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For Whom The Bulls Toil

Nov. 11, 1991
Nov. 11, 1991

Table of Contents
Nov. 11, 1991

Reporter At Large
Chess
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'91-92 NBA Preview

For Whom The Bulls Toil

BULLS COACH PHIL JACKSON USED DIPLOMACY—AND OCCASIONAL STRONG-ARM TACTICS—TO KEEP A FIRM HOLD ON HIS NBA CHAMPS

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.

This is an article from the Nov. 11, 1991 issue

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."

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."

Jackson feels that he was distrusted by certain segments of the NBA establishment for a while, but these days his counter-culture leanings are generally forgotten or treated with humor. After he lit a smudge stick of sagebrush in his office a couple of seasons ago, for example, a few players stuck their heads in the door and said, "Oh, back to smokin' a little dope, eh, coach?" Actually, in some Indian tribes the lighting of sage is a ritual of purification—one just doesn't see it much in the NBA.

Anyway, whatever Jackson was questioning in the late-1960s and mid-'70s, it was never his love for basketball. He and Rosen coined a saying early in their friendship, and they still repeat it often: "Basketball's not a metaphor for life. Life's a metaphor for basketball."

On the court, Jackson was never confused with a ballet dancer—his movements still suggest one of those loose-jointed skeletons that get nailed to the front door on Halloween—but he played the game intensely, intelligently and unselfishly. Before Holzman had an assistant, he sometimes sent Jackson to scout the opposition (telling him to buy a meal on the team in exchange for his work), because he trusted Jackson's basketball mind. They didn't have anything in common—the traditional, conservative New Yorker in his Brooks Brothers suits, and the bearded, inquisitive, tie-dyed soul from the north—except for a mutual respect.

Jackson appreciated what he calls Holzman's "tender touch," his knack for compromise and conciliation. "He never overloaded you with advice. He doled it out in small packets and in a variety of ways," says Jackson. "He had a featherweight punch that hit you like a knockout blow." Some of Jackson's off-the-court coaching stratagems—giving his players books to read on road trips, taking a bus instead of a plane so they could see the countryside—are really new-age Holzman.

Still, no one figured Jackson for the coaching type—including Jackson himself, who wrote in Maverick that coaching wasn't for him because he couldn't deal with the egos and eccentricities of the players. But after he was traded to the New Jersey Nets in 1978 and became a player-assistant coach under Kevin Loughery, he found he liked coaching.

Jackson's playing career ended in 1980. He ran a health club in Montana for a year and then rejoined the Nets as a TV commentator for a season before taking the head coaching job with the Albany Patroons of the CBA in 1983. He moved his family to Woodstock, trading the 110-mile round-trip commute to Albany for the experience of living in a counter-culture environment. When Bulls general manager Jerry Krause called him in 1985 to interview for an assistant's job with Albeck, he felt he was ready for the NBA but not necessarily ready to fit the mold. "I wanted jobs, but I wanted them on my terms," says Jackson, "and I was still young enough to believe that could happen. I wasn't flaunting anything. I wore suits—don't forget I spent my whole boyhood in Sunday clothes—but, yes, I had the beard." And he had the Panama hat, a model that he had picked up in Puerto Rico, where he had been supplementing his income with summer coaching stints, to protect himself from the sun. "It's not just a hat," says Jackson, who still has it, "it's a great hat." Albeck took one look at it and wouldn't let Jackson sell ice cream to his team, much less coach it. "And this from a guy who frizzes his hair," says Jackson, smiling.

Jackson stayed with the Patroons for almost five seasons before tiring of the CBA and quitting after the 1986-87 season. He was considering graduate school and filing for unemployment when Krause called again in September '87 to ask him to interview for an assistant's job that had opened up under Doug Collins. "This time, Phil," said Krause, "come in here the right way." Hatless, featherless and clean-shaven, Jackson was hired. And when Collins was fired after the 1988-89 season, Jackson was elevated to the head job as, according to Krause, "the only candidate I ever considered."

Two major reasons Collins was fired were his emotional volatility (initially a strength because he was able to motivate a young team, later a problem because the Bulls started tuning him out) and his refusal to accept Winter's offensive system. Jackson was clearly of more even temperament than Collins and, just as clearly, had more respect for Winter. Collins, who would not comment for this story, has said that he believes that Jackson worked behind the scenes to backstab him, partly by guaranteeing that he would accept Winter's triple-post system if he got the head job. Both Jackson and Krause vehemently deny that there was any politicking to get Collins fired. "It's a move that had to be made," says Krause. "I remember when Phil told me he was going with Tex's system, and it was well after he was hired. Frankly, yes, I was glad to hear it because I happen to think Tex Winter is a genius. But it was not a condition of Phil's hiring."

If there was one question about Jackson as a head coach, though, it was not whether he would paint the locker room black or hire Jerry Garcia as a scout—it was his ability to come up with an offensive game plan. As a player he averaged only 6.7 points per game in a 13-year career, during which he concentrated on defense. "In his ability to guard every position on the floor, he was ahead of his time defensively," says Holzman.

"Tex's system is exactly what I was looking for," said Jackson. "When I got here, there was a feeling of impotence among some players who were eliminated from the process of ball movement. I came from the Knick system that incorporated all five players. Tex's system made a lot of sense."

It was Jackson's job to sell the system to the players, particularly Jordan, who openly derided it. The coach and the superstar played a constant game of give-and-take, Jackson at times turning the game over to Jordan in exchange for Jordan's sometimes sacrificing points for passes. "It was a difficult sell to Michael," says Jackson, "and it will continue to be difficult."

The compromise system worked to perfection in The Finals against the Lakers, as did Bach's stifling defense; the Bulls were simply an overpowering team in June. Whether or not they will be as overpowering this season is anyone's guess, but, obviously, Jackson's continued rapport with Jordan will be a major factor.

