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Father Phil The high priest of the Triangle offense, Phil Jackson, has become a paternal figure to Shaquille O'Neal as he tries to lead the Lakers to the Promised Land

Nov. 01, 1999
Nov. 01, 1999

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Nov. 1, 1999

NBA Preview 1999-2000

Father Phil The high priest of the Triangle offense, Phil Jackson, has become a paternal figure to Shaquille O'Neal as he tries to lead the Lakers to the Promised Land

Barely a decade ago Phil Jackson was unable even to be seriously
considered for an assistant coach's job in the NBA. Phil Jackson
a coach? He was a strange duck, a middle-aged hippie. Yes, the
hoop eminences knew: Phil Jackson was not coachly, that was for
sure. So he underwent personality testing in an effort to find
out what occupation he might be suited for. The top two vocations
suggested by his profile were 1) housekeeper and 2) trail guide.

This is an article from the Nov. 1, 1999 issue Original Layout

Ah, but Jackson did, at the last moment, out of the blue, get one
offer--from Jerry Krause, the general manager of the Bulls,
another odd man out in the NBA. And by last June, at a swish
Beverly Hills hotel, where the Los Angeles Lakers announced
Jackson's hiring for five years at $6 million per, he had been
beatified: "The preeminent coach in America," said Lakers vice
president Jerry West, beaming. After Jackson took the microphone,
a local columnist gushed that he was "Churchillian," and an only
slightly more hyperbolic general assessment was that Jackson was
the savior. In the particular, Shaquille O'Neal, a man who has
shown an appetite for coaches--as hors d'oeuvres--cooed that it
would be "an honor" to play for Jackson.

So at a time when coaches have become nearly vestigial ornaments
in what is politely referred to as "a players' league" (anarchy
just sounds so harsh), Jackson thrives. Only once in all his nine
seasons with the Bulls, it seems, did any player deign to take
him on. Indeed, going all the way back to John McGraw and Amos
Alonzo Stagg, the last time a century turned, successful American
coaches have usually been one of those two broad types--martinet
or minister. But Jackson seems to have found a modern middle way,
with what appears to be a bittersweet style that works well for
the boys of this fin de siecle. How, Phil?

He has thought about this. He has thought about many issues.
"The one thing every successful coach needs is an ingredient:
the intuitive ability to change a conflict situation into a
team-building one," he replies. This is exactly what Jackson
used that one awful time when a player--the star--publicly
disobeyed him, attacking the very core of team sports. Jackson
goes on, in his deep bass timbre: "Sometimes just the coach's
voice is enough. Whatever. Sometimes...who knows? Sometimes it
can be just the way you smell."

Jackson now uses a metaphor. He is well known as a liberal
Democrat, and when Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980,
Jackson was aghast at the choice America had made. He thought
about this. "Eventually I realized that what was so important, so
attractive, was that Reagan delivered a coherent message that the
people could understand," he says. "And he had the bearing, the
carriage." Jackson pauses and, wryly, smiles. "The smell.
Whatever it was, Reagan had the smell."

It's after practice one day in the preseason as the Lakers,
growing more familiar with their savior, are likewise trying to
assimilate his esoteric offense, the (fabled) Triangle. He
approaches them, assembled, at midcourt. They eye him. Jackson's
carriage is unique. Indeed, from his high perch, 6'8" up, long,
mobilelike arms dangle from his coat-hanger shoulders. His legs
are bowed in an extreme caricature of a cowpoke's, and sometimes
when he walks, it appears as if he is going to pitch forward,
right onto his face. His gray beard is austere, professorial; the
frames of his glasses, by contrast, have a sensitive lavender
patina; his loud ties are simply hideous. But there is no
question that the Smell emanates from this odd-lot package.
O'Neal has even stepped up his respectful assessment and now
promotes Jackson as "a white version of my father."

