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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 2)

Despite his seeming lack of control, Jackson became knowledgeable about the Indians' beliefs and of the ritualistic uses of tobacco. "The Native Americans use it in everything," he says. "There's a pinch of tobacco in every one of their religious relics, in every gift they offer to each other, in every pouch they wear around their necks. Tobacco is indigenous to America, and the Native Americans feel it was given to them by the Great Spirit to help them talk freely, and also to help convert their thoughts and their dreams into prayers. The smoke symbolizes their prayers rising to Heaven. Smoking also represents a combination of the elements earth, fire and air, but it also signifies the hearth and the home and a means of protection against animals."

The Native American smoking blend is also unique. Jackson explains: "The tobacco is mixed with medicinal and herbal barks--such as kinnikinnick and is used as a sign of communion, a way of inviting an alien into the tribal circle. Like drinking tea is to the Japanese, smoking is quite an art form to the Indians. Historically, tobacco was only grown in the Carolinas, Virginia and Georgia, so it was a very valuable trading item. The various tribes also had their favorite types of pipes made of horn or corn cobs, but the most desirable were pipe-stone pipes that were fashioned from a particular red clay that was found only in Minnesota. The Sioux and the Cheyenne were especially fond of these pipes and would embark on long journeys to trade for them. In addition, several tribes also liked to roll the tobacco leaves into what were an early form of cigars."

In the early seventeenth century, when the Native Americans presented the gift of tobacco to the invading white men, it was meant as an ultimate sign of welcome. "Even in our culture," Jackson says, "smoking cigars still retains a communal aspect where a circle of friends can ruminate about the day, digest a shared meal, and talk about their hopes and dreams. Cigarettes, however, are a totally different thing--chopped up, machine made, filterized and chemically treated--that diminishes the value of tobacco. Of course, more and more women are smoking cigars these days, but it's still mostly a male-bonding kind of thing. For me, smoking cigars is a way to celebrate the good feeling of what life can bring us and to be in the moment of that enjoyment."

Even if you only look at it from the confines of the material world, there have been many causes for celebration in Phil Jackson's world. He became coach of the Bulls in the 1989-90 season after five years of coaching in the Continental Basketball Association. After only a year, he took the team, with its plethora of untamed talent but glaring lack of final-score success, to a championship in 1991. Then he did it twice more, in 1992 and '93, achieving the vaunted "three-peat," a concept that his coaching rival Pat Riley could only coin but never realize. Michael Jordan walked away from the game for his failed experiment in professional baseball and the Bulls missed the mark twice. But in 1996, they once again gained basketball supremacy and repeated with titles in 1997 and 1998. In the process, Jackson's salary would rise to $6 million a year, he would win 200 games faster than any NBA coach and the team would post the best-ever record, 72-10, in the 1995-'96 season.

Jackson, who hardly ever smokes during the off-season, developed his appreciation of a good cigar during his less illustrative playing career. "When I was with the New York Knicks, Red Holzman and Danny Whelan, the coach and the trainer, were big-time cigar smokers, and sometimes they'd drop one off on me, so that gradually the ritual of cigar smoking became an extension of the basketball games. After the tension, anxiety and pressure of the competition, it was important to just be at ease."

Jackson reports that several Bulls are confirmed cigar smokers. "For Christmas," he says, "Dennis Rodman presented everybody with portable humidors. And Michael has a world-class collection of cigars. People know that Michael likes to smoke, so he's constantly being sent top-notch cigars. Because he travels the world so much, he's also had an ample opportunity to try a variety of cigars, and he really knows quality. In fact, Michael recently opened a cigar bar near the arena in Chicago that's a nice place for a postgame celebration. Of course, Michael has been very generous to me."

Sometimes, however, when the Bulls' schedule got particularly intense, Jackson would try to crack down on his players' smoking. "This [would happen] mostly during the playoffs," he says, "and I [would] tell them they should only be smoking one cigar per day because of the detrimental effects so much smoke can have on their physical conditioning and the efficient working of their lungs. Unfortunately, I've still seen some of the guys smoking as they drive up to the arena right before the games." One wonders how unfortu-nate it was given his team's overall dominance in the playoffs. (He compiled a postseason winning percentage of .730).

Jackson is happy to list his favorite cigars: "I like Montecristos, Romeo y Julieta, Fuentes, Macanudos and Cohibas, if they're made in Cuba. Every year, I also get a box of cigars from one of the Bulls' owners. They're Gana Dophilinos, which is a really nice small cigar."

Jackson is amused by the current "fad"--the fancy clippers, lighters, and humidors. "When Danny Whelan showed me how to properly smoke a cigar," Jackson recalls, "he'd slit the end with his fingernail to open it up and that was that."

Jackson's Chicago Bulls won six championships, but in the NBA, winning doesn't necessarily reduce a coach's workaday anxiety. Win or lose, a professional coach must endure the rigorous traveling, the players' monstrous egos and temper tantrums, as well as the unreasonable expectations of both the media and management.

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