"Phil spent the first half of the year trying to build a solid foundation, getting everyone involved, and I understood that," said Jordan recently. "Yes, I was frustrated at times in the system, but, basically, I understood it. And in the second half of the season he was a little more free-wheeling, a little more willing to open it up. It worked. You have to say it worked, and I give him credit for it. Phil was good for our team, and that's what matters."

Off the floor, any coach of Jordan's has an even more difficult time. Before they almost magically peaked in June, the Bulls were not a particularly harmonious band of merry men. There was grumbling about Jordan from his teammates and complaints about the special treatment afforded him, much of it soon to become public in a book entitled Jordan Rules, written by Sam Smith of The Chicago Tribune. Both Jackson and Jordan are awaiting its publication in late fall, though not eagerly. Jackson defends whatever he did and still must do to accommodate Jordan.

"My first concern when I got the job was trying to treat Michael as equally as possible on the court," said Jackson. "That's what our offensive system is all about. But there is no possible way to treat him like every other player off the floor. He cannot walk downstairs in a hotel without being mobbed. I've walked past his room and seen eight, sometimes 10 service people—hotel employees!—outside his door, lurking to see if he comes out, flowers and candy all over the place. Unlike other players he has to have people travel with him to filter some of this out. We made our rules strict. His friends couldn't ride on the team bus or the team charter, but they could be with him on the road. There is a difference in the way he's treated, yes, but there's also a difference in the way he produces. A big difference. And that must be weighed. There are jealousies that other players must overcome. If they do, we'll be a great team. If they don't, it's going to be a long season."

If some Bulls resented the special treatment given Jordan, almost all of them appreciated the individual treatment they received from Jackson.

"This is not an easy team to coach," says veteran center Bill Cartwright. "There are so many guys who can really play, who really want to take all the big shots, and there were lots of times, of course, when Michael felt he could simply take over. One of the things Phil did was get Michael to accept his role. And the other thing he did was coach his players like individuals. With me, for example, he wanted to make sure I was healthy, make sure I was getting enough rest. And the fact that he cares about his players off the court gets through, too."

In some respects, 26-year-old Scottie Pippen is as difficult for a coach as Jordan is. Pippen's game was rough and undisciplined, and it was a constant struggle for Jackson to harness Pippen's extraordinary natural ability. Pippen is a proud and emotional man, too, and it took of every bit of Jacksonian diplomacy not only to teach him the finer points, but also to convince him they were necessary. Pippen improved so much last season that he landed a spot, with Jordan, on the 1992 U.S. Olympic team.

"The best thing that happened to us was that Scottie took to our coaching and trusted our intuition," says Jackson. "We encouraged him to provide certain skills. He worked, for example, on different backboard angles on his shots, when to take his shot, knowing when he had to score and when he didn't. The maturing of Scottie Pippen as a player was a major factor in our winning."

Indeed, Jackson searches constantly for ways to enlighten his players, to expand the limited frame of reference held by many modern-day athletes. The books, the side trips, the subliminal and overt messages he slips into game films, his prattling on about the lessons of history—all those, he hopes, will have some kind of effect. "I'd like to do more," says Jackson. "When we're in Washington I'd like to take the team to the Senate chamber instead of shoot-around. I'd like us all to go to an art museum. College coaches are able to do that kind of thing once in a while, but as a professional I have to be careful. Having to win the game gets in the way." But Jackson, somewhat the cockeyed idealist, plunges on, seeking to redefine the role of coach, to find a way to make a difference, probing, weighing, compromising. And one wonders when his restless mind will tell him to move on.

"Tell you the truth, I'm surprised he got into coaching," says Fitch. "Not that he couldn't handle it, but because I thought he'd be a Bill Bradley type, maybe a senator from North Dakota." Says Holzman, "I still think he could go back and be governor of North Dakota." June Jackson suggests that her husband's secret dream is to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs in a Democratic administration of Bradley's, who is still a close friend. Jackson has a deep interest in Native American culture and is surely the only NBA coach with a Xeroxed copy of a postcard of Sioux sign language on his desk, right there next to Winter's Triple-Post Offense and John Wooden's Practical Modern Basketball.

"Well, I do want to do something worthwhile after basketball," said Jackson, "but I'm just not sure what it is. Everything comes with a price. Indian Affairs? Sure, it would interest me. But I've got time. I'll study my options."

Of course he will. A few summers ago, Jackson went to a Pentecostal service back in Bigfork just to please his mother. During the sermon the preacher began hammering upon the point that there were three sinners in the congregation, three influential men who had turned their back on the Lord by staying away from the church.

"Come forward now and save yourselves!" he shouted. "Come forward and receive the blessings of God!"

Jackson recognized the technique—Lord knows he had seen it enough—but he stared straight ahead. Two of the men finally gave in to the altar call and went forward to be saved. The preacher kept hammering away at the one who didn't. But Jackson stayed in his seat, expression unchanged.

"Sometimes you just have to harden your heart," he said later, "and wait it out."

PHOTOJEAN MOSSJordan and Pippen got their TLC, and the Bulls profited.PHOTOSHEEDY AND LONGDefense and rebounding made Jackson a useful Knick.PHOTOBILL SMITHWhen Collins (above, left) got the boot, Jackson got Jordan.PHOTOJOHN BIEVER[See caption above.]PHOTOBILL SMITHCould the '60s flower child have ever pictured himself as champion coach?PHOTO[See caption above.]PHOTOPETER READ MILLERThe coach and the Jackson five, Charley, June, Chelsea, Brooke and Ben, hit the court.PHOTO[See caption above.]PHOTOPETER READ MILLERThis lid once cost Jackson a Bulls job.