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Basketball Court Zen

June 16, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT

PAUL SOLMAN: It’s finals time for the National Basketball Association, and this year the Indiana Pacers coached by a legend, Larry Bird, are pitted against the Los Angeles Lakers, coached by a curiosity, Phil Jackson. Bird was the master player, winning three world titles in the 1980’s. But this is his first trip to the finals as a coach. Phil Jackson, by contrast, was a 6’8″ backup teammate of Bill Bradley in the 60’s and 70’s who specialized in defense — his arms so long, he could open both front doors of a car– from the back seat– at once. Mainly, he was known as the hippie maverick.

These days, however, Jackson, is the most successful hippie in the history of NBA coaching, a new-age Philosopher of sorts who won six championships in the 90’s with the Chicago Bulls, and is now bidding to become only the second coach ever to win a ring with two different NBA teams. Jackson has had the talent: Michael Jordan in Chicago, now Shaquille O’Neal in L.A. But Jordan never won a crown till Jackson took over, and this, Jackson’s first year with the Lakers, is O’Neal’s first real shot . So what makes Phil Jackson so successful well, say some, his innovations, like selecting books for his players. This year, he gave Frederick Nietzsche to Shaquille O’Neal.

SHAQUILLE O’NEAL, Los Angeles Lakers: Nietzsche was a difficult book to read. But from what I gather, Nietzsche was so unique, they thought he was crazy, so they put him in a mental home. I guess Phil thinks I’m very unique to a point where I may be crazy. (Laughter)

PAUL SOLMAN: Jackson’s messages can be as enigmatic as his methods. The use of native American rituals in the locker room baffled 21-year-old star Kobe Bryant at first.

KOBE BRYANT, Los Angeles Lakers: Well, he used to do things like cleanse the room, you know, he used to get, like, evil spirits out of the room, like, lighting incense and all this other stuff.

PAUL SOLMAN: But Bryant bought in quickly, if not spiritually.

KOBE BRYANT: Some of it’s funny, as far as cleansing the room or whatever, aromatherapy. It’s nice. It keeps the team relaxed, it keeps it fun.

PAUL SOLMAN: O’Neal sounds like more of a convert: In using new age techniques to get position near the basket, for instance.

SHAQUILLE O’NEAL: Karate. Motions. Dancing. Breathing. See, like, when I try to get on position and they take that away, I just… (Breathing deeply) rub off and get another position.

PAUL SOLMAN: Not everyone follows Jackson’s path, of course. Larry Bird has been compared to him, in that both feature a more consensual, less dictatorial approach than most coaches. So we asked Bird:

PAUL SOLMAN: Do you share any of Phil Jackson’s so-called spiritual approach to coaching? There seem to be sort of similarities in the way you guys approach.

LARRY BIRD: Hey, I pray on every shot. (Laughter) that’s as close as it gets.

PAUL SOLMAN: But despite what at times sounds like disdain from his colleagues, Jackson keeps marching to his own tom-tom, and will try almost anything. He splices scenes from movies into game footage his players study, recently, the menacing “American History X.” Veteran backup John Sally, who won two championship rings with the bad-boy Detroit pistons in the late 80’s, another with the Bulls under Jackson, is a Phil Jackson devotee: From yoga practice and meditation to lessons from the Lakota Sioux tribe.

JOHN SALLEY, Los Angeles Lakers: You want to learn from a chief like that so you can be a chief one day. And if you don’t pay attention, you’re an idiot.

PAUL SOLMAN: But don’t guys tune out if “American history X” is spliced into a game film?

JOHN SALLEY: No, I think that would make you tune in.

PAUL SOLMAN: And so, on Tuesday, the Lakers up 2-1 in the series and, as it happened, on the verge of their third win, we tried to tune in to coach Jackson as well. He began by explaining what has shaped him: His coaches in the pros and high school; his fundamentalist Christian background, growing up in North Dakota,

PHIL JACKSON, Coach, Los Angeles Lakers: The fact that I wasn’t really from a family that participated in athletics. It was a religious community that I lived in, a strict one. My parents were both ministers. This is kind of an aberration. I mean, it’s not something that I was supposed to doing, but here I am doing this, and that I’ve spent a lot of my life g it is kind of a strange thing.

PAUL SOLMAN: What do you try to do, spiritually with your team? I mean, that seems different than what most other coaches say they’re doing.

PHIL JACKSON: Everybody is trying to do the same thing. You know, when you develop a community, you’re developing a spirit, esprit de corps, whatever you what to call it. And that’s I think, you know, what every coach wants to do. Some of them do it from a standpoint of working out of anger, working out of fighting, working out of the challenge, working out of self-promotion. Some of the coaches get teams to dislike them, play and show them that I can… “I’ll show this coach I can do this,” or the challenging kind.


PHIL JACKSON: Fear is a great motivator. Fear and greed are two things that my former boss said everybody works hard under. And I was one to say love is something that– or that community feeling is also something that I think drives people. And that’s one of the places I go to.

PAUL SOLMAN: The way you try to teach spirituality is meditation, yoga, things that many of us think of as very personal kinds of roads to spiritual development, not necessarily as communal.

PHIL JACKSON: Yeah, I understand what you’re saying. It does smack of that. But the real idea is that we call it conspiring together, breathing together, with breath, to conspire. And we sit in this attitude of, you know, being able to focus and hold our attention. So it’s very important that they have that kind of sense of reading each other, and their level of alertness and awareness and being able to read what’s going on on the court causes each of them to react in a certain way. And that’s the beauty of basketball, that’s the beauty of coaching.

PAUL SOLMAN: For you is that the point of coaching?