The coach speaks to his new team, and this time they sniff
something new, an avuncular odor. "You know what it is with
you?" Jackson asks. "It's like you're going along at 65 miles an
hour, listening to your hip-hop music, and your cell phone is
ringing, and you're eating a Big Mac, and you spill ketchup on
your shirt. You look down. And when you look back up: right
ahead of you, it's all red lights. There's just too much going
on in your lives."

Whatever the Lakers think, this much is sure: No coach of theirs
has ever put it quite this way. They know that later, too,
there'll be group meditations and pregame "nap time" (there's no
nap time in basketball!) and surprise field trips and party games
and personally assigned books--all the things that in Chicago
gained Jackson the reputation for being a wise Buddha. But there,
of course, it was different. There, Jackson had a constituency of
one to satisfy, and that one, Michael Jordan, was a smart and
mature grown-up. Jordan, too, was a leader you could smell from
far off.

Jackson's vision for the Bulls--and he has stated unequivocally
that it is critical for every team to possess a discrete vision
if it is to succeed--was clear. But when he came to L.A. he
admitted, "I haven't even got an idea of a vision." The Lakers
are a different kettle of fish. Jackson explains it
diplomatically: "They've had a variety of coaches, but they
haven't had stability. They need to come together for a purpose.
But we don't know whether that purpose will be precision,
execution or...Showtime." This time, he is the one who wrinkles
his nose, as at an odor. "That doesn't fit in with me."

In any event, coaches have not fared well with the stylish
Lakers. Magic Johnson, a man whose smile was undented even by HIV
infection, lasted only 16 games in 1994, ranting about his
players, "Me, me, me! Nobody cared much about anything else." Of
Del Harris's tenure, from '94 to '99, Kobe Bryant has remarked
dismissively, "Guys tuned out Del from Day One." Et tu, Kobe.
Harris was followed 12 games into last season by Kurt Rambis, who
once got into a shouting match with Bryant during a timeout.
"Fine, do whatever you want to do!" Rambis screamed. Then, after
a playoff loss to the San Antonio Spurs, O'Neal cursed Rambis in
the locker room for imposing on him to please join his teammates
in a circle--exactly the sort of gesture that Jackson sponsors.

O'Neal, the surrogate son, would also be the ideal team
commander. First, because the Triangle offense is prejudiced
toward the center. But also: O'Neal is 27 now, starting his
seventh season, approaching, one assumes, the height of his
powers. (Weighing in at 340, well above what Jackson requested,
he is indisputably at the breadth of his powers.) Moreover, every
prideful instinct should inspire Shaq. He has never won a title,
college or pro. He has seen himself surpassed by Tim Duncan, now
recognized as the premier player in the NBA, and he surely cannot
avoid noticing that even on his own team, the handsome and Peter
Pan-ish Bryant has become the popular favorite. Then, too,
because Bryant broke a bone in his right hand and will be out for
several more weeks, O'Neal is provided with another opportunity
to assume leadership.

Jackson, the white father, chooses these two interesting words to
describe how he has found O'Neal: endearing and respectful. But
he adds bluntly, "Yes, Shaquille would be the obvious choice, but
because of his free throw situation, he can't be the leader."

You mean Wilt Chamberlain, scoring 35 or more a game, could never
have been a leader of a team of yours?

"That's right. Look, you've got to deliver in the clutch if
you're going to be the leader, and if you can't make free
throws...."

Have you told Shaquille this?

(Pause.) "No, not yet."

Still, to coach the Lakers was a challenge Jackson couldn't pass
up. He was offered the chance to prove himself outside of
sport--"a real job, not a celebrity thing," he says--by running the
campaign of his old friend and teammate, Bill Bradley, in Iowa,
the crucial caucus state. He adores Bradley. "He's a man I
respect in so many ways," Jackson says. "He's so compassionate--to
humanity, to society in general. Bill is so smart. He can see
things coming."

And you?

"Well, yes, I'd like to think I'm good at that, too."

