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Rosen: How Phil Became Phil

Vassar College is an exclusive 153-year-old institution situated on 1,000 bucolic acres in the heart of the Hudson Valley. A compilation of various rating criteria positions Vassar among the 10-best colleges in the country, and its student population of about 2,400 has faced extremely rigorous requirements and competition to be accepted.

The school officially defines its overriding mission as providing “Intellectual inquiry characterized by an unusual degree of flexibility.” And one day last fall that flexibility was demonstrated when Phil Jackson accepted an invitation to address “Religion, Culture, and Society: Sports in America,” a class whose most recent assignment had been to read Sacred Hoop — one of PJ’s several best-selling memoirs.

30 students sat in snug desk-chairs set against the wall of a round room in a creaky-floored 100-year-old building. Dressed in a Knicks sweatsuit, Jackson sat on a desk at the apex of the circle with his feet crossed and planted on the floor.

He began his discourse by recounting how Sacred Hoop came to be written: “After the Bulls won our third consecutive championship in 1993, a publisher offered me a million dollars to do the book. But when Michael Jordan retired that summer, the offer was rescinded. About a year-and-a-half later, Michael returned and the offer was back on the table. So I guess I have to thank Michael for the opportunity to write this book.”

From there, Jackson launched into a description of his upbringing: “Both of my parents were Pentecostal ministers, which meant that my own introduction to religion was a total expression of life, a mystical experience where the in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit was part of spiritual growth. However, I lacked the requisite passion, so although I tried to find this inner experience of speaking in tongues, it never happened for me.”

If Jackson was mostly a reluctant participant at church and in camp meetings, at home his parents made sure to isolate the family from the temptations of the fallen world. “We didn’t have a TV and our primary amusement was board games on Saturday nights. With two older brothers, that’s where I first developed a competitive edge and a sense of gamesmanship.”

As he entered high school, Jackson’s increasing interest in sports created conflict at home. “We went to church twice on Sundays, in the morning and in the evening, two or three times during the week. We wore our suits all day long on Sundays so we weren’t allowed to participate in any kind of strenuous play. Eventually, I was allowed to play sports on Sunday, but only if it didn’t interfere with church. Even so, I felt guilty because sports was so much more satisfying than my parents’ religious beliefs and practices.”

With sports becoming more important and more satisfying, Jackson played on his high school football team, pitched and played first base, as well as being the mainstay of the basketball squad. His characteristic modesty prevented Jackson from telling the gathered students that, in an exhibition game, he once hit a line-drive double off the legendary Satchel Paige.

In the summer after his junior year in high school, Jackson had another reason to distance himself from his parents’ religion: “My older brother Joe had been away at college, and he made a trip home from college and detoured to pick me up after I played in an American Legion baseball game. On the ride home, Joe started talking to me about his growing interest in Buddhism, and that really put a hole in my religious foundation.”

Most of the students listened carefully and took notes. One or two tried to hide yawns behind their hands. The young man sitting next to me busily filled his open notebook with geometric doodles.

Occasionally, Jackson paused to allow and encourage students to ask questions.

Q: “When did you first realize that basketball should be your focus?”

A: “In the heat of the summer after my junior year of college, I lost 15 pounds playing baseball in a college league in South Dakota. I was mostly skin and bones to begin with. That’s when I decided if I had any kind of future in sports it would be in basketball, so I was strictly a one-sport guy in my senior year.”

In 1963, Phil accepted a basketball scholarship to the University of North Dakota where he honed his on-court skills under the tutelage of coach Bill Fitch. “Bill had been a Marine Drill Instructor, so he made sure we were in great shape and that we played unselfish, disciplined ball.”

Four years later, PJ was drafted by the Knicks in the second round (17th pick overall). Although he and his roommate, Walt Frazier, were named to the NBA’s All-Rookie Team, they were both strangers in paradise. “We were playing the Warriors, who were then located in San Francisco, and like a pair of yokels we wandered around trying to find Haight-Ashbury. We never got there, but along the way, Walt bought what was advertised as a diamond ring from a street peddler for 100 dollars.”

Jackson witnessed how the success of the Knicks — winning championships in 1970 and 1973 — provided a considerable boost to the collective mindset of the community. “Even the most casual sports fans could see how unselfish the team was, how willingly we sacrificed our personal goals for the sake of a common purpose. Of course, Willis Reed limping out of the tunnel just before we faced off against the Lakers in the seventh game of the 1970 Finals was totally inspirational. During that time, the Knicks gave New Yorkers something wonderful to talk about, to root for, and perhaps to try and emulate.”

But when the Knicks became also-rans the flavor didn’t last. “By the end of my playing career, I became unhappy with the how the materialistic aspects of the game were becoming so dominant. Bill Bradley would refer to Gulf and Western, the corporation that owned the Knicks, as Engulf and Devour. I resolved that if I was ever fortunate enough to become an NBA coach, I had to emphasize the spiritual nature of the game.”

Q: “How then, if at all, did the religious environment of your childhood influence your coaching?”

A: “It actually started early when, after my first year with the Knicks, I went back to grad school at the University of North Dakota and enrolled in a course in group counseling because I thought that team therapy might be a good idea. I didn’t really have a chance to put anything I learned in the course into practice during my playing career. However, the idea of group counseling continued with me when I started coaching, but it transferred into more of a group meditation practice.”  

Q: “What were the worst and the best times in your NBA career?”

A: “Actually, one led to the other. In 1969, midway through my second year with the Knicks, I made an awkward move that herniated two discs in my lower back. After a spinal fusion, I was immobilized for several months and had to wear a brace for several months after that. Not only did I fear that I’d never play basketball again, but also that I’d never be able to walk without crutches. I was 24, and it was absolutely the lowest point of my life.  

“But once I was back on my feet, Red Holzman made me his de facto assistant coach. Very few NBA games were nationally televised in those days, so I’d go over to the NBC studio and watch the out-of-town local broadcasts of our upcoming opponents. Taking notes and coming up with game plans got me deeper into the game than I had before.

“During the Knicks games, I’d sit next to Red on the bench and get an up-close coach’s view of the game. He’d also talk to me about the hows and whys of everything he did. That was a great education for me. It made me a better player, while also providing a blueprint for what kind of a coach I would eventually become.

“Looking back, the most valuable lesson I learned was how the most negative situations could be transformed into the most positive.”

Q: “How did you reconcile your spiritual attitude with the dollar-driven spectacle that the NBA has become?”

A: “The main thing I tried to do was establish a sense of community. The players are separated by their agents, their backgrounds and the different cultures they’re involved in. One way to bring them together is to let them police themselves. Like that playoff game against the Knicks back in 1994 when Scottie Pippen took himself out of the game because the play I designed had Toni Kukoc taking the last-second win-or-lose shot instead of him. After Toni made the shot and the game was won, I stayed out of the locker room and asked the captain, Bill Cartwright, to speak to the team. Bill was angry that Scottie had damaged the sense of community that had been established by this team playing without Michael Jordan. Scottie apologized and the rift was repaired.

“I also made sure to put aside some time where we could all talk freely about whatever topic came up. Whether it’s Martin Luther King versus Malcolm X, or gun control, or the advisability of bringing wives or girlfriends on the road, or how to support teammates who are having problems in the personal lives …  Everything and anything was up for discussion. These sessions helped players to communicate with each other while also establishing an in-house culture of awareness and inclusiveness.

“For the last eight years that I coached I also had sessions using Buddhist meditation techniques as a secularized vehicle to get us all in the same space. I called it con-spiring. One breath, one mind.

“With the Lakers in the 2002 Western Conference Finals, we did an extended period of meditation in the locker room before Game 7 in Sacramento with the aim of getting the players clear and ready to play their best. Despite the incredible level of noise and hostility produced by the Kings fans, we remained calm and won the game in overtime. That particular game gave me a thrill.”

Jackson sighed and said this in closing: “It’s true that in this country at this time, sports has almost taken the place of religion. Even so, I have a great hope that sports can be a way for us all to move into a real spiritual consciousness.”

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