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PHIL D. BASKET
When he coached the Chicago Bulls, Phil Jackson's game plan was to create a secure yet open environment that could develop the character and chemistry of his players. Finding a workable balance between freedom and discipline was not an easy task, especially when dealing with mega-stars and their mega-egos. Part of Phil's method is always to set goals that are higher than the ones required by the situation at hand, so that anybody traveling along with him can sense a greater journey beyond the immediate concerns of winning ball games.
Over time, Phil's efforts to discover that environment took on the qualifies of a search for the Holy Grail. Eventually, he hooked up with Tex Winter, who had the magic playbook in his hand. With Tex acting as Merlin to Phil's Galahad, miracles were wrought.
The latest miracle was Phil's ability to motivate a young and immature team like the Lakers to accept an unselfish philosophy and thereby win a championship—and do it all in his very first season in Los Angeles.
But I've been traveling along with Phil for nearly thirty years, and one of the things I've learned from him is to always expect the unexpected.
I first met PJ at a postgame party in the spring of 1973 in his loft on West Nineteenth Street, brought there by a mutual friend, Stan Love, a six-foot-nine well-credentialed hippie and part-time powerless forward for the Baltimore Bullets. Having been Sport magazine's pro basketball beatwriter for a year or two, I'd encountered numerous NBA super-duper-stars and found most of them to be totally self-involved. Even the wondrously humble Julius Erving had been three hours late for an appointment. But Phil was obviously of a different breed.
For starters, instead of being a deluxe townhouse or duplex penthouse apartment, Phil's loft was situated above a Great Bear auto-body shop. (As I would soon discover, the noise and fumes rising through the floorboards severely limited the livable sections of the loft during business hours.) I was the only celebrant at the party whom Phil did not know, yet he was very solicitous in his attentions, and sincerely curious about me.
Coincidentally, my current assignment for Sport was an article called "The Soul Brothers," which was an exploration of three of the NBA's most insistent individualists—Stan, of course, the quintessential Laguna Beach Love child; Billy Paultz, a beer-chugging native New York party mammal extraordinaire; and John Hummer, an authentic Princetonian and putative Chaucerian scholar. A sudden impulse moved me to ask Phil if he might be interested in being included in my story. "That would be interesting," he said.
In part, this is how Phil's section came out:
"Playing basketball is just like everything else:
They own your body and they try to own your bead.
—Phil Jackson, player, New York Knicks
Jackson's body and head co-exist in a loft on New York's lower West Side. There's a hammock suspended from the ceiling of the living room, a dart board with Spiro Agnew's face serving as the target, and on the far wall a photograph taken by Phil of a Colorado mountain.
Phil was throwing a party to celebrate Saturday night and the dozen or so guests seemed to be very comfortable with each other. A bag of walnuts lay casually torn open on the living room table, a bottle of wine occasionally made the rounds, and someone was melodiously banging on the piano in the corner.
But the most revealing thing in the room was Jackson's record collection—a dust-covered stack which included the likes of Andy Williams and Frank Sinatra, and then the active stack—the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers, et al.
"My taste in people has changed also," Phil said. "None of my friends are basketball people. Aside from Bill Bradley, I never really had a friend on the Knicks. Because of the pressure, the inconvenience, and the competition, you have to stop at a certain level. With your teammates, you get down to everything but your personal lives."
Jackson has started maybe twenty games in his tenure with the Knicks, but his bed-spring hair, his mustache and his Ichabod Crane body are as well-known to every basketball fan as Jerry West's nose.
"It's like living in a smaller world," Jackson continued, "a complete world but just a lot smaller. And, in a way, professional sports is just like the real world—a lot of people have invested a lot of money and that leads to politicking and pressure situations. Kids come into the league and get big money right off the bat, and the guys getting the bread have to play, even if someone else is better."
When Jackson was a rookie out of the University of North Dakota in 1968, he was a second round draft choice and signed a one-year contract for $13,500.
"Bill Bradley turned pro basketball around," Phil said. "In 1968, he got $400,000 for four years, which was an incredible sum then. After his first game at the Garden I couldn't find a seat in the locker room because there were fifty reporters around. I mean people from Time and Life. Bradley was a public figure to the nth degree. He had the romantic Princeton-Rhodes Scholar thing going for him, but mainly, he was the latest white hope. Pro basketball is dominated by black players, but the people who own the sport, pay to see it live, sponsor it on TV and write about it are white. So they all focused on Bradley."
Phil's boots and dirty socks were leaning against the sofa, but nobody seemed to mind. A few people were on the roof, pressing their faces against the skylight, and a young woman was working on a floor-to-ceiling crossword puzzle hanging next to the dart board.
"Ballplayers have to wear suits on most teams in the NBA," Phil was saying as he wiped his hands on his pants. "The Knicks happen to be the only club where you can wear jeans. If it wasn't for the fact that I'm a Knick, I couldn't dress and act the way I do and still stay in the league."