So he turned down serious politics to take the $6 million per
because he foresaw that, yes, he could restore the Lakers to
glory. "This is the right place for me," he says. "I believe
they're a group of players who want to get there but don't know
quite how. But I'm no savior. They have to be the savior of
themselves." Jackson knows, though, that if he can't point the
Lakers toward their salvation, he risks being remembered
primarily as that attractive eccentric of a coach whom Michael
Jordan carried to six championships. Surely, if this team fails
him, Jackson can see that thing coming, too.

Jackson's devotion to Team goes beyond the usual coach's
halftime platitudes. As a boy in North Dakota, teams were his
social salvation. This was because he was not just a PK--a
preacher's kid--but twice that, the child of two Pentecostal
ministers. Jackson was raised in such a strict home that he did
not see a movie till he was a senior in high school. But for all
their piety, his parents encouraged their three sons to engage
in their own updated form of old-fashioned Muscular
Christianity. "Competition was an outlet for me, so I masked my
aggression in the other aspects of life," Jackson says. In fact,
while other Dakota boys camped before the TV on the long winter
nights, Phil and his older brothers engaged in heated board
games: Rook, Chinese checkers, Scrabble, chess and a game known
as Caroms, which was delicately called "Christian pool." Even
now, Phil's wife, June, refuses to play such simple games with
him because he performs so intensely, so rudely.

More meaningful to young Phil, athletics was the one place where
he was not the devout outsider but, instead, just another
teammate, a regular fella. The team came to mean even more to him
because his parents played out something of a gender reversal.
His father, Charles, was the softer, more compassionate pastor,
while his proselytizing mother, Elisabeth, was the more
dominating presence. "I think that because emotions came first
for my father, that's one reason why friendship has seemed so
natural, and the bonding of teams has been so important to me,"
Jackson says--adding sardonically, "On the other hand, because of
my mother's influence, I had a tendency to be affected more by
the intellectual nature of any woman." He searches for the right
words, then says, "Matters of the heart were not always easy with
me. I had to unlearn a lot of things about women."

The influence of Team was strengthened all the more when Jackson
landed as a sub on Red Holzman's New York Knicks, which came to
boast a classic cohesive unit--Reed, Frazier, DeBusschere, Monroe,
Bradley--in which basketball's eternal conflict between the
individual and the group was played out in the most tender
balance. In every other team sport, the role of each player is
more defined than it is in basketball, as David Halberstam neatly
illustrated in his biography of Jordan, Playing for Keeps.
Halberstam writes how Tex Winter, Jackson's assistant, the
apostle of the Triangle, used to remind Jordan of the bromide,
"There's no I in team."

"Yeah," Jordan would reply, "but there is in win."

For ultimately, all the mumbo-jumbo aside, simply to achieve a
felicitous equilibrium between the best player(s) and the whole
unit is what usually determines success in basketball. The
Triangle, which seeks to promote that classic balance, is hardly
new; Winter himself learned it playing with Bill Sharman and Alex
Hannum way back in 1947 at Southern Cal under coach Sam Barry,
who called the offense "the center opposite." And the Triangle is
especially tantalizing for players because it permits more of
them to handle the ball (hooray!) but requires each man to
exhibit more self-denial (boo!). This probably has never occurred
to Jackson, the born-first fundamentalist, but the Triangle may
appeal to him so because it best represents Satan's temptation,
basketball division. Jim Cleamons, another of Jackson's
assistants, installed the Triangle when he became the Dallas
Mavericks' coach in '96. It didn't work, Cleamons says, for the
simple reason that as the Mavericks each got the ball, "they all
thought they should be the Man."

