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The art of the compromise—that is what Jackson has mastered. And if his accommodations sometimes come out looking like paradox, then so be it. The Bulls have the greatest open-court player in the history of the game, yet Jackson resolutely—many said stubbornly—stuck to a patterned offense last season that was devised a decade before Michael Jordan was born. There were times during the playoffs, though, when Jackson scrapped the patterned "triangle offense" devised by Bulls assistant Tex Winter in favor of the screen-rolls and isolations used by most NBA teams. Jackson is by nature egalitarian, yet he admittedly bends team rules to accommodate Jordan. He wrote a controversial and candid book about his career (Maverick), and Lord knows he could be happy only in an open society, yet he's extremely wary of the press and somewhat secretive about team matters.
The Bulls' 1990-91 championship season brought Jackson dozens of invitations to clinics and corporate gatherings, yet the only thing that drew him away from his isolated family retreat along Flathead Lake in Montana over the summer was a low-paying appearance at a holistic summer camp near Woodstock. He is determined not to become a human billboard like Mike Ditka, his counterpart with the Bears (whom, somewhat incredibly, Jackson has never met), yet he did sign on for one local commercial with a Cadillac dealer because—hold on to your love beads all you '60s devotees—he drives one. "I didn't want to turn the championship into a capitalistic conquest," said Jackson. "But, let's face it, I took the commercial, and any commercial is basically self-serving." Had Jackson, a liberal Democrat, been invited to the White House by a conservative Republican president 10 years ago, he might not have gone, yet when the call came for the Bulls to visit with George Bush last month, Jackson shrugged his huge shoulders and climbed into his suit because he felt he owed it to the franchise. Predictably, Jackson did not join the storm of protest, both within the Chicago organization and without, when Jordan passed up the ceremony. "It was a personal choice," said Jackson, referring to Jordan's absence.
And while Jackson is now uncomfortable with institutionalized religion, he gathers with the other members of his family (June, daughters Chelsea, 16, and Brooke, 14, and 12-year-old fraternal twins Ben and Charley) once a week in their home in Bannockburn, a Chicago suburb, to talk about spiritual subjects and other matters of the heart. (Another daughter, Elizabeth, 23, lives in Washington.)
Such efforts go largely unappreciated in Bigfork, Mont., where Phil's mother, Elisabeth, an erstwhile soul-saving, street-corner evangelist in her own right, who's alone now that Charles has gone to his just reward, prays often for her son's soul. "My mother still tells me, 'Fifteen hundred people witnessed you being given to God, given to the service of the Lord,' " Jackson says. "She really sees that as the fulfillment of my life, not basketball. I guess in some small way she considers me a success, certainly by financial standards. But spiritually? She has her doubts."
Growing up in Williston, then a hard-scrabble town of about 11,000 near the Montana border, Jackson heard more than his share of Holy Roller jibes, but he was never an outcast. If there was a school activity, chances are he was in it. His parents did not hold him back as long as fundamentalist doctrine was not violated. He took piano lessons, played trombone in the school band and acted in high school productions. He was a split end, a defensive lineman and linebacker (now there's a trio) in the fall, a high-scoring center in the winter, a pitcher-first baseman in the spring.
An ambitious young basketball coach named Bill Fitch first visited with Jackson on a bitter spring afternoon in Williston, where, in Fitch's car with the heater running, the coach persuaded Jackson to come to the University of North Dakota. Williston's cold, windy weather—"You can fly a kite there forever," says Fitch—made the people tough and competitive, and the loose-limbed Holy Roller was as tough and competitive as anyone. Jackson's fastball drew the attention of baseball recruiters, but Fitch wanted him only for basketball. "It was the right choice," said Fitch, who went on to coach in the NBA with Cleveland, Boston, Houston and, now, New Jersey. "He couldn't find home plate with a Geiger counter."
One of the turning points in Jackson's life occurred late in his freshman year at North Dakota when he took a long drive with his older brother, Joe, then a graduate student at the University of Texas. Joe had become skeptical about the validity of fundamentalism, and Phil, slowly but surely, was beginning to question his own beliefs, too. The changes within him were wrenching ones—he was, after all, a kid who came to college unable to accept the principles of Darwinism taught in biology class because they conflicted with the biblical story of creation—and he couldn't ignore them. He began to choose courses from all over the North Dakota curriculum, finally ending up with a composite major in psychology, religion and philosophy—three good reasons to read a lot of books and get into a lot of heady, late-night discussions. Having been a prisoner of rigid dogma for so long, Jackson found great joy in simple intellectual freedoms that others took for granted. Certainly he was not the first college student to rebel against his background, but the difference is that once Jackson started to question, he never stopped. His life became—and to a certain extent still is—a constant reexamination, a desire, as he puts it, "to see what doors I could open."
"I think the myopic way I grew up—and that's the best word to describe it—led to my experimentation," says Jackson. "Everything that happened to me in the 1960s was in tune with my background. The whole psychedelic experience or an LSD trip was, as Timothy Leary said, 'a religious experience.' "
The number of professional coaches who quote Timothy Leary is, to be sure, quite small. And as a forward for the Knicks from 1967-68 through '77-78, Jackson opened a few doors that made his coaches a little skittish. But even when he was living a mild version of the psychedelic life, there was something about him that was stable, something eminently sensible. "He's the most comfortable person I've ever known, and that comes through to people," says Charley Rosen, Jackson's co-author of Maverick and later his assistant coach in the Continental Basketball Association. "Often he walked to games in New York, and everybody talked to him—bums, kids, cops, businessmen. It didn't make a difference. Everybody just somehow trusted Phil."
Jackson's revelation in Maverick, published in 1975, of his occasional drug use caused a stir. "I was quick to realize that you don't get dropped on the stage without a certain price," says Jackson. He doesn't regret his candor in Maverick—regret isn't his style—but June despises the book. "People forget that everyone changes," she says. "What Phil was—or any of us were, for that matter—15 years ago is not what he is today."