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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)

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.

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.

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.

Despite his commitment to living in the present moment, Jackson does allow himself to think about his future. "I've been part of a national and worldwide sports community," he says, "but I've never really been totally immersed in a local community. I've never been in one place all year round to see the seasons unfold. I've never planted a garden or nurtured shrubs into rosebushes. In the next ten or fifteen years, I'll be thinking about settling down somewhere."

And as with all serious spiritual seekers, Phil Jackson also thinks about his own inevitable demise. "Most people live in fear of death," he says, "but my effort is to try and experience my life with as much joy and appreciation as I can muster. I'm at the age where some people who have been my friends for thirty or forty years have passed away, and this has affected my consciousness tremendously. It all comes back to the Native American culture that offers such sustenance to me. The warrior's attitude was to live life fearlessly as though each day was his last. Before every battle he'd say, 'This is a good day to die.' So, whether I'm coaching or tending a garden or chopping wood or whatever, I'm going to live this life to its fullest and this day to its fullest."

Charley Rosen is the author of several novels about basketball.

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