So the Triangle is not just a matter of learning a new formation
by rote. Apparently it can't work unless the players are devoted
to the team--and, by extension, to the coach. Luc Longley, who
played center for Jackson in Chicago, saw that, saw about Jackson
what Jackson had seen about Reagan: that the leader's belief in a
well-expressed message might be more important than the message
itself. "If you're committed to something, other people sense
that and are prepared to be committed to it as well," Longley
says. Jackson was never deluded that all the Bulls always fell
for his sundry meditations and divertissements. Some of them
(Jordan included) sometimes snickered and rolled their eyes. But
enough of them surrendered, together, to what Longley identifies
as Jackson's "presence and his spirit."

"The best coaches," says West, "all have a great belief in
themselves, and then all, in their unique way, do one thing: They
get players to buy in." It is the utter definition of how sweet
Jackson smelled in Chicago.

The classic coaches in the past, though, ruled from on high. My
way or the highway. "Controlaholics," Jackson calls them. He,
however, appears to draw his authority up, from the team, which
seems to invest him with even more confidence in himself and his
players. "I've never known anybody to handle crisis the way Phil
does," Winter says. "He's able to read the big picture and not
let the emotions of the moment control him. Things are going bad
on the court, and I'll be screaming at Phil to take a timeout:
'Hey, you better start coaching, and earn that fabulous salary of
yours.' But he's likely to say, 'Ah, let 'em work it out
themselves.' It's amazing how many times they do."

"Above all," says Jackson, "you must contribute your whole self
and not just your athletic self. Look at San Antonio. They really
dedicated themselves to the team. They joined in a prayer group.
But there are all sorts of belief systems. I've used the concept
of the tribe. I think that makes it easier, more comfortable.
You're a society, a club. The point is to build respect, to help
one another."

At its most basic, basketball comes down to these lines, written
by Rudyard Kipling in The Second Jungle Book, that Jackson read
to the Bulls before playoff games: "For the strength of the Pack
is the Wolf,/and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack."

There it is, winning basketball distilled. Then, with all of
basketball America watching, Scottie Pippen said no, he wouldn't
do what the coach told him to do.

"Are you in or out?" Jackson asked.

"I'm out," Pippen said.

The other Bulls were absolutely pulverized. Jackson looked in
anguish at his assistants. "F--- him," Cleamons snapped. "We play
without him." Jackson called another timeout.

The irony could not be lost: This most successful of coaches,
this one who best seemed to work with the modern athlete, was now
the glaring victim of the most overt disobedience. There were 1.8
seconds left in Game 3 of the '94 conference semifinals, the
Bulls and the Knicks were tied, and the star of the team (Jordan
was away playing baseball) refused to go back on court because
the coach had dared call for another player to get the shot. It
was not just that everything Jackson stood for was being
violated. Pippen also was denigrating the honor of Team, the very
ethic of the game. And the whole ugly business was right there on
national TV, better than Jerry Springer. One could even imagine
that terminal Day-Glo phrase appearing as a graphic across
Jackson's chest: Lost control of his team--those words that no
coach survives.

Amazingly, Toni Kukoc, the player Jackson had assigned to take
the shot, made it. But that was still tainted by Pippen's
disgrace, and even as he left the court, Jackson was trying to
suppress his anger and decide what to do. He had to act quickly,
in that brief time before the press would be allowed to descend
on the locker room. Then, a couple of minutes later, Jackson
heard sobs coming from the shower. "It was Bill Cartwright, and
he's not an emotional man," Jackson says. "But I knew what he was
feeling. Everything we stood for had gone. In one moment
everything had changed."

So Jackson spoke not at all to Pippen and only briefly to the
players. "What was broken was sacred," he told the team. "What
happened has hurt us. Now, you--you have to work this out." He
knew Cartwright would take the lead. Jackson glanced at his
watch. "You've got two minutes to get together, to talk softly
between yourselves." Then Jackson led his coaches out of the
room.

Cleamons says he still doesn't know what transpired afterward.
"But I know this," he says, "the way Phil coaches, the players'
bond was stronger than what Scottie did." Jackson, incredibly,
grew even more in stature. Has any coach ever gained so by
repudiation?

