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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

(continued from page 1)

By cultivating a meditative space around his thoughts and around his ego, Jackson dealt more effectively with aberrant personalities. Like Dennis Rodman. "It's so easy to fall prey to a certain kind of reflex thinking about Dennis," says Jackson. "'What the hell is Dennis up to now?' 'How can I control this guy so that he comes to practice on time?' But all of this kind of thinking is a useless waste of energy. So my approach is to just allow Dennis to be the best professional he can be and to make him understand that any behavior that interferes with his on-court performance (or the performance of his teammates) is unacceptable."

That is a concept that many coaches may have had a hard time with when Rodman missed practice during this year's playoffs to fly to Texas in support of the family of a black man killed by Ku Klux Klansmen. But characteristically, Jackson rolled with the situation and the record speaks for the coaching technique.

"A player once asked me why I've never instituted a curfew on the road," Jackson says. "My response was that I don't believe in curfews, because you can't treat men like they were boys without forfeiting a certain level of trust. My philosophy is that each player must have his own sense of professional responsibility and prepare for a ballgame in his own way. If a player can't handle his responsibility, then we'll deal with each problem as it arises."

Win or lose, sitting in the command seat will inevitably distort an NBA coach's psyche. Mild-mannered men become raving lunatics, raving lunatics become basket cases, basket cases become TV commentators. Yet all of Jackson's longtime friends vouch for the consistency and integrity of his personality, public and private. "I owe it all," he says as he blows a wavering blue smoke ring, "to meditation and to cigars." Then he releases a characteristic burst of slow laughter and says this: "Knowing who you really are is all about introspection and self-awareness, as a goal and also as a path. We might achieve total awareness for two seconds, then lose it for ten years, regain it for a minute, and then lose it for another year."

Of course, being in the public eye as much as Jackson was can easily work against any kind of personal psychological and emotional integration. "At the beginning of my coaching career I was able to protect myself by compartmentalizing the public and private aspects of my life," he says. "In Chicago, I was a coach and a media creature, then I'd spend my summers at my Montana homestead, where I could go fishing, ride my motorcycle, go on camping trips in the Rockies, let my beard grow out, and hang out with my family. But [I became] so identified with the goals and the success of the Bulls that [it was] very difficult for me to divorce myself from any of it. More and more, the real me [was] represented by a public persona, and that [was] a difficult situation for me to accept."

For example? "I've come to believe that signing autographs is actually a very phony, unreal way to connect with people. It's actually very easy and undemanding to sign my name on a photograph or a piece of paper and not look anybody in the eye and then just walk away. Going face-to-face with somebody, saying a few words of greeting, and shaking their hand seems to be much more of a human connection. That's why in the past year or so, I've been reluctant to give out my autograph. Of course, most of the fans get upset and think I'm being arrogant."

Jackson also chides the media for dehumanizing him and trying to fit him into an easily definable category. "It's so easy for the media to call me a 'Zen master,'" he says, "which is certainly nothing I'd ever be so presumptuous to call myself. But they think that the label gives them a handle on me. In truth, who I really am is a meditator who's sitting at the edge of this culture and looking in."

Given the presumed mantle of "Zen master" it may seem out of character that Phil Jackson, the otherwise holistic coach of the Chicago Bulls, is also a dedicated cigar smoker who covertly enjoys a slow burn behind closed doors. But not to hear him tell it. "I'm not primarily interested in smoking cigars for the oral pleasure," he says, "as much as I'm attracted by the grounding sensation that it offers. Smoking can act as a powerful contracting mechanism because it absorbs a great deal of one's bodily fluids, so puffing on a good cigar just slows everything down and allows me to relax."

Jealous of his privacy, Jackson rarely smokes in public. That's why one of his favorite spaces for lighting up and kicking back had been the Bulls' "Team Room," sequestered behind locked doors and rigid security on the second floor of the Sheri L. Berto Center in suburban Deerfield, Illinois, and decorated with many symbols of Native American significance. No mere dilettante, Jackson's interest in the artifacts of Native American culture stems from his lifelong explorations in realms esoteric and spiritual. Back in 1973, while Jackson and Bill Bradley were conducting a basketball clinic at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, the elders of the tribe demonstrated their acceptance of Jackson's spiritual journey by naming him Swift Eagle. The name was provided by Edgar Red Cloud, grandson of a famous warrior chief. As Jackson recalls, "Edgar said I resembled an eagle as I swooped around the court with my arms outstretched, always looking to steal the ball. Swift Eagle. Ohnahkoh Wamblee. The name sounded like wings beating the air."

Not a bad image when one remembers the young Knick alongside the smooth veterans--Willis Reed, Earl Monroe, Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere--of those great teams of the late 1960s and '70s. His approach to the game seemed at odds with the rest of the team as he frenetically flailed his limbs in an effort to achieve ball control, but the University of North Dakota graduate, who had dabbled in philosophy, alternative states of consciousness and the Grateful Dead in college, adapted smoothly with the Knicks' style of team ball.

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