson's tall shadow - a far less accomplished, far less mysterious contemporary who just ended a record streak of seven straight first-round playoff losses.
But they share these roots: long, thankless days in the Continental Basketball Association that helped shape them into coaches who have guided their teams to this year's Western Conference finals.
"Their styles are totally different, but they are two of by far the best coaches in the league," said Mark Madsen, in his first season playing for Saunders and the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Before that, Madsen spent three years under Jackson.
"I can remember at least four or five times when he'd come into the locker room during the playoffs with a burning incense of some sort," he said. "I guess he was trying to smoke out different parts of the room. That's not Flip's style."
Jackson and Saunders, however, each have learned to draw on their backgrounds to deal with current challenges.
In the CBA in the '80s, their rosters were frequently picked through by NBA clubs and turnover was frequent.
After All-Star point guard Sam Cassell limped off with a bad back just 43 seconds into Game 2, Saunders barely made a whimper.
"You learn to adapt," he said. "You learn pretty early that no matter what you have, you can't worry about it because you really have no control over it."
This is, clearly, the most talented team Saunders has had. With leaders like Cassell, Kevin Garnett and Latrell Sprewell, he's done less policing and solicited more suggestions from players.
"He loves input," Cassell said. "He said one day that he can call a play, but if we want something else, we've got to go with what we want to run. Because we've got to run it. That's why a lot of coaches aren't successful."
Devean George, Jackson's first draft pick with the Lakers, has moved from raw forward out of tiny Augsburg College to starter for title-contending team.
"They strive for perfection," he said. "They work on just the littlest things: passing, ballhandling, angles, footwork. Stuff that most coaches don't work on."
Of course, most coaches don't buy books for their players and recite Buddhist and Native American teachings.
Madsen has seen a similarly subtle sense of humor in both.
"You've got to know who you work with," Madsen said. "They both build really strong relationships."
daron cummings/associated pressIndiana forward Ron Artest (left) takes a shot over Detroit's Tayshaun Prince (right) in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals. For results, go to www.augustachronicle.com/sports.
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