"I could feel Cartwright, feel them coming together," Jackson
says. And then: "That's the fascinating thing that brought me
back to the game this year. You reap so much from the
relationships. You know, all we're really trying to do is just
make music together, to create a format of harmony." If that is
so, though, Jackson's Lakers must somehow learn to resemble a
string quartet: It has no conductor, but the musicians take their
lead from the first violin.

Jackson is a bit lonely now. His wife is going to visit him only
periodically in Los Angeles, staying a continent away, back at
their home in New York's Hudson Valley. "She wants to get out of
the shadow of being an NBA wife," he explains. But he is a man
comfortable with himself, who has done many things his way, body
and soul. He is unpredictable. His brothers both rejected the
fearful faith of their father and mother, but Jackson has kept
one foot securely in the fold. So, do you still go to church?

"I go into a lot of churches," he replies. Bradley, in fact,
played a significant role in Jackson's spiritual journey. He came
to North Dakota back when they were young Knicks, and there
Bradley dared speak a certain heresy to a meeting of the
Fellowship of Christian Athletes. "Bill emphasized that belief is
personal," Jackson recalls, "and because faith is internal, your
own religion doesn't have to satisfy the needs of others." For
the PK whom everybody carefully watched, this was liberating, and
eventually he became a Zen Christian. "Institutional religion
doesn't attract me," he says, "but the philosophical nature of
Christianity appeals to me. Love. Love thy neighbor. What also
appeals to me is the emphasis Buddhism places on compassion. Love
and compassion. I like that combination."

When he preaches--not to put too fine a point on that verb--to his
players, Jackson even emphasizes that love and compassion must
not be applied only to their own team. Team, after all, is holy
to Jackson, so the other team must also be shown honor. "At a
certain level there's a belittling of your opponent, trying to
break him down," Jackson says. "We try to get away from that.
Honor competition, but remember, it is your opponents who make it
possible for you to rise. So if you take your opponents apart,
that hurts you."

Can a team yet without a leader, without a first violin, without
a vision, without--for god's sake--a Jordan, understand these sorts
of spiritual concepts and abide by them? "Teaching can be
awkward," Jackson acknowledges, "and obviously the things I do
aren't conventional, so there's more risk."

But there are different paths to salvation. West remembers
Jackson, the Knick. "He was a sneaky-good player," West says.
"You'd go past him, and he'd deflect the ball. He wasn't fast
enough to steal it, but he'd deflect it." The image applies just
as well now. Phil Jackson is not a director. He is a deflector.
But battles, at times, have been won on the oblique.

COLOR PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: COVER PHOTOGRAPH BY WALTER IOOSS JR. COVER 1999-2000 NBA PREVIEW What Does He See? Phil Jackson Looks for Peace and Harmony in L.A.COLOR PHOTO: ANDY HAYT/NBA PHOTOS COVER [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY WALTER IOOSS JR. AN OLD HABIT Jackson hopes to inspire the Lakers much as he did the Bulls, with poetry, meditation and assigned books.COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK SCHOOL'S IN Jackson's brand of pedagogy includes metaphors the Lakers have never heard before and an evangelical zeal for teamwork.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH WIDE LOAD Jackson likes O'Neal's attitude but isn't happy about his added weight.COLOR PHOTO: JONATHAN DANIEL/ALLSPORT BLOOD BROTHERS Jackson thinks he and Bradley are much alike but belong in different places.COLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR.
Jackson believes it's critical for a team to have a vision if it
is to succeed. But when he came to L.A. he admitted, "I haven't
even got an idea of a vision."
"You've got to deliver in the clutch if you're going to be the
leader," Jackson says of Shaq, "and if you can't make free
throws...."
Jackson turned down serious politics to take the $6 million per
because he foresaw that, yes, he could restore the Lakers to
glory.
"Above all," Jackson says, "you must contribute your whole self
to the team, not just your athletic self."