In NBA Finals, Zen coach faces his biggest test

True to his reputation as a Zen philosopher on basketball as life, Phil Jackson wears an inscrutable smile as he sits Buddha-like on a lime-green yoga stretch ball.

The air of detachment, exhibited courtside at a recent Los Angeles Lakers practice, is as much a part of the coach's style as the homilies he quotes on the virtues of teamwork. ("For the raindrop, joy is entering the river." "One finger can't lift a pebble.")

Now that he has spun such aphorisms into success as one of the game's great masterminds, this son of two fundamentalist preachers from Montana is facing the biggest test of his career: After six world championships with the Chicago Bulls, can he win one without Michael Jordan?

The final leg begins tomorrow, when the Lakers meet the Indiana Pacers for the first game of the NBA championship. If Jackson's Lakers can win the best-of-seven series, he will have won his seventh title in 10 years and turned a team racked by arguments and egos into a candidate for the next basketball dynasty.

"Nationally, there is still the perception that Phil Jackson enjoys his reputation and six world-championship rings only because he had the greatest player ever to play the game," says A.J. Adande, a basketball reporter for the Los Angeles Times. "Now he has a chance to correct that."

To be sure, there's no shortage of talent on the Lakers. In the massive mountain of Shaquille O'Neal and the lithe Kobe Bryant, Jackson has perhaps the two best players in the game today. But partially because of their prodigious skills - and desire to be at the center of the offense - the two players had been somewhat at odds in recent seasons.

Indeed, despite their abundance of talent, the Lakers have been chronic underachievers. The team has not made it to the NBA finals since 1991 and has not won a championship since 1988. Last year, after being swept in four games in the second round of the NBA playoffs, Laker management decided that Jackson was the answer, signing him to a five-year, $30 million contract.

"There can't be any more excuses about the coach," said Magic Johnson, the point-guard who led the Lakers to their last championship in 1988. "We just got the best coach in the world."

In Jackson, the Lakers certainly got a coach with an impressive rsum. His .738 winning percentage as head coach of the Chicago Bulls is the best in NBA history, as is his playoff winning percentage of .730. During the 1995-96 season, he led the Bulls to the league's all-time best record of 72-10.

New city, same results

Here in L.A., the results so far have been no less impressive. The Lakers led the league with 67 wins, achieved largely through the improved - and more symbiotic - play of O'Neal and Bryant. In fact, O'Neal won his first league Most Valuable Player award this year.

"It has been Phil Jackson's genius as a strategist and motivator that has allowed both these stars their chance to mature and really shine," says Karen Crouse, sportswriter for the Los Angeles Daily News. "Last year ... there was absolutely no cohesion to the team."

Primary to the Jackson mentality is surrendering the "me" for the "we" offense. As described in his 1995 book, "Sacred Hoops: Spiritual lessons of a hardwood warrior," Jackson's idea is to empower everyone on the team in a "tai chi" offense that preaches motion and is known as the "triangle."

Instead of relying on set plays and two or three scorers, the offense allows each player to work himself into positions where he can use his individual talents - from dribbling up the middle to shooting short shots or long.

"It means thinking and moving in unison as a group and being acutely aware, at any given moment, of what's happening on the floor," writes Jackson.

Jackson calls the idea "awareness in action," and it is based on Eastern concentration and meditation methods, as well as Lakota Sioux warrior practices. It's the result of a lifetime quest to merge his two biggest passions: spiritual exploration and basketball.

Born in 1945 to evangelical preachers, Jackson's youth was devoid of movies, comic books, dances, and other activities his parents felt might lead him astray. His only diversions were sports and music. Growing to a height of 6 ft., 8 in., Jackson became a college baseball and basketball star while studying philosophy, religion, and psychology. He then spent 13 years with the New York Knicks alongside stars Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, Earl Monroe, and former Sen. Bill Bradley.

Later, as a coach, he signed on as an assistant in Chicago, treating the stint as a chance for graduate school in basketball. "I learned that the most effective way to forge a winning team is to call on the players' need to connect with something larger than themselves," Jackson says. "Even for those who don't consider themselves 'spiritual' in a conventional sense, creating a successful team is essentially a spiritual act. It requires the individuals involved to surrender their self-interest for the greater good so that the whole adds up to more than the sum of its parts. This isn't always an easy task in a society where the celebration of ego is the No. 1 pastime."

Asked how his new Laker team has adapted to his Zen philosophies - often summed up in his phrase, "being aware is more important than being smart" - Jackson pauses, then grins ear to ear.

"They are disbelieving in some sense, but you know, that's all right. These are young men who have to take their own credence first, make their own sensory judgment, and weigh life through their own experience."

Visualizing a championship

He says he is not forcing meditative disciplines on them at this point, but leaving them open as possible avenues for improvement - avenues that some team members take advantage of more than others.

Forward Robert Horry, for one, feels that Jackson's approach has made an immense difference.

"We had a lot of talent that we were not using properly," says Horry, who uses visualization techniques to imagine what he will do on the court before a game. "He has come along to let everyone do something, even if it might not be a lot, so that they feel part of the crew."

Others agree. "The ability to think the game in a moment and respond without tripping over yourself and expectations has broadened our ability to coexist as a team," says fellow Laker Rick Fox. "You know where you are and where everyone else is on the floor. To me, that is basketball."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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