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.