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Sitting Bull
Richard Hoffer
May 27, 1996
Phil Jackson may invoke Sioux lore and Zen mysticism in coaching Michael Jordan & Co., but the real message is: Play smart basketball
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May 27, 1996

Sitting Bull

Phil Jackson may invoke Sioux lore and Zen mysticism in coaching Michael Jordan & Co., but the real message is: Play smart basketball

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This is not your father's basketball coach. When his team is on a losing streak, he lights incense in the secret cubbyhole of the team room and tells the players he's "going to exorcise the evil spirits" that possess them. In slightly less alarming circumstances he gives his players books to read, hoping their consciousness will be expanded by everything from Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind to Beavis & Butt-Head: This Book Sucks. He hangs Sioux artifacts on his office walls; he fills the team's practice facility with so much tribal gear that Dances with Wolves seems more likely to break out than a scrimmage. He teaches meditation at least as earnestly as he teaches the triple-post offense. He rides a BMW motorcycle but gives visitors the impression that he travels more regularly by astral projection. Different? He mourned last summer's losses of Mickey Mantle and Jerry Garcia equally, and when he finally got around to cashing in on his Chicago Bulls celebrity by writing a book, he couldn't help but include the following advice: "If you meet the Buddha in the lane, feed him the ball." It was, for him, the equivalent of a clinic.

This is Phil Jackson, anticoach, the guy who makes New Age seem old-fashioned. He's not really as touchy-feely as the news reports suggest, but for a Chicago coach (face it, for any coach), he's...out there. True story: The Bulls lose the first game of the 1994 Eastern Conference semifinals in New York, and on the way to practice in downtown Manhattan, Jackson diverts the team bus and, for no reason the players can think of, takes them on a ferry ride past the Statue of Liberty. (Of course, Jackson has always been an unpredictable wheelman, going back to his days with the Albany Patroons of the CBA, when he used to drive the team van and work crossword puzzles.) It is no wonder that Chapter 2 of his recent book, Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior, written with Hugh Delehanty, is titled "A Journey of a Thousand Miles Starts with One Breath." And ends hard by Staten Island.

No, he is not your father's basketball coach. Can you imagine Mike Ditka, while reaming out his team, yelling, "This is insidious!" and then pausing to ask the players if they know what the word means? "I want you to look it up and tell me tomorrow," Jackson said, according to the book Transition Game by Melissa Isaacson. What other coach would bring in a stress-relief specialist to give his players breathing lessons? Lectures on Zen Buddhism? Jackson tells the Bulls they must rebound, and they lean forward in anticipation, trying to tease the mystic lesson from his simple words. The players think hard; they are used to riddles. There's more to life than basketball, they've been told, and more to basketball than basketball. Backup center Bill Wennington wants to say, "Phil, when you say rebound, what exactly do you mean? Do you mean we must rebound or rebound?" Sometimes, of course, he means only that they must rebound. You just never know.

He's so odd that not even the authority of his 6'8" physical presence—all hard angles, beard and rumbling voice—can cancel out his persistent and contrary application of Eastern religion to the Eastern Conference, at least in the public's eye. Everywhere he has appeared lately he has been celebrated as a kind of Zen master (a title he would hate, for he has not achieved enlightenment yet, not this early in the playoffs), a calm presence in the increasingly turbulent NBA, somebody from another planet or at least a higher level of consciousness. Every anecdote supports this idea: Jackson lights his smudge stick of sagebrush to fight off bad vibes ("He truly believes in the harbinger of protectors," says former Bulls assistant Johnny Bach). He tells his team at practice that it will be "silence day," and the players go about their drills wordlessly. Or he explains the triangle offense to the great Michael Jordan, saying it's based on the Taoist principle of yielding to an opponent's force in order to render him powerless. Don't you get it, Michael? It's five-man tai chi! The idea is that Jackson is John Wooden channeling Yanni.

But whatever Jackson is doing, he's not doing it with crystals. His team, after all, just set an NBA record of 72 regular-season wins and swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs with only one loss, earning comparisons with the greatest teams of all time. Yet there's no way you can say Jackson—who, with three NBA titles to his credit, was finally named Coach of the Year this season—has the most talented team in history. He's got the best player in the world in Jordan, and the game's best second fiddle in Scottie Pippen. But if this team is as good as the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers, whose record of 69 wins the Bulls eclipsed, you might wonder who their Wilt Chamberlain is. Luc Longley? The Bulls are old (the oldest team in the league, at an average of 29.86 years) and not a little decrepit. Not a dynasty on paper.

And, for an alltime team, they're a little nutty. Pippen, in a sulk, once refused to reenter a critical playoff game with the outcome on the line. For that matter, how much success would you predict for a franchise that gambles on a 34-year-old, one-dimensional, multihued wack job like Dennis Rodman? This is a guy who flouts more convention in a day than Jackson has subverted in a lifetime. Airing his dogs in a playoff game? Head-butting a referee? Appearing in drag at his book-signing session? Rodman, the human pincushion, takes the potential for disaster wherever he goes. His entertainment value is high, but not too many coaches got into this game to be ringmasters.

And yet, and yet—the Bulls so dominate the league with their creativity, their harmony, their drive, that you must look beyond even Jordan's influence as a competitor to explain their success. Could it be that this preacher's son, this guy called the Human Coat Hanger in his athletic prime, this Phil Jackson, is on to something?

"Well," he says quietly, "everyone needs an angle."

Jackson's office is not quite the shrine to Indian Affairs everybody makes it out to be. A few artifacts, yes, but most are in the Bulls' private team room: a wooden arrow with a tobacco pouch tied to it, a bear-claw necklace, an owl feather, a painting that tells the story of Crazy Horse, and some pictures of a white buffalo calf, the most sacred animal in Sioux lore. "Lots of Indian stuff" is how Bulls general manager Jerry Krause, who is somewhat more of this world, characterizes the team room's decor. But it's not a Native American museum, exactly. All the really good Indian stuff is inside ol' Swift Eagle's noggin.

Swift Eagle—Jackson got the Lakota Sioux warrior's name when he and former New York Knicks teammate Bill Bradley conducted a basketball clinic at a reservation in South Dakota more than 20 years ago—has used his knowledge of Indian culture to promote the idea of a sacred quest among his players. Indeed, the book title Sacred Hoops refers not to the hoops in Chicago's United Center but to the Native American metaphor for the loop of life, the "circle of existing things." No doubt this doesn't play any better with some of the Bulls than do the coach's bedrock beliefs as a "Zen Christian." (Jackson says he finds true spirituality in the intersection of the Zen high principle of awareness with the Christian high principle of love.) But it does stretch certain boundaries in the constricted world of the NBA.

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