But Phil's life-style does cause some unique problems. He's the Knicks' media hippie, and it has gotten to the point where the counter-culture community expects him to trip for every game and to attend an obligatory number of rock concerts.
"Sometimes I feel like an amoeba on a slide," Phil said. "But I just try to ignore all these extraneous things as best I can—they're all so totally absurd. It's fun for people to have their superstars, but you can't take the cross off their backs and put it on yours."
Phil keeps his perspective by going camping during the off-season, surrounding himself with friends who will still be there the day after he is finished as a ballplayer, and puffing on a good cigar. He is capable of discussing offense as "a very civilized breaking down of a team's defense," and of shilling for a hair spray. It's all part of the game and Phil is careful to keep certain things from getting too close to him.
"In The Hobbit," Phil said, "the Grand Wizard can blow smoke rings in all different colors. He just sits there and blows them to the ceiling. I can only aspire to that."
Yet beneath his peaceful hippie smile, Phil was a relentless competitor (a characteristic that would eventually endear him to Michael Jordan). At the same time, he was never possessed by the Vince Lombardi ethic that equated losing with dying.
After his playing days were defunct, Phil had a turn as assistant coach with the New Jersey Nets under head coach Kevin Loughery—but when Loughery left, so did Phil. Eventually, Phil wound up as head coach of the Albany Patroons in the Continental Basketball Association. Among the league's hard-bitten veterans, the CBA was also known as "Come Back Again" or the "Crazy Basketball Association." Nevertheless, Phil took every advantage of his tenure there. And since PJ and I had a similar vision of the game and I lived in Woodstock, a mere sixty miles south of Albany, I was recruited to become Phil's assistant coach.
During our three-year partnership in Albany, what most impressed me about Phil's approach to the game was his ability to make coaching adjustments. After we'd gotten whipped by twenty points by a particular team, I would despair of ever beating that ball club. However, even back then Phil was able to identify and isolate an opponent's weak points, and by changing the angle of a certain pick, or perhaps forcing a certain player to his right instead of his left, he'd enable the Patroons to turn the score around in the rematch. Phil's special gift was being able to find the "is-ness" of a play, a player, a team, and/or a game. And he gave me a lifetime's worth of insights into the strategies and philosophies of the sacred hoop.
Among other things, I learned:
* The game will always reveal the players, and the coaches as well.
* Ballplayers always know when their coach is lying to them, and vice versa.
* Referees are a necessary evil. They spend so many hours in darkened rooms watching game tapes and concentrating entirely on locating mistakes—three-second violations and illegal defenses, extra steps, fouls called and uncalled—that the beauty of the game eludes them.
* Ball games are won or lost in practice sessions.
* A player's character is more important than his talent.
* There's no substitute for experience, and most players aren't really capable of understanding the game until they're twenty-six or so.
* Role players are (almost) as important as All-Stars.
* How a team fares in the first five minutes of the third quarter is a function of the adjustments made (or not made) by the coaching staff at halftime.
* More important than how many points a player scores is when he scores them.
* Coaching basketball can be dangerous to one's mental, physical, and psychological health.
* Pro basketball requires a discriminating brutality from even the most marginal players.
* The perfect game doesn't match the good guys against the bad guys, but features ten players playing one ball game.
* And, yes, life is indeed a metaphor for basketball.
After two seasons with the Patroons, Phil and I were becoming dissatisfied with the flex offense—its graceless movements, limited entry passes, and vulnerability to freely switching defenses. Phil had added a "box" offense to the Patroons' repertoire, but it was too jammed, too physical, and too mindless.
We certainly knew the "right" way to play the game: the picks, the cuts, the set-up passes that never registered in a box score. Filling a lane on a fast break to create a space for a teammate. Hitting the open man. Playing balls-out defense, rotating, boxing out. All the wordless communications and small unselfishnesses that made the game so much fun. But these ingredients only seemed to come together accidentally—when the "right" players matched with the "right" coach in the "right" place at the "right" time.
We also knew that despite our collective and individual successes—the championships won in the NBA and CBA, the collegiate games where we'd each notched forty-plus points and twenty-plus rebounds—we were both missing something. Our glimpses of hooptime nirvana were too fleeting, too agonizingly suggestive of another reality where the flow was the norm, where the game transcended the clock, the scoreboard, and the individual players. We could sometimes hear the heartbeat, but we couldn't see the heart. What we sought, what we needed, was a means of systematizing the "right" way to play.
The quest so consumed us both that when Phil and I discovered that Bobby Knight, the irascible coach of Indiana University, would be conducting a weekend clinic in Poughkeepsie, New York (only forty-five minutes southeast of Woodstock), we readily convinced the Patroons' bigwigs to pick up the tab for the two of us to go.
