Dakota Datebook

Phil Jackson, Part 2

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Yesterday, we began the story of Phil Jackson, who was born in 1945 in Deer Lodge, MT, and grew up in Williston. He got his big break as an NBA coach in 1988, during his stint as an assistant with the Chicago Bulls. Soon after, he was named head coach, and led the Bulls to 6 NBA championships in 9 years – the first time any team twice won three consecutive titles.

After that, Jackson took a year off, during which he studied at a Zen Buddhist monastery. In some ways, this hearkened back to a childhood steeped in spirituality. Growing up the son of two fundamentalist ministers, Jackson’s home-life in Williston allowed for no TV, drinking, smoking, dancing, movie-going or unnecessary luxuries.

That’s not to say that Jackson was entirely innocent. One story relates that because his arms were so long, he could steer cars from the back seat. With friends on the floor working the gas and brake pedals, they got their kicks by make a moving car appear to be driver-less.

During the late ‘60s, Jackson studied religion, philosophy and psychology at UND, and it reportedly wasn’t until he joined the NY Knicks that he grew his hair out, smoked, drank, dated and rode motorcycles. His 1975 memoir, “Maverick,” was a far cry from the book he wrote 20 years later – an examination of basketball and his early years with Chicago entitled, “Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior.”

Jackson has espoused what he calls “Zen Christianity,” mixed with Lakota beliefs, in which victors share trophies of war while maintaining respect for their opposition.

In an LA Times article last month, David Ferrel wrote, “He meditates. He studies the teachings of Eastern religions and Native American cultures. He sounds a call to team meetings by chanting and drumming, and waves smoke in the air to dispel unwanted spirits. Even after hard losses, Jackson projects an air of calm – a level gaze and a steady baritone voice that candidly assesses his team’s failings.

“To learn to better communicate with his athletes,” Ferrel continued, “Jackson has studied the science of how they respond. He found that one player in Chicago could absorb his lessons only when Jackson put a hand on his arm or shoulder.”

Jackson told Ferrel, “I had another guy on my team that, I couldn’t tell him anything, I had to tell him to tell himself, because if I told him he resisted it… They have different receptors, a different ability to be receptive to the spoken word. Some of them can’t even pull in (verbal instructions); they need a visual, or they need a demonstrative act. I do a lot of that through videotape.”

Jackson meditates in an attempt to release the stress of traveling, not eating right, and not enough exercise, not to mention the expectations and pressures of his coaching performance. Last season, he suffered from kidney stones, and during the playoffs, he underwent emergency heart surgery. It caused him to miss Game 4 of the series with the San Antonio Spurs, but he was back on the bench in time to see the Lakers reach their third consecutive championship.

Superstar egos have added tremendous stress to coaching careers over the past few years, and 58 year-old Jackson talks of retirement and the beckoning of wide-open spaces in Montana. If he does retire, he would leave the field as one of the most successful basketball coaches of all time.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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