“Then Coach [Mel] Thompson entered the locker room, wearing his game face, a Midwestern scowl that looked like cloud covering, and moving with that loping shambling walk that had become a trademark to us, his face exuded no light, just various textures of darkness.”
--"My Losing Season,”
by Pat Conroy
Whatever darkness lurks inside Phil Jackson is difficult to see. The Lakers’ coach, who has guided teams to nine championships in Los Angeles and Chicago, is a strong believer in light and reason, as evidenced by his New Age spiritualism. 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. With his formidable presence -- he is a former player himself -- and gray hair, glasses and trim mustache, he has a look befitting his nickname, “The Zen Master.”
Yet there are clues that the rigors of coaching are becoming too much in today’s National Basketball Assn., a league dominated by multimillionaire athletes who have the will and political pull to challenge any coach’s authority. At 58, with one of the winningest resumes in all of professional sports, Jackson openly hints of retirement -- and might not have a choice about returning to the Lakers. His five-year, $30-million contract is running out, and negotiations to extend it were put on hold in February, a sign, some insiders think, that management might discard Jackson in an effort to retain Kobe Bryant.
The Lakers are two losses away from the end of a season marred by internal feuding and the cloud of a pending sexual-assault trial against Bryant. Jackson has commented only obliquely about the strains, saying he cannot remember a year like it, but there is a gathering sense that he is unlikely to be back. His suddenly shaky tenure provides an unusual window on leadership in the modern age -- and the forces that undermine a coach’s ability to impose discipline and mold a cohesive group.
“What happens a lot of times is that your superstars don’t fall in line with the coach,” said Rick Fox, a Laker co-captain who has played 13 years in the league. “They’ll go to the general manager, they’ll go to the owner. They’ll say: ‘You know what? I’m not playing for this guy.’ You know who goes? The coach. The coach gets fired.”
It is almost a humdrum occurrence. Two NBA coaches, in Atlanta and New Orleans, were fired Friday. All 15 teams in the NBA’s Eastern Conference have fired or replaced their coaches at least once since last season ended, and in two years there have been 24 coaching changes in a league of 29 franchises.
Jackson’s elite status has kept him above the carnage, but the challenge of coaching the Lakers has forced changes in how he deals with athletes. He has had to bend his high idealism. He is not the authoritarian taskmaster he was in Chicago, where he guided Michael Jordan’s Bulls to six NBA titles in the 1990s. Jackson listens more now. He tolerates a Laker team that seems to coast through parts of a season, believing it can “turn it on” during the playoffs, as it has in the last two games against the San Antonio Spurs.
Part of those changes have come from Jackson’s adoption of “positive coaching” philosophies, and his conviction that his teams need to be physically fresh late in the year. But he also has had to tailor his methods to his two temperamental stars, Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal -- perhaps the single telling difference between his handling of the Bulls and the Lakers.
Jordan, as strong-willed as anyone, nonetheless saw the merit of Jackson’s schemes, including the unusual triangle offense. The triangle begins with a set configuration -- three players well spaced on one side of the floor -- and relies on passing and movement, rather than diagramed plays, to exploit weaknesses in the defense. Spontaneous decisions create an unfolding series of options, out of which, in theory, a high-quality shot emerges.
The Bulls’ other superstar, Scottie Pippen, accepted it because Jordan did, and their teammates got in line.
“It took Phil a year or two to convince Michael to buy into that triangle offense, but once he did, the rest is history,” said Laker forward Horace Grant, who played for those Chicago teams. “It was all about Michael being our leader. If he had bumped heads with Phil, we’d have probably been a little more insubordinate. But Michael respected Phil, and it just carried over to the team.”
Grant is one of many who suspect that someone less accomplished and self-assured than Jackson might not have lasted through this Laker season. “I think 70% of the other coaches in the league would have folded by [now] with the different personalities, with Shaq and Kobe and the things they’ve gone through over their careers with each other,” Grant said in March.
Amid their personal bickering, neither Bryant nor O’Neal commands the full following of their teammates, and Jackson concedes he has had to tread carefully to avoid wholesale rebellion.
“It is a very tricky thing,” he said in his office overlooking the Lakers’ practice court in El Segundo during a March winning streak. “You can’t be direct. You have to be subtle. Some people take direct criticism as a weapon.” His diplomacy had just been evident in dealing with O’Neal. The 7-foot-1, 340-pound center -- the fourth-leading scorer, by average, in NBA history, at about 27 points per game -- had finished practice, flopped onto a training table and held a goofy-looking, stare-at-the-ceiling interview session in which he told a crowd of reporters that he was content to be primarily a defender and rebounder. The comments were startling from someone who had complained about not getting enough shots, and the media quickly sought Jackson’s comment.
