Phil Jackson, Lord of the Rings

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Illustration by Roberto Parada

A tall old man labors to cross the street in El Segundo, California, each step seeming like an act of will. Phil Jackson is 67 years old, and he moves slowly and stiffly, his gait, after both knee and hip replacements, painful to watch. Despite reports of his being considered for head coaching jobs everywhere from Los Angeles to Cleveland to Brooklyn, Jackson insists he’s too tired of the grind to come back. “I’m not planning on or interested in coaching,” he says. But he’s not totally out of the game. He’s making noises about returning as an NBA executive, and has a new book out called ‘Eleven Rings‘ that reveals how Jackson conjured up 11 championships using meditation and Native American warrior spirit philosophy, and by distributing books to his players, ranging from works by Nietzsche to Beavis and Butt-Head.

Not everyone believes he’s done, either. He’s left the game before, of course, once after his sixth title with Michael Jordan in Chicago, and then again, in 2004, when his deteriorating relationship with Kobe Bryant led him to depart for a year, only to come back and win two more of those rings. Add to that the fact that Jackson is engaged to Jeanie Buss, the feisty daughter of the late Jerry Buss, the Lakers’ longtime owner, and his retirement may not be permanent.

A close look at Jackson’s life suggests that he is as much a Machiavelli as a Zen master. He manipulated the press, using the media to get across points to his players. He called Sacramento “an old cow town,” the Knicks “thugs,” and San Antonio an “asterisk champion” for daring to win an NBA title in a lockout-shortened season. In short, the Zen master can be a bit of a dick.

Jackson was raised in Montana and North Dakota, the son of Pentecostal ministers who prohibited television and going to the movies. That geographic and cultural isolation contributed to the way Jackson sometimes seems to be hovering over situations, detached from the TMZ drama that surrounds people like MJ and Kobe. The last time I saw Jackson in person was in 2001, in the locker room after the Lakers defeated the Sixers for the NBA championship. He had his arms crossed and a bemused look on his face. He was there and not there. That’s Phil Jackson.

A high school teammate of yours once said that on road trips you’d turn the TV on first thing in the morning because you couldn’t watch at home. Did your isolation from popular culture contribute to your individualistic streak?
Without a doubt. When I went to school and heard the kids repeating lines from Car 54, Where Are You?, or whatever, I would feel isolated. But then, when every kid was wearing a Daniel Boone coonskin hat and looking pretty ridiculous, I felt like, “It’s kind of good I’m not running with the lemmings here.”

Would your spiritual explorations still have happened if you had grown up differently?
Is it DNA? My dad’s family came to America in the 1640s; they were Puritans. My mother’s side were Mennonites from the Netherlands. So to be a seeker, to find a religious, spiritual passion, has always been part of my family tradition.

You won two championships as a player. But your teammate Clyde Frazier once said that you would have been better if you read less.
Well, if I would have spent the offseason going to the Rucker summer league in Harlem instead of graduate school, yes, I probably would have been a better player. But ultimately I think I got the most out of what I was given. I wanted to hike and fly-fish and do other things; I wanted to ride a motorcycle and camp off the back of a motorcycle. I think that broadened my horizons, instead of giving me a pretty narrow view. I’m fortunate to have had those opportunities.

Tell me about the process of putting together ‘Eleven Rings.’
Hugh [Delehanty] was my partner on ‘Sacred Hoops,’ which I wanted to be a small, readable book, similar in format to Shunryu Suzuki’s ‘Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.’ We had some success with that, so we started talking about this one. Hugh sent me a book, Five Rings or something, this Chinese treatment of the principles of life. I looked at it, and then we started sculpting what this book would be like. I was hoping it would be 12 rings – that we would win a dozen. It seemed like perfect symmetry.

When you first applied for a job with the Bulls, you were coaching in Puerto Rico. You showed up in Chicago with a beard and a straw hat with a feather in it. Regrets?
It’s a great hat. I still own that hat. It’s one of those crushable straw Ecuadorian hats. You can wash it, do whatever. You need a hat in the tropics. But my second time, I came back without a beard, and with a sport coat on. I looked pretty much like I was ready for the job.

Tell me about your first interaction with Michael Jordan.
Doug Collins was the head coach, and he says, “We have to get Michael to do more of this, do more of that,” and I tell him, “My coach, Red Holzman, always said that the mark of a star was how much he helped the players around him.” Doug said, “Oh, you have to go tell him that.” I said, “I don’t even know him. I don’t feel comfortable doing it,” but Doug wanted me to. He actually walked me out to Michael, who was finishing up practice, and I told him. He said, “Thank you, that’s good advice,” and walked away, probably thinking “Who the hell is this guy?”

That year, Michael was MVP, defensive player of the year, scoring champion; averaged 35 points a game. When I got the head-coaching job a couple of years later, I told him, “That was great, but it can’t happen that way again. Not many guys who win scoring titles win championships.”

You had immediate success with Kobe, but it wasn’t until your second go-around that you established a strong relationship.
It was a lot of push and pull.

Because he was younger than Jordan?
Kobe was 21, maybe, when I took over the club in 2000. I had 20-year-old twin sons – almost a year to the day younger than Kobe – and I knew how immature they were. When people would say how mature Kobe was, I would be like, “Yeah, sure.” I don’t care who you are, there’s still a lot of growing up to do at that age. I said to [former Lakers general manager] Jerry West, “This guy hasn’t had a relationship, people talk about him being a virgin.” He still had to go through the rebellion from his parents, and we were going to have to weather it. Just to face discipline was a task for him.

What about on the court?
We had a continual battle about taking over games, letting a game be, giving the ball to Shaq. I even brought in Michael to talk to him about how to stay in a system, and then maybe in the fourth quarter, when the team started boning up against the Triangle, you can do your things. So we had these conversations that were kind of counseling sessions.

