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A night with Shaq and Phil: Five war stories from the Hall of Fame duo

Phil Jackson dishes tales on Michael Jordan's trips to Atlantic City, books he assigned Shaquille O'Neal and more.

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NEW YORK — Phil Jackson and Shaquille O’Neal have 17 NBA championships combined and roughly 17 lifetime's worth of stories to tell.

The legendary Hall of Fame tandem—which won three titles together with the Lakers—were reunited Monday night in New York for an intimate Q&A session hosted by American Express at The Altman Building. The 90-minute conversation featured plenty of laughs, countless anecdotes and a few priceless stories. Shaq and Phil talked about their time with the Lakers, their relationships with Kobe Bryant, what the Cavaliers need to do to rally in the Finals and more.

They also talked about Michael Jordan's trips to Atlantic City, Shaq's book reports and how Jackson became the Zen Master. Here are five of the best war stories from a night with Shaq and Phil, along with a little lightning-round action at the end. 

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1. Overcoming an 0–2 deficit in the NBA Finals is no easy task (just ask the Cavaliers), but Shaquille O’Neal and the Heat did it in 2006 against the Mavericks. When Hannah Storm asked what is the key to the Cavaliers coming back in this year’s Finals, Shaq replied, “You have to believe.”

Shaq relayed a story from the 2006 Finals when the Heat were down 0–2. Pat Riley gathered the team in the locker room and held an ice bucket in his hand. “Do you guys believe I can hold my head in this bucket of ice for three minutes?” Riley asked his players before dunking his head in the water.

“And he did it,” Shaq recalled. “He almost died, but he did it.”

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2.  Jackson believes LeBron’s scorn could be the trick to the Cavaliers coming back. The former Bulls coach told a story about Michael Jordan during a playoff series with the Knicks. MJ went down to Atlantic City between Games 1 and 2 and a New York Times columnist wrote a scathing column criticizing Jordan and outing him for his gambling trip.

Jackson didn’t mind MJ’s trip to Atlantic City (he swears he was back by midnight). In fact, he was thrilled Jordan did it because of what the column caused him to do.

“It did something to Michael Jordan,” Jackson said. “You learn something about pulling the cape on Superman: It’s not a good idea.”

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3.  How did Jackson become the Zen Master? The Knicks president was asked where he gets his famous patience and even keel from.

“I had a lead singing role. I was so upset about this lead singing role and my voice was changing. I was 15. I couldn’t reach that note all the time and there was a performance. I got so emotionally upset about it. I caused myself some weightful moments of stress and I realized I had to do something.

“And I did.”

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4. Jackson was legendary for encouraging his players to read and handing them meaningful books throughout the season. At first, he gave Shaq a book by Friedrich Nietzsche.

“I didn’t read it, I went to,” Shaq said. 

Shaq said he saw parallels between Nietzsche and himself—“[he] was so intelligent and unorthodox that people thought he was crazy—and realized Jackson was trying to send him a message.

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“I realized after reading that I needed to reel it in a little bit.”

The following season, Jackson assigned Shaq another book: Siddhartha, a legendary Buddhist book about self-discovery. Jackson said he always kidded his players about doing book reports on the novels he assigned.

The former Lakers coach recalled a night that season that Shaq got thrown out of a game in Chicago. Shaq left the court, stopped by the bus, then got on the team plane.

“Halfway through the flight from Chicago to L.A., Shaq hands me his book report on Siddhartha,” Jackson said. 


Shaq praised Jackson for not being a micromanager as a head coach. The former Lakers star said Jackson would usually let him figure things out on his own, but when he did speak, it was powerful.

In their first year together, Jackson told Shaq he wanted him to be the leader of the Lakers. There were issues about O’Neal’s weight at the time, but Jackson elected not to bring it up to avoid getting off on the wrong foot.

“Five games into the season, I stop Shaq as he’s walking off the court,” Jackson said. The Lakers coach asked his big man, ‘What’s the best thing Wilt ever did?’ Shaq said averaging 50 points and 20 rebounds per game. Jackson told him that Wilt played every minute of every game.

“Can you do that?” Jackson asked Shaq. 

“I can do that,” O’Neal replied.

The next few nights, Jackson said he played Shaq all 48 minutes. But just a few games later, Shaq’s teammate John Salley stopped to talk to Jackson in the locker room.

“Shaq says if you can give him a rest tonight, will you give him a rest?” Salley asked.

Finally, a little lightning round action. Here are five more quotes from Shaq and Phil.

• Jackson often told Shaq to “go to his place” in order to find calm in his head. What was Shaq’s place? “In my living room with my grandma eating fried chicken and macaroni.”

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• Jackson on Scottie Pippen: “[He] was one of the most coachable players I’ve ever had.” He added: “Maybe the biggest wing defender we’ve ever seen.”

• Jackson compared Draymond Green to the power forward on his legendary Bulls teams: “Draymond has a little bit of a Dennis Rodman thing with him… but he doesn’t have the athleticism.”

• Shaq on his much-publicized beef with Kobe during their Lakers hey day: “I don’t think winning three out of four championships is a problem.”

• Jackson on comparing Jordan and Kobe: “If MJ looked at a box score and saw he didn’t shoot 50%, he’d feel bad. That wasn’t a problem for Kobe.”