Smiling, Jackson avoided seizing upon the pronouncements as a sudden about-face in O’Neal’s approach to basketball. He also took pains to convey that he was responding to O’Neal’s statements, not suggesting that O’Neal should concentrate on defense and rebounding.
“If that came out in the paper and Shaq saw it, he’d say, ‘I’m the fourth-leading scorer in the NBA ... ' " Jackson explained later, as if anticipating the backlash. “That’s terrific if he feels that way, because we’ve had disagreements or arguments about this in the past. I’ve often said, ‘You can see yourself as a total player; you don’t have to see yourself as a scorer.’
“He sees himself as a scorer.”
To learn to better communicate with his athletes, 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.
“I had another guy on my team that, I couldn’t tell him anything,” Jackson said. “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.”
In dealing with this season’s recurring crises, Jackson meets with Mitch Kupchak, the Lakers’ general manager, whose office is next door. They decide whether an issue is serious enough to talk to the player, a step that might have its own repercussions because of the egos involved.
“You can’t force anything,” Kupchak said. “Making a decision not to do anything today is a proactive decision. We talk everything through. Sometimes our decision is not to do anything this week ... let’s handle it a week from now. Or let’s see how it plays out.”
Jackson uses a psychologist, George Mumford, who was with him in Chicago, and he enlists a willing young player to be a “whipping boy” at practice, so he can yell without offending his big stars. He calls it a “cheap practice” that many coaches employ. Grant and Toni Kukoc filled the role in Chicago; Devean George and Slava Medvedenko now take the brunt of Jackson’s instruction in Los Angeles.
During intrasquad scrimmages, Jackson prowls the practice floor in baggy sweats, a whistle dangling from his neck. Amid the screech of sneakers on hardwood, he conducts a staccato critique: “Better rotate on that, Karl, all right? ... Chase the ball, Slava! ... Good, you got back to basics there. It didn’t work, and you went back to basics.”
For years, Jackson has passed out a selection of books to his players to read on trips. This year he gave everyone the same book -- Pat Conroy’s “My Losing Season,” a memoir of Conroy’s basketball experiences playing for the Citadel in the late 1960s. The title was perhaps appropriate after Jackson’s thwarted title bid a year ago -- the first time in Los Angeles that he did not win a championship -- but the deeper lesson was about how the game has changed.
In his epilogue, Conroy remembers his domineering coach: “Some of my teammates thought all of us needed to be on Prozac and others thought that we suffered a collective nervous breakdown because we were not strong enough in spirit to endure the gale-force winds of Mel Thompson’s personality.”
Jackson said, “It does say something about how I was raised, my generation, the more militaristic behavior.”
Born in Deer Lodge, Mont., the fourth child of two Pentecostal ministers, Jackson grew up without a television in a zealous religious environment of “fire-and-brimstone” sermons and people who spoke in tongues. He was forbidden from drinking, smoking, dancing or going to movies. Those influences never quite disappeared, despite an ever-expanding worldliness.
At the University of North Dakota and afterward, he studied religion, philosophy and psychology, and during his journeyman career -- he was mostly a backup forward for the New York Knicks and New Jersey Nets -- he explored other realms, as well. He smoked, he drank, he dated women, he rode motorcycles, he grew his hair long. He called his own 1975 memoir “Maverick,” but it was not nearly so well received as his 1995 examination of the game and his early years in Chicago, “Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior.”
In a narrative spiced with Zen musings and proverbs (“It is not the same to talk of bulls as to be in the bullring”), he reflected about basketball and life from a clearly more evolved perspective. A recent ESPN profile called him a “6-foot-8 shaman.” His intellectual interests are far-ranging and not limited to the physical plane. He has befriended a numerologist, Michel Kassett, who has developed entire volumes on the team and called the Lakers a “special entity -- magical things can come through them if it is allowed.”
“You can sit down for an entire dinner with Phil and not talk about basketball once,” said Joel Meyers, the Lakers’ radio play-by-play announcer.
When Jackson left the Bulls, after the 1997-98 season, he took a year off and spent part of it meditating at a Zen Buddhist monastery. He broke up with his second wife, June, before coming to Los Angeles, and has been involved with Jeanie Buss, the Lakers’ 42-year-old executive vice president. She is the daughter of team owner Jerry Buss and admits to feeling uncomfortable as Laker management now tries to assess the team’s priorities.
