Jackson’s diagrams of Michael Jordan’s famous 1998 game-winning jump shot and other plays.
A Look Back....
From second from top: Larry Morris/The New York Times; Walter Looss Jr./Sports Illustrated/Getty Images; Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images.
In the absence of data, they are happy to speculate. The first time I met Jackson, at the end of April, rumor had it that he might become the coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers. (Cleveland hired Mike Brown instead.) When we met again, a week later, the rumor was that he was maybe going to be an executive for the Toronto Raptors. While that rumor was still circulating, a new rumor popped up that he had taken a job with the Detroit Pistons. (Later it emerged that he agreed only to help the team, whose owner is a friend, choose its next head coach.) Then a rumor broke that the Brooklyn Nets were after him as a possible coach and/or president and/or part-owner.
What I can confirm, because I saw it with my own eyes, is that on the afternoon of Friday, May 3, Phil Jackson went shopping for groceries.
I was there. I witnessed Jackson — 13-time N.B.A. champion, winningest coach in basketball history, mystical Zen spirit guide to Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal — pick out a crusty loaf of whole-wheat bread and drop it in his basket. I saw him look at bamboo cutting boards and elect not to buy one. I watched him grab half a dozen eggs, then a small carton of goat-milk yogurt. (Goat milk, he said, makes the best yogurt.) I heard him fantasize, openly, about roasting some of the root vegetables on display — parsnips, rutabagas, some perfectly globular purple beets — but then resist because he had a busy week ahead and would be eating most of his dinners out. He selected, judiciously, an artichoke. He scrutinized the kale but went instead with Swiss chard, which the next day would go into his morning smoothie along with carrot, apple, protein powder and coconut water — part of his ongoing project to lose weight, which he’s finding difficult given his age (67) and all of his injuries (knee, hip, back, Achilles’).
In front of the heirloom tomatoes, a child came over to ask Jackson for his autograph; he complied, although he had to lean down and ask a couple of times to make sure he got the child’s name right.
Jackson had invited me to meet him at the grocery store, Bristol Farms. It’s just down the road from his house, as well as from the Lakers’ practice facility, where Jackson worked for more than a decade in an atmosphere of continuous drama and only slightly less continuous success. The store was conspicuously upscale. Its produce section looked like a work of art: monochromatic blocks of apples and onions and carrots and beets that had all clearly been stacked by hand into perfect bands of color, like a big, organic, locally sourced Rothko painting. The artichokes were the size of softballs. In the meat case, the ground beef had been hand-sculptured to look like sea anemones.
Although Jackson has an assistant, he prefers to do his own shopping. He likes to cook: risotto, stir-fry, Mexican food. Sometimes he makes meals for other people — his fiancée, Jeanie Buss, in L.A.; his brother Joe in Montana — but often, because he spends so much time alone, he cooks just to feed himself. He is nearing 70, with a very large body: 6 feet 8 inches tall, shoulders so wide and boxy it looks as if they’re artificially padded (his teammates used to call him Coat Hanger) and arms so long that, famously, as a young man he could sit in the back seat of a car and open both front doors at the same time. These days he walks with a visible hitch, a result of more than 45 years of sustained physical punishment. During his playing days, Jackson’s spine was fused to fix a herniated disc. By the end of his coaching tenure, after hip replacement and knee replacement, he had to sit on the sideline in a special ergonomic chair. His most recent injury happened when, after a long day of travel, he tried to extract his giant legs from a tiny car and — just like that — damaged his Achilles’ tendon. He has to wear special socks now to keep the swelling down, and he works regularly with a trainer to keep his body functioning at least at a minimal level. His most recent victory, he says, is being able to get up off the ground. Over the winter, Jackson underwent eight weeks of radiation therapy — 41 treatments — to try to eliminate the last vestiges of prostate cancer. (In 2011, he put off the treatment to finish coaching; he now sees it as a blessing that the Lakers were eliminated from the playoffs early that season.) Jackson hasn’t been able to play basketball in nearly 15 years, and he misses it. Sometimes at night he has vivid dreams that he’s playing again.
As we walked through the produce section, Jackson popped a red grape in his mouth. A Joni Mitchell song was playing on the sound system. At the register, he chatted amiably with the cashier, then asked her to wait while he lumbered off to get a bottle of wine.
I offered to help him carry his bags — paper, not plastic — but he did it himself, herky-jerkying out to his S.U.V., loading his trunk, then cranking his body carefully into the driver’s seat. He’d been running errands all day — going to the chiropractor, picking up his weekly jugs of alkaline water — and later he was planning to go to a Rolling Stones concert.
My plan was to write a portrait of Phil Jackson after basketball: to capture the full mundanity of his post-N.B.A. existence. It became clear very quickly, however, that such a thing was impossible. There is no Phil Jackson after basketball. Our first meeting was at his favorite diner, an unpretentious, inexpensive place decorated with framed jigsaw puzzles of Norman Rockwell paintings. We chatted for a while about upstate New York, where Jackson used to live, and the rumors about his current job prospects, but before long he was giving me detailed scouting reports of current N.B.A. players, then borrowing my pen so he could diagram a play on his place mat. At our second meal, at the little cafe attached to the upscale grocery store, I asked Jackson — innocently enough, I thought — how the N.B.A. has evolved since he first joined it as a player 46 years ago. He started unfolding his napkin to draw another diagram — whereupon I stopped him, went out to my car and brought back a stack of fresh paper. I expected him to sketch maybe three or four representative schemes: the motion offense of his 1970s Knicks, the running game of the 1980s Showtime Lakers, his 1990s Bulls’ signature triangle offense, the screen-roll plays popular today. Instead, Jackson spent more than an hour and a half drawing, in great and sometimes bewildering detail, what turned out to be more than 20 sketches — a mess of circles and arrows and hash marks that represented, no doubt, an infinitesimal fraction of his total basketball knowledge. He worked, the whole time, with the joyful absorption of someone solving a particularly excellent crossword puzzle. The drawings included the offensive sets of some of his biggest rivals — Jerry Sloan’s Jazz, Rick Adelman’s Kings, Mike D’Antoni’s Suns — as well as such novelties as the Horst Pinholster Pinwheel Offense, an elegant but obscure remnant of the 1950s in which everyone without the ball is sucked into a continuous vortex of motion. Jackson taught me how to get Shaquille O’Neal open in the post when the defense wants to double-team him. He drew Michael Jordan’s final two plays against the Jazz in 1998, including the iconic jump shot that won the Bulls their sixth trophy. In response to a sloppy playoff game he saw on TV the night before, Jackson showed me how to eliminate the possibility of a turnover on an inbounds pass.
This educational sketching went on for so long that the woman at the next table assumed that I was a coach myself, probably a Lakers assistant studying at the feet of the master. “Sounds like you learned a lot,” she said, after Jackson ambled away to use the bathroom. