Today is the 67th birthday of Phil Jackson, a player and coach whose NBA future is up for debate but whose legacy as a winner is more bulletproof than Kevlar. Like a basketball version of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, his 11 coaching championships with the Bulls and Lakers can be traced all back to his two, foundational solutions to his coaching koan. Thanks to YouTube, here’s Jackson explaining both of them.
Jackson is a master of both the practical and the philosophical sides of basketball. While it’s true championship teams don’t need a roster full of deep thinkers (Dennis Rodman) or strategic geniuses (Metta World Peace) to succeed, it was Jackson who distilled a title team’s success into one part mind, one part basketball. That Jackson sat in his famous high chair on the bench made the analogy that he was the Zen master all coaches should trek to the mountain to consult all the easier; however, the reason he succeeded was less about his own radical ideas and his incorporation of two from the outside.
First is Tex Winter‘s triangle, of course. The key that unlocked six NBA titles in Chicago gets broken down by Winter and P-Jax on the hilariously named “Know Bull” segment with B.J. Armstrong. You’d have to be completely naive to believe Jackson and Winter are spilling all the secrets to the offense here, but it’s a pretty good primer to the magic system.
Now that you’ve seen Phil and friends break down the triangle, there’s a chance you’re thinking that looks pretty easy. So what turned those angles and 15-foot spacing into 11 titles? Jackson’s Buddhist philosophy, of course. The incense burning, the Zen meditation and the mantras are all in here.
To get at the Jackson’s mix of perspectives for a winning product even more, the LA Times talked to a basketball-loving Buddhist priest, Rev. Noriaki Ito. in 2000. His take:
Ito and other Buddhist priests around the Southland say they recognized a Buddhist imprint on the Lakers game almost immediately:
The Middle Path. The whole time the Lakers were riding high and sinking low during the playoffs, even when they got blown out by 33 points in the fifth game in Indianapolis, Jackson never lost his cool, Ito said.
Interdependence of Life. Using the Buddhist idea of selflessness and interdependence, Jackson has managed to meld together a team of sometimes self-absorbed and competitive athletes. Rinban George T. Matsubashi of Los Angeles Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple in Little Tokyo notes that star center Shaquille O’Neal has significantly increased his assists. Ito sees fewer temper tantrums and more acceptance by bench players of their valuable roles in supporting the team overall.
Go With the Flow. Ito said he sees Buddhist principles in Jackson’s patented triangle offense of players constantly flowing into formation. Even his tendency not to call timeouts if things aren’t going well, to let the players work it out themselves, seems to be a reflection of this principle, the priests say.
“The Buddha expects us to be like a body of water flowing downhill. When you reach a tree or boulder, you go around it rather than try to use force against it,” Ito said.
So there you have it. There are dozens of videos available on everything from Jackson’s use of timeouts to “playing above the referees” but Jackson’s legacy — which is really about 11 things — comes down to just to just two things.
What do you think?
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