It wasn’t until the last year the first time, in 2004, that things got sticky. He was really angry. He probably had a lot of reasons to be. His whole image as a person had been shattered by the Colorado incident [Bryant was accused of sexually assaulting a hotel worker in Colorado], his relationship with his wife was strained, so that was a real tough year. And I said, “It just feels like I can’t coach him anymore.”

Kobe seems to have a different kind of chip on his shoulder than Michael.
Kobe runs hot and cold. Michael was a, “Come along with me, guys, I’m going to show you the way to go,” type of guy, and Kobe’s like, “If you can’t stand it, get out of my way. I’m going to do it on my own.”

There was this game in Minnesota, and we had such a nice thing going, but Kobe kinda spoiled it with a little too much one-on-one. At halftime, our trainer comes into my office and tells me, “Ronnie Harper told Kobe, ‘Hey, just let us help you. You don’t have to do this all by yourself.’ And Kobe went vitriolic on him. Told him, ‘Shut the fuck up, you old motherfucker.’ ”

Shaq was the kind of guy who’d come into camp each year 40 pounds overweight. How did you motivate him?
I was always on Kobe a little more than Shaq, because Shaq couldn’t take it. He didn’t have that “I’m going to make myself better during the summertime by doing four hours of workouts twice a day” thing. The game came easy to him. I said to him once, “By the end of your career, the NBA Finals MVP trophy should be named after you, not Bill Russell. Because this is the kind of talent you have. I think sometimes you hide your talent, and you’ve got to be much more responsible.” So we’d go into training camp, and try to get him in shape. I would talk to him about getting under 300 pounds, but we’d never know what he weighed.

He didn’t get on the scale at the beginning of the season?
There’s not a scale that could weigh him. You’d have to take him to a granary.

You’ve always talked about learning new things, and never being satisfied with what you know. Yet basketball keeps pulling you back.
The first time I left the Lakers, my marriage was coming to an end. I had a partner that I’d been with for 25 years, we were empty nesters, and she wanted to go in a different direction in life. She didn’t want to be a basketball wife anymore, which I really understood, but I felt I still had something to offer the game. The second time, really, it was an appeal by Jeanie. We had a relationship where we really didn’t know if it was by just locale. We had to step apart from that to examine how we felt about each other outside of basketball. But then she said, “Come back and do this, it’s important to me, and more important, it’s important to Kobe – he’s gone through a real hard two years, his reputation has been sullied, people are throwing bombs at him. You could come back and kind of heal that wound.” I said to myself, “That’s a really good idea, that’s something.”

Do you feel you missed anything with your family because you traveled so much with your teams?
One of the joys of my life is that I was there for the births of all my kids. Tex Winter, my assistant, missed all three of his children. I realized early on that I wanted a place for the summertime for my family to be, so we have this place on a lake in Montana. Actually, I got to spend probably 20 times more with my kids than most basketball coaches, or most businesspeople. Yeah, I’d miss nights, sometimes I’d miss birthdays – but who gets three summer months with his kids?

You work with men. Was there anything about women that you learned from Jeanie?
I was one of the guys who 20, 30 years ago, said, “I think we should have a girl on the bench, an NBA assistant coach that’s a woman.” We still haven’t had one. But I grew up with a lot of respect for professional women. My mother was a minister, and my dad made dinner on Sunday nights. I saw that parity, how they split the paycheck, and how each had specific duties. As kids we saw that there was a tremendous amount of respect between our parents.

What do you think of how Jim Buss runs the Lakers since the death of his father, Jerry?
I know Jimmy really well. He went on the road with the team one year – his dad wanted him to – so I know his personality, what he wants to do. I think some things with the Lakers are flawed. They need a point guard, and the Chris Paul trade [killed by the NBA in 2011] is something we’ll probably always look back at and say, “We got schooled.” Some of the things they did this summer set them out of balance, and now they have to reorganize.

In November you were rumored to be coming back to the Lakers for a third tour. How serious was it?
I met with [General Manager] Mitch Kupchak in September, to talk about things, how they got Steve Nash, the Dwight Howard thing, and he said, “We have a tremendous amount of pressure on us to succeed, and it’s not going to be easy.” When [head coach] Mike Brown was fired after five games, I was recovering from a knee replacement, and one of my Achilles tendons had blown up. I felt I could do the job, but it was going to be difficult. So I said I needed time. I still hadn’t made up my mind when I got the call that they had hired Mike D’Antoni. If Kobe or Pau Gasol or somebody had called, I probably would have felt more drawn to it. I just kind of sat on it. In the end, I was relieved.

It’s been reported that you’re interested in a front-office job. Isn’t director of basketball operations almost as grueling as coach?
[Laughing] When Jerry West was with the Lakers he would be at the country club by three o’clock each afternoon. Mitch Kupchak was the guy that was at the desk. He was the one you called up.

Your last playoff game in 2011 against the Dallas Mavericks was a blowout. Some of your players lost their composure and were kicked out.
Everything that could possibly go wrong with that game did. We had what we thought was as good a team as we could put together at that time, but there we were at the end of the game. . . . I had to just breathe through it and go into that area you learn about through meditation: “Oh yes, I recognize this, this is life, this is how life goes, there’s no reason to rail against it, this is OK.”

Most people think of you as a progressive, liberal guy. Is that true?
I’m very progressive socially, but there are a lot of issues fiscally that I think I’d fall on the conservative side.

There’s that image of you, but you’re also doing ads for American Express.
Yeah, I see the contradiction, but then again, with my back, and with all the ways you can be diminished physically when you’re my size [he’s 6-foot-8], well, you’d better go with what keeps you financially healthy. When it comes to actual well-being, my image takes a backseat.

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