“He’s the most competitive person I’ve ever met, to the point where, when we play Scrabble ... not only does he have to beat me, but he has to double my score,” she said.
Jackson’s long hours meditating are an attempt to release that inner pressure. Otherwise, he thinks about basketball constantly.
Last season, he was treated for kidney stones and felled by fatigue and chest pains during the playoffs -- the result of a blocked coronary artery that required an emergency angioplasty. Jackson missed Game 4 of the series with the Spurs because of it, but was back on the bench to see San Antonio end the run of three consecutive championships.
“Last year almost killed him,” Jeanie Buss said. “I could see if he decided not to continue being a coach in the NBA, because it’s a lot of wear and tear -- the traveling, not eating right, not getting a chance to exercise, the stress, the expectation, the pressure. “I don’t know how he deals with some of the stuff he has to deal with.”
Jackson blames two principal forces for the changes in player attitudes in recent years. One is the trend toward plucking blue-chip prospects out of high school, infusing the league with gifted athletes who have been coddled since their early teens. It smacks of the Hollywood child-star syndrome: “fame too early, undeveloped character, immature decisions, spoiled, narcissistic behavior,” Jackson said. Compounding that is the powerful influence of agents, who prod their clients to score more and to press for playing time. Agents even maneuver behind the scenes, out of the reach of NBA rules, to shape team rosters, Jackson said.
Laker Assistant Coach Jim Cleamons, who assisted Jackson in Chicago, has watched him adapt to a new era and agrees with critics who say a star-driven, hyper-exposed league has lost some of the nuances of team chemistry.
“When I was a player, we talked about the game,” said Cleamons, a former Laker guard. “We’d go to a pregame meal, or congregate at one guy’s house after a game or before a game, and we would talk.... ‘How I can make you better? Where can I get you the basketball?’
“I don’t think this generation talks basketball. They talk about anything and everything other than basketball.”
Cleamons said this was apparent in what takes place on the floor. It’s too late, under the arena lights, to figure out the finer elements of the craft -- subtleties beyond what is taught at practice. “You can’t spend 18 hours a day on that practice floor,” he said. “Some things have to be done conceptually. If they were [talking basketball], certain things would change. Little intricacies would change ... the chemistry ... the nonverbal communication” during games.
Coaches cannot fix it, Cleamons added. If they try to change the culture, broaching basketball to players away from the court, they risk becoming pariahs.
When the season began, the Lakers and their four superstars -- Bryant, O’Neal, Karl Malone and Gary Payton -- were expected to rival the greatest teams ever, a hope that fizzled amid injury and lackluster play.
By contrast, Cleamons said, the great Bull teams were led by competitors, Jordan and Pippen, who at the height of their glory practiced as if they were rookies trying to make the squad.
The gifted Lakers drift through the regular season; the Bulls were a powerhouse every night, setting a record one season with 72 victories.
The idea that the pro game has fallen to unprecedented depths might be misleading, however, according to one of its most respected observers, Chicago Tribune columnist Sam Smith.
“There’s always been tremendous difficulties in the NBA for player attitudes,” Smith said, citing published reports, near the end of the 1970s, that more than half of the athletes at the time used drugs. “The reputation of the NBA 25 years ago was of an outlaw league -- guys who didn’t care, didn’t play hard, drug-infested. ... I don’t think there’s any great pining for the good old days.”
A golden era dawned when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird entered the league, followed by Jordan. Smith, who chronicled the ascendant Bulls in his book, “The Jordan Rules,” disagrees with the critics who say Jackson has won only because of the superstars playing for him. Jordan never won until Jackson took over in Chicago, and Bryant and O’Neal floundered under previous regimes in Los Angeles.
“I think he’s the best coach ever in basketball,” Smith said.
If Jackson leaves, he added, the Lakers probably will stop winning -- and Smith expects the drought to begin soon.
“You sense that whole thing is going to be broken up,” he said. “It’s like they’ve run their course -- just like the Bulls. It was over, and everybody knew it was over.”
If true, it might be more than the end of a dynasty. It could be the end of a love affair as well.
Jackson talks of the inviting open spaces of Montana. Jeanie Buss is a busy career woman who says she will not leave the city. They don’t live together now, and Jeanie doubts that they will marry.
“Obviously, she’s got a job here,” Jackson said, “and if I don’t, obviously that’s going to have some influence on the direction our relationship goes -- even though I can become a housewife, and she can go to work.”
He smiled, as if that were the very last option in the triangle.