Let me tell you outright that this book reached out to me more than any other book I’ve ever read. That is a mouthful right there, which is probably why it took me so long (2 weeks +) to write this review. Phil Jackson’s book starts his journey where he recalls how his playing career ended, consequently coaching in the CBA and in Puerto Rico and eventually Assistant coach to the Bulls where he starts his legacy, all the way to after the Michael Jordan led Bulls dominated the 90s leading to his (Jordan’s) first of many retirements.
It is interesting and readable throughout at so many equal levels. It is about the rise of the powerful late 80’s to 90’s Chicago Bulls – one of the most dominant basketball teams in history, featuring the most talented basketball player on the planet. It is about coaching that most talented basketball player on the planet, which Jackson himself compares to ‘coaching Michaelangelo’. It is about the NBA in the 90’s, when it was truly the most entertaining show on Earth. Not only did the NBA in the 90’s greatly influence me, but obviously people all over the world as well, as indicated (to my mind) by the rise of basketball powerhouses in other parts of the globe outside the US, leading to such countries as Argentina, Italy and China playing respectable ball in the current international scene.
But no doubt as the book progressed, the most important aspect of the book lies in Phil Jackson’s message itself. Jackson, while talking about the game, uses words like Compassion, Brotherhood, Sharing, Harmony, Respect and Love. Those words right there were the pure antithesis to how I felt basketball was considered growing up. In the world where I came from, basketball was a game for a man’s man. It was full of big brutes beating their chest as they came down on you, proving their superiority at every opportunity. Scoring against an opponent is proof of greatness. Blocking an opponent is an opportunity to stare them down as they lay weak and overwhelmed. Every time you beat anyone doing anything, even a teammate, you are therefore a Superstar. It is of no consequence to you to see another player score. The important thing is that you score, and score BIG. If you lose it’s the coaches fault. As far as you’re concerned, your team cannot win without you.
Yet here is Phil Jackson, today one of the most successful coaches in history, preaching a Triangle Offense that predicated on passing the ball and equal scoring opportunity for everyone. In his Puerto Rican stint where he had control of player’s salaries, he insisted on paying everyone the same, placing the star at equal footing with the benchwarmer. He cites Eastern Philosophy coupled with a firm Catholic background, wears Grateful Dead t-shirts and cites from books such as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – a book I read when I was a teenager about a guy’s journey across the US on a motorcycle, which I (honestly) thought was about motorcycles but decided it wasn’t when it started to veer into deep philosophical discussions (I finished it anyway, but it took me a year).
Where is the basketball in all that? Where are the bruisers? The macho men? The chest thumping, muscle flexing neanderthals? Where is Patrick Ewing screaming ‘Fuck those motherfuckers!!’ clear as I can remember it a decade and a half ago on live TV?
In Jackson’s book, and as far as he was concerned, there was no place for that. Reading this is like the great light of truth finally shining down upon my heretofore ignorant soul. Everyone always said passing the ball was right, but I never truly found proof to believe it. Everyone always said you should respect and love your opponents, but it sounded like a Hallmark greeting card to be true. Everyone always said that if you gel with your teammates, that if you treat each other with love and respect, that if you value the time you have with one another as special, and consequently care for one another’s well being, that you would form a kinship that transcends that of the game. That thru the game, you can and will form a brotherhood with your teammates, and that only thru the proper formation and care of that brotherhood will your team truly be united in everything it does. United you will pass the ball. United you will rebound, shoot, guard and defend. Only if you work together, where there is no single individual superceding the importance of another, will you succeed in the many, tiny little things that add up to winning a game.
It is in the search of that unity where Phil Jackson dwells. He tells us not to focus on the singular, but to view the forest apart from the trees, the better with which to become, once again, a single unit. He tells us to see our problems like lines of words (or something like that), flying out of our head like dead weight, to focus not on the problem but to see it as something you can wipe away from your thinking, releasing your emotions to focus at the task ahead.
He reaches me when he talks about that feeling of ‘being in the moment’, that feeling that everyone is on the same page on the basketball court, where everyone’s efforts are focused on whatever it is that is needed to be done. Talking about that moment brings clear to my mind the very essence of why one plays basketball, or any team sport, or any sport for that matter. Being in the moment is like gears of a machine finally coming together and performing the task which it was designed, harder still with humans who, as individuals, have minds and egos of their own and often, like I was, was bred in the belief that there is no more important goal than one’s own.
And finally he talks about love, and I honestly, completely understand. For isn’t it love that brings us to the basketball court? It’s scorchingly hot outside, and more so in the summer days to come we are told. But I have no doubt that as soon as humanly possible, the basketball courts of this village where I live will be filled with young boys waiting to get a chance to play, with ten more boys sitting on park benches biding their time. What could possibly motivate a kid, with far too much time in his hands he could use to play DOTA, watch TV, or chase skirts, leave his house in the scorching heat hoping to beat the other kids for a chance to play?
Love of the game is the only answer I have. Love of being in the moment. Love of having the opportunity to experience something special, of doing something that might cause a win. The perfect pass. The crossover. The rebound. The block. The perfect arch in a jumpshot, resulting in a swishing sound in the net.
Jackson covers that, but with a thought that your individuality will only improve if you give to the team. Only with the team will you be of any worth, for without them you are just an individual, albeit talented, but an individual just the same. And the game insists, no, demands you play together, no matter who you end up playing with or against.
Well, there’s that, and there’s the little factoids the any basketball book made by anyone noteworthy at the time would know, such as:
- Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant’s close friendship – Which I didn’t know of.
- The way Michael Jordan was treated, God – like, by his teammates – Which made Jackson’s ‘everyone’s the same’ philosophy extra hard, considering many of them, such as Toni Kukoc, would literally keep out of his way in practice because he was such in awe. Jordan lived a life so apart and so different from the rest of the team that they only really were together during games and practice, otherwise he was probably off doing Nike commercials. This alienated and strained the team, and reminds me so much of Kobe and the Lakers in the early 2000s.
- BJ Armstrong’s strong influence on the team – Or something like it. He is mentioned so often in this book I was starting to wonder why. It may be because he was most accepting of Jackson’s unusual techniques.
- Pippen’s famous meltdown in the final 1.8 seconds of the third game of the 1994 Eastern Conference semifinals against the Knicks – which is possibly worth the price of the book. He talks about it at length now, but Jackson’s point of view is valuable if only because he was in the most unique position to see it unravel, especially as he relates Bill Cartwright’s teary eyed shock and reaction to Pippen’s behaviour in the locker room. Jackson says the moment strengthened their team, but even now years later you could almost feel the doubt and discomfort such a thing could ensue.
- Jackson’s admonishing Pippen – for the famous in your face dunk and staredown he did on Ewing.
- The Bulls Keeping It Together Against the Pistons – By not reacting to Bill Laimbeer’s, Dennis Rodman’s, Mark Aguirre’s and Rick Mahorn’s physical play to concentrate on the game. A true example of a Zen state of mind, where you are above all, if I ever saw one.
Which leads me now to where I am, hungry for more. At the moment I am pulling every string available to me to get as many books as I can. I’ve already ordered a few (Only available in the US unfortunately). Powerbooks reports a few sightings of interesting books as well but they’re few and far between, and ordering from the US is actually easier in my unique situation.
Now I end this with the declaration that yeah, I know the book is super old (1995), and that I’m a loser for not having read it till now. To that I have no ready excuse, other than the obvious but lame (they are hard to come by here in the Phils.). Beside that though, I leave nothing but the assurance that I will try to correct said lameness by reading as much as I can from this point onwards.