PHIL JACKSON: Yeah, definitely. I mean…

PAUL SOLMAN: You don’t need another title. You’ve got six of them already, right?

PHIL JACKSON: Well, that’s how you measure it. I mean, you measure by winning, you measure by titles, really what your expertise is. But the fun of this all goes on behind the scenes. And teaching the players, and getting them in a position where they can be retentive and then see them burst forth in this flowering kind of thing during a game is very rewarding.

PAUL SOLMAN: In his 1995 book “Sacred Hoops,” Jackson speaks of group mind, the Tao of leadership, the mystic warrior. But do the players get his spiritual teachings? Do they even read the books he gives them? Ron Harper, relaxing before practice, has been with Jackson for years, and a frequent recipient of his literary gifts.

RON HARPER, Los Angeles Lakers: I didn’t read none of them. I got six books now. Let me see. Yeah, six books. So, in my older age, I got something to read.

PAUL SOLMAN: Does it frustrate you at all to think that many of your players say, “well, we don’t read the books?”

PHIL JACKSON: Not at all. They can’t avoid it, these moments that we have together. I mean, they can’t check out. The books themselves, I know a lot of them, maybe 25%, maybe 50% of them read the books. Some of them give them a shot and can’t get through. But I know it’s going to go somewhere that’s going to be beneficial, whether it’s on their library, and even if they pick it up 20 years from now, it’s still going to be meaningful because it’s a gift, and it’s a meaningful thing.

PAUL SOLMAN: You gave Shaquille O’Neal Nietzsche.

PHIL JACKSON: Yeah. Actually, when Nietzsche wrote that book, he was 27, maybe 28, had a very, very pompous opinion about himself and wanted to tell the world, you know, “here I am,” you know? And so I thought that, you know, Nietzsche was definitely appropriate for him because here’s a guy who’s 28 and hasn’t won a championship yet. You know, Shaq didn’t get all of these connections, I’m sure. But he knew that something very… there was something very subtle that I was sending him a message about, you know.

He’s a superman, man of steel, that sort of thing. But the books basically say, you know, is this something that corresponds to where you’re at in your life, and can I connect with you at this intellectual level. And what I tell them is it’s nice to have a companion besides the TV when you’re on the road, something that you can, you know, turn that TV off, and you know, open a book and read it before you go to bed at night and understand that there is another world that can open up to you in your intellectual imagination.

PAUL SOLMAN: Any ideas that you’ve tried that simply were cuckoo, in retrospect, nutty, didn’t work?

PHIL JACKSON: Yeah, there was one. There’s a therapist that I was friends with and the team we were playing against, the Detroit Pistons, at the time, had a certain stranglehold on the Chicago Bulls. And he kept after me, “I’ve got something that you can try with these guys.” And we got knocked out a lot in these playoffs by physical force, by the force of their physique, so this therapist had this clue. His clue was, you placed, you know, like a Popsicle stick between your molars, you grit your teeth, you eye contact with your companion, your other teammate, and you jump up and down and roar like a gorilla or like a bear or like an animal.

PAUL SOLMAN: You literally put a Popsicle stick in?

PHIL JACKSON: Literally. Grind teeth together, a you make… (Growling) — So I said, I’m going to try this with these guys. First of all, clenching the jaw, you know, releasing this form of anger, you know, activating yourself by jumping, all of these things made kind of sense to me. I did it with the team, they fell on the floor laughing. I never tried it again.

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, you know, we were watching practice today, and have one drill where people are kind of, like, skipping and raising their hand in the air, and a couple of guys looked a little sheepish while they were doing that.

PHIL JACKSON: Uh-huh. Well, yeah, there’s a variety of things like that. But you know, in coordinating your body, things that you do in basketball, you know, just your take-off or changing hand when you shoot lay-ups, and you know, spinning around in the air or just a variety of physical directions, those are all things that I incorporated a lot of times without a ball, that I think are necessary for the body to kind of accommodate and just to get used to doing.

PAUL SOLMAN: A number of your players said that what they took away from your splicing crazy films into the game films or even some of your Lakota Sioux ceremonies, that they were, like, at least different. They weren’t boring.

PHIL JACKSON: Right. It’s entertaining.


PHIL JACKSON: Yeah, that’s part of me, that you just change things up, you know — and I don’t know, make the world mysterious — make it mystical at some level.

PAUL SOLMAN: You define yourself as a Zen Christian. What is that?

PHIL JACKSON: Zen is a particular way of looking at life. It’s the moment or, you know, being in the present, you know. Buddhism is compassionate, a compassionate Buddha. Christianity is based on love. So those two things I think coordinate very well together.

PAUL SOLMAN: Loving in the moment.


PAUL SOLMAN: How can a person who’s out to lose his ego, such as yourself, be so competitive that your wife is quoted as saying she won’t play board games with you because she can’t stand how competitive are in them?

PHIL JACKSON: Yeah, that’s something entirely that I’ve worked on for a while. Yeah. I mean, what is it? What gives you satisfaction? You know, the next challenge? Yeah, that’s what it is for a competitive person. Someday I’m going to let that go, and that’s probably the day I’m going to walk away from coaching basketball.

PAUL SOLMAN: So are those your demons, is that what you’re struggling with? Because it seems like an opposition, trying to be egoist, trying to be champion of the whole world.

PHIL JACKSON: Yeah, that’s it. Part of it’s there. But my theory is you’ve got to remember the journey. The journey is really where the joy is and that’s really the fun of it. The games aren’t that much fun; it’s the things in between.

PAUL SOLMAN: Phil Jackson, thank y very much.