On Labor Day weekend of 1962, Philip Douglas Jackson snuck out of the house and went to the drive-in movies, hardly unusual behavior for a soon-to-be 17-year-old male with raging hormones. Except that he went with his older brother, Joe. And the feature was Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. And it was the first movie that Phil ever saw.
Jackson could go to dances, but he wasn't allowed to dance. He could play sports, but only when they didn't conflict with church functions. He didn't have a favorite TV program because his parents forbade a boob tube. He could read the Bible, Reader's Digest and Illustrated Classics, but, aside from textbooks, that was about all—no comics, no pulp fiction, no nonsense. He could sing in church and school choruses (and he was good, first as a tenor, then, after he began to grow, a baritone), but he couldn't listen to rock 'n' roll. Most Saturday evenings found him at the dining room table for "family game night," flicking wooden disks around a rectangular board in a game called Carooms—Jackson calls it Christian pool—or dealing a couple of hands of Rook, a game with faceless playing cards, the kind that didn't send you straight to hell. And on Sundays he stood outside the Assembly of God Church in Williston, N.D., next to his father, Charles, the Pentecostal preacher man, exchanging handshakes and small talk with fellow believers, a gawky greeter in the service of the Lord.
Not many years later, Phil Jackson had long hair, a beard and a restless spirit. He read books on Eastern religion by day, threw elbows around for the New York Knicks by night and dabbled in recreational drugs somewhere in between. He played like a wolf on the prowl, yet ate a careful diet that, for a while, consisted only of vegetables and vitamin supplements. He tested all the rules and all the patience of his coach, Red Holzman, yet he hung on the older man's every word, filing them away for later use. He loved New York City, yet later settled his family in Woodstock, N.Y., among the artisans and bohemians. He longed to coach in the NBA, but showed up in Chicago to interview for an assistant's job with the Bulls wearing a Panama hat with a macaw's feather, and then tried to explain the legend of the feather to his prospective boss, Stan Albeck.
"His eyes glazed over very early in the interview," says Jackson, who did not get the job.
So what does the sum of all that experience make the Phil Jackson of today, the 46-year-old Phil Jackson who last season guided the Bulls to their first NBA title?
"A man with a great perspective, a great base of reference, a lot of dimensions," says Knick coach Pat Riley. "These days coaches have to offer more. You've got to bring more to the table. And Phil Jackson brings more to the table than most coaches I can think of."
"Meekness in itself is nothing else than a TRUE KNOWING and feeling of a man's self as he is. Any man who truly sees and feels himself as he is must surely be meek indeed."
That quotation, from a book called The Cloud of Unknowing, written by an anonymous 16th-century Christian mystic, is printed on an index card and tacked to a wall in Jackson's office at the Multiplex, the Bulls' suburban practice center in Deerfield, Ill. Jackson put it there partly as a reminder to himself, partly as an irritant to assistant coach Johnny Bach, whose view of life is anything but beatific. They argue about it from time to time—Bach, the former Navy gunnery officer and father of a California state trooper, holding that might makes right; Phil, the former flower child, clinging to the view that a man can be humble, passionate, fearful and even self-doubting, yet still be a warrior and a winner.
Everything about Jackson's background suggests a man who has learned to weigh the warring impulses inside him and pursue a system of beliefs and behavior that eludes precise characterization. Compared to most coaches, he comes across like a philosophy professor, a little soft, a little trippy, a little abstract. But put him outside the athletic world, and he would probably come across like an ex-jock or a coach—competitive and driven. Jackson is comfortable on his philosophical tightrope, reaching out to touch something over here, then something way over there, straddling two worlds, listening to all sides, getting along with everyone.
"Phil's like lubricating oil," says June Jackson, his wife of 17 years. "He keeps everything moving."