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No More Bull

His days in the pressure cooker of Chicago basketball over, Phil Jackson seeks further adventures in "nowness."
Charley Rosen
From the Print Edition:
Gina Gershon, Sep/Oct 98

The June day that Phil Jackson stepped up to a press conference microphone, announced that he was leaving Chicago and then mounted his red-and-black Harley-Davidson to ride off into the sunset, it may have seemed to the entire Chicago Bulls obsessed world that the "Zen master" coach was dropping out. Apparently, the owner of eight National Basketball Association championship rings--two as a player, six as a coach--had had enough and was walking away from the supercharged vortex of court glory, fan worship, intense competition and front-office infighting and back biting.

While all these factors, indeed, played a role in his decision to abandon it all after attaining the height of his profession, Phil Jackson's system of belief doesn't include dropping out. No, if any-thing this bit of apparent escapism is all part of a greater strategy to bring him ultimately to the center of it all, to live in the moment.

For that, after all is said and done, is what his 53 years on the planet, the 13 seasons as a New York Knicks sixth man, and the nine campaigns at the helm of one of basketball's most successful franchises containing some of its most volatile talent has been all about. And, as it turns out for Phil Jackson anyway, coaching the Chicago Bulls is not the center of the universe.

"All I'm trying to do is be true to myself and deal with every situation and every person I encounter with as much light as I can muster," Jackson said during the 1997-98 season before he packed up in his last trophy and shoved off.

Too bad the public contention between Jackson and the Bulls' front office encroached upon his experiencing the game, the natural progression of the season, and ultimately his ability to be here and now. "The problem," Jackson explains, "was that ten of our players were destined for free agency at the end of the season, and Jerry Krause, the general manager of the Bulls, had his own definite ideas as to how the team should be rebuilt. A lot of emotionally heated things were said on all sides, both in public and behind closed doors, that rubbed everybody the wrong way. And I just didn't want to be a part of the direction Krause intended to go."

Krause made waves early in Jackson's final season when he tried to claim the lion's share of credit for the Bulls' recent hegemony by saying, "It's a ball club's management that wins championships." Michael Jordan--the man that the rest of the known world assumes wins championships--was extremely upset at Krause's boasting, but Jackson only says, "It's normal for people to want more credit for success than is due them, yet the reality is that our championships were won on the court by Michael [Jordan], Scottie [Pippen], the other players and the coaching staff. There's no doubt that the particular stress of this past season, and of my entire nine years coaching in Chicago, has affected me in many ways. Certainly it's been a blessing to see my children grow up in a stable situation and also graduate from the same high school. But in the process I've evolved from a tousled, brown-haired young man to a middle-aged guy who's losing whatever gray hair remains. The rest of my body is also deteriorating due to age and to old basketball injuries, and all this is as it should be. I've also been worn down by the frequent disputes with management, by the constant traveling, the game preparation, the players, and the high-level energy of game-time sights and sounds that were piped through my system over a hundred times every year."

What does Jackson do to manage his routine stress levels? "The best stress reliever that I've found is meditation. That's what I do to start every day. It's a discipline and a setting of priorities. I'm not going to allow my mind to create situations, expectations and attitudes that may or may not be true, but can negatively influence my experience of the day ahead. Instead, I want to be led by the feeling, or the spirit of whatever the reality is and however it manifests."

What are the specifics of Jackson's daily meditative practice? "There are a wide variety of techniques," he says. "There are mantras that can be chanted, or a focusing on a blank spot on the wall, or meditating Christians can lock in on to certain biblical verses. But the technique I use is called 'alertness meditation,' which is simply a sense of being present at every breath and understanding that the breath is the opening and closing of the door to life. It's just sitting in as close to a lotus posture as my battered body can manage and being conscious of my breath coming and going. Of course, the mind will race in to fill the gaps, but every breath brings me back to an inner silence and inner stillness. Eventually, there comes a sense of connectedness, a realization that everything that is exists in the same moment. This is now. This is now. This is now. And so on. The common existence in this same nowness is what connects everything, so that even the smallest microcosm in our particular world is connected to the most distant part of the universe."

The relentless coast-to-coast traveling certainly created obstacles for any routine meditative practice, but Jackson adapted his necessities to the realities of the Bulls' schedule. Sometimes that meant sacrificing sleep time to attain his goal of 30 minutes' mediation in a day in which he might get back home or back to his hotel at three o'clock in the morning only to be faced with a coaches meeting five hours later. On the road he brought sticks of incense to help in his meditation. Knowing how long each stick would burn, he wouldn't need to watch a clock, just watch the smoke. "So here's another interesting kind of smoke," he says. 'The prayer rising, the consciousness rising. The Native Americans also burned sage and sweet grass as a way of purifying a room and thereby changing the environment."

For Jackson, meditation is not just a sterile spiritual practice. He's convinced that the benefits also influenced his coaching. "The tighter your mind is," Jackson believes, "and the more you try to force your thinking into a constricted space or direction, the more frantic your mind becomes because it wants to jump from thought to thought. The truth is that you can only settle down your mind by providing a large pasture for it to run around in. Among other things, meditation has taught me that I am bigger than my mind. I certainly believe in boundaries, but I want my boundaries to be spacious enough to allow for extreme flexibility. So when I'm coaching, I try not to let myself get too rigid. My own personal tendency is to be fairly tight, precise and dogmatic, but a dictatorial coach can frighten his team. My daily meditation practice frees me from habitual behavior, allows me to be a little loose, to be open to having fun, and to react more to the breath of the moment." While coaching that meant trying not to get seized by preconceived game strategies, so that he could call plays and make substitutions on impulse. The practice also allowed him to be more open to assistants' advice and to "the immediate flow of the game at hand," he claims.

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