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Road Tripper
Phil Jackson
January 19, 2004
The Lakers coach came to understand his state during long drives to games
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January 19, 2004

Road Tripper

The Lakers coach came to understand his state during long drives to games

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My parents told us one spring morning in 1956 that they had accepted a pastorate in Williston, N.Dak. My two teenage brothers weren't happy about the decision to move 500 miles east from Montana. I was 10, and I couldn't have cared less, as long as I could play ball—any kind of ball. � Williston, on North Dakota's western border, had recently gone through an oil boom that had almost doubled the population to just over 10,000 brave souls. It had brought in folks from Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas who knew the "ahl bidness" to join all those Norwegian immigrants who had come over at the turn of the century. The Lutheran church services were broadcast on the radio in Norwegian, and the lutefisk dinners at any of the 12 Lutheran churches during the holiday season were the social events on the Williston calendar.

Growing up a pastor's kid wasn't a cakewalk, but Williston was a good place to be when the chance to play arrived. We had school teams and recreational leagues, and the local 4-H county agent organized the eight counties in western North Dakota and eastern Montana into a rec-basketball conference. Some players came from the Indian reservations, and they liked to play run-and-gun style. We had fun playing with and against them, even though our parents and theirs didn't socialize.

North Dakota is large; there isn't a major U.S. city within 500 miles of Williston. If we wanted to see pro sports, we would drive three hours to Regina, Saskatchewan, to watch the CFL Rough Riders. But the adults in Williston didn't want us to think small-time. They regularly reminded us of the NoDaks (our term for North Dakotans) who had made the bigs, such as fomer secretary of state Warren Christopher and actress Angie Dickinson.

As kids, though, our only dream was to win the state high school basketball tournament. There were just 20 Class A (big-school) teams in North Dakota, and 10 of those were within 150 miles of each other in the eastern part of the state, where most of the population is. We were in the western conference, which stretched for 300 mostly empty miles. On some frosty Friday mornings we drove almost the length of the state to play Jamestown; then we would backtrack west on Saturday to play one of the Bismarck-area teams before heading home. Sometimes we would drive four to eight hours to play a two-hour game and then drive back home that night. By the time we were 15 years old, we were road warriors, much like the Lakota, Crow and Assiniboin natives who lived on the Plains and made long treks to hunt buffalo and steal each other's horses.

The weather was always a factor on these trips, as it is for any driving on the Plains. Survival required that you have chains, spare tires and blankets just in case, because everyone had a family member or friend who had been caught in a blizzard—and some of them hadn't lived to tell the tale.

Driving late at night in blinding snow was part of your elementary education behind the wheel; keeping the speed up on a snow- or ice-slickened road was secondary driver's ed; and knowing how to turn into the inevitable slide was graduate school. As we drove, we listened to AM radio stations pulled in from across the continent: WGN from Chicago, KOMA from Oklahoma, CBC from Winnipeg. There was another world out there that had bright lights and service stations open all night. Sometimes we would talk into the wee hours of the morning with the driver-coach about what it was like out there in the "real" world.

We were driving home late one night after a game in Rugby, N.Dak., when suddenly the sky was lit with a blue-green light. It was a spectacular aurora borealis. We had to stop and get out of the car and allow ourselves to be absorbed into that big sky, which dominated our world day and night. Lying back on the warm hood, looking up at the throbbing northern lights, I understood the allure of this land of sky and wind. Those who have grown up in North Dakota, from Sitting Bull, the Hunkpapa Lakota, to Roger Maris, the successor to the Babe, have been nurtured by the land—a land that is hard but giving, just like its people.

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