Phil and I had always been interested in Knight's half-court offense, a seamless unfolding of timber-shivering picks, slashing cuts, and cleverly angled passes that created unopposed jumpers, backdoor layups, and plenty of space for the big men to roam in the lane. We were eager to discover the whys and wherefores of Knight's system, and if he'd also throw in a few words about his zone press, we'd be doubly grateful. Sure, we knew beforehand that Knight could be overbearing and opinionated, but he was also a highly accomplished technician, and he'd surely teach us something we could use. The workshop convened one Saturday morning at a public high school. The worn and scratched gymnasium floor was filled with several rows of slat-backed wooden folding chairs facing a stage that was bare except for a stray basketball and a podium. The chairs were mostly filled with fresh-eyed coachlings, some of them decked out in sports jackets and neckties, others wearing brand-name sweat suits or neatly pressed trousers and shortsleeved knit shirts that were patched above their hearts with the names and logos of their own sponsoring institutions: Goshen High School, Orange County C.C., Pine Bush Boys Club. And they all stared adoringly at Knight as he mounted the stage, eased his paunch behind the podium, and adjusted the microphone.
Knight was clad in nattily creased chino pants and his trademark blood-red Indiana U. sweater. With his gray hair so neatly clipped that it resembled a gleaming war bonnet, and his stone-colored eyes staring above and beyond his worshipful audience (perhaps at the backboard and basket suspended above the far-off baseline?), the General launched into a full-blown attack.
"Sportswriters," he snorted. "They think they're experts because they watch so many ball games, but in reality they don't know shit from Shinola."
While Phil and I sat expectantly with our pens poised above our blank notebooks, the young coaches laughed to beat the band.
"Recruiting sucks," quoth Knight. "I hate it when my entire day is ruined by a seventeen-year-old."
This was followed by another round of sidesplitting, knee-pounding laughter. The General sure is a pistol, ain't he?
And then Knight started talking about drugs. Heroin, cocaine, uppers, downers, crack, marijuana—they were all the same. Destroying the moral fiber of America. Turning our young people into feebleminded, undisciplined wimps. Why, if Knight were president (his suggestive fantasy was here interrupted by cries of "Hear! Hear!" "Yeah!" and even a "Right on!"), he'd make a phone call to whoever the hell was in charge of the one country, Colombia, that exported the largest amount of drugs to our otherwise blessed shores. And he'd say, "Hey, señor. This is the president of the United States of America, the greatest nation in the history of the world, and I'm giving you an absolute ultimatum and I'm only going to say it once, so you'd better listen good. Comprende? You know alla those poppy fields and pot fields you got set up down there? Well, if those fields ain't burned to ashes by twelve noon in exactly three days, I'm gonna send a fleet of planes to bomb your goddamned country from here to hell and back again so it won't be good for nothing except to pave it and turn it into the world's largest parking lot!" Then he'd hang up the goddamned telephone and tell his flyboys to start their engines!
Yahoo! The morning session ended with a standing ovation.
Phil and I sat in stunned silence while the gym emptied. What an exhibition of reckless self-indulgence, of irresponsible leadership run amok. Then Phil flashed me one of his characteristic wry grins and said this: "It's been a long day, Charley, so let's make the best of it. There's a ball up on the stage, and if we clear the last few rows, we'll have enough room to play some one-on-one."
So we played, shirtless and sweating, fouling each other and laughing out loud, hitting miraculous shots, missing easy ones, and never keeping score. We played until our fellow participants began to reenter the gym. Then we pulled on our shirts, left the ball for dead on the foul line, and made a quick exit stage left.
With our notebooks still unmarked, we headed back to Albany, and back to our search for the truly righteous system that would enable both players and coach to access the secret heart of the game.
Posted February 15, 2001
In the world of sports, Phil Jackson is nothing short of a God when it comes to coaching. His methods, his mind, his spiritualism all have helped him lead team after team to the coveted NBA World Championship Trophy. And now he, along with Charley Rosen, have documented what it took to bring the L.A. Lakers back to the glory, and 'showtime' we all remember. And what's even more exciting - I have found out Phil Jackson will be at Bookstar - Beverly Connection to sign this new book, on April 18th at 6pm! I look forward to reading this book; and I especially look forward to meeting Phil Jackson as well.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 6, 2001
This is a different approach, a mix of Phil Jackson's frank observations about his team and his own life along with writer friend Charley Rosen's take on Jackson's new setup in Los Angeles. The bonuses include Rosen's excellent sections on topics and people associated with Jackson's life. Jackson contributes more insight into his approach, his team and his personal journey. Roland Lazenby, author of Mindgames, Phil Jackson's Long StrangWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 17, 2012
No text was provided for this review.
Posted November 19, 2010
No text was provided for this review.