Phil Jackson reached a big milestone this year.
He’s officially been in the NBA for 50 years.
He started as a player, drafted to the New York Knicks as a power forward in 1967—where he helped them win two Championships—and then became a coach, first for the Chicago Bulls (1989-98) and then the LA Lakers (1999-2004), leading both teams to a combined 11 championships.
Most recently, he’s gone behind the scenes as president of the Knicks. The only NBA job that Jackson hasn’t held yet is selling concessions, but give him time.
In many ways, he’s the antithesis of another Chicago sports icon, former Bears coach Mike Ditka. Jackson is the calm, meditating Zen master to Ditka’s gum-throwing rage blitzkrieg, the peaceful yin to Ditka’s stress-induced heart attack yang.
Jackson is so serene and unflappable, it’s hard not to wonder if it’s all an act. Is there a little Mike Ditka inside him who sometimes needs to scream till the veins pop out on his neck?
When we posed this question to Jackson, he just laughed. “Yeah, it’s there,” he admitted. “But then you remember that it’s just a game and it’s created by people who are human and judged by referees who are fallible and things happen out there that are beyond your control.”
Can you believe that shit? And he really seems to believe it, too. How does a guy become “the greatest coach in any profession ever”—or so says Kobe Bryant—and still manages to say things like “it’s just a game” with a straight face?
Phil Jackson saying “it’s just a game, it’s beyond your control” is like General George Patton saying, “Hey, it’s war, anything can happen.” Um, maybe, but you don’t win that many battles without being much, much better than the competition.
I sat down with basketball’s biggest enigma to try and unravel some of his secrets.
Basketball as Life Metaphor
If life is like a basketball game, should we be focusing on offense or defense?
Defense. It’s all about defense. But not in the way people usually think of that word. It’s about the watching aspect of being defensive. You’re watching and reacting to what’s happening around you.
What if the game isn’t going well? You’re down 15 points in the fourth quarter. How do you turn it around?
You have to change the tempo of the game and put on some full court pressure.
Change the tempo how?
It’s about manipulating expectations. What is the other team expecting from you? Then do the opposite. The element of surprise makes all the difference.
Yoda vs. Vince Lombardi
Legendary coach Vince Lombardi once said, “Winning is not a sometime thing; it’s an all time thing. Winning is habit.” Do you feel the same way?
That winning is a habit?
That you need to be winning constantly or you’re doing it wrong?
I think a part of what happens to people who win, they grow accustomed to winning. It’s not something they’re hoping for, or something that’s dependant on overpowering the competition. They just have this positive attitude that makes winning feel like a foregone conclusion.
Here’s another quote by another legendary coach, Yoda.
The little green guy with the big ears from the Star Wars films.
Yoda once said, “Do or do not, there is no try.” Do you agree?
Not really. That completely discounts the idea of being thoughtful before leaping into something. When you try, you’re setting yourself up for a possible failure. If you go into something only if you’re absolutely certain you can do it, there’s no challenge there. There’s no fear of, “Will I live up to this?”
You’re saying Yoda was wrong?
I guess I am. There are times when it’s vital to say, “Let’s just try this out and see how this goes.” You dip your toe into the water to see how it feels before you dive in.
Lord of the Rings
Are NBA Championship rings heavier than normal rings?
It depends on the year. They’ve grown in size, exponentially, from the first ring I’ve won to the second to the third. The newest ones, they’re huge. They come from your knuckle to the base of your hand. When you’re wearing them, the ligaments in your fingers start to ache and you can’t shake hands with anybody because you feel like a hand crusher.
So you’re not walking around all day with a set of NBA brass knuckles?
I couldn’t if I wanted to. Most of them don’t fit. I started wearing one that fit—it was the fourth championship, a team that won 72 games and lost 10. (The 1995–96 Chicago Bulls.) That was the penultimate moment, as far as season records go. The ring fit and it was the only one that fit, so I wore it for a couple of weeks.
You have ten fingers and eleven Championship rings as a coach. How do you wear them all?
How do you fit eleven rings on ten fingers?
It sounds like the question in a Chinese proverb.
Either that, or it’s the setup to a very dirty limerick.
Do you just pick your ten favorite wins and wear those rings?
No, I can’t do that. I can’t pick favorites. These are my children and they are all so special. I just jam the extra one on a thumb knuckle.
The Downside of Winning
We all know the excitement that comes with winning. But what’s the unromantic drudgery that comes with being part of a winning team?
The unromantic part is there’s still tremendous letdown. You know about buyer’s remorse?
It’s akin to that. When you’ve been chasing after this perfect moment and then you catch it, there’s an emptiness that comes after. You have to wait till the next season begins to start creating that feeling all over again. That’s something we used to tell teams when they won a Championship. “You are only as good as the last successful act you’ve completed.”
Did you come up with that? Or was it cribbed from Buddha?
It’s an old adage. Tex Winter, my mentor and coaching assistant, used to say it all the time. He also had another motivational saying that I always enjoyed. He said, “Let’s not start sucking each other’s dicks quite yet.”
Ah, well that’s definitely not a Buddha quote.
[Laughs.] I don’t think so, no.
[This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the March 2017 issue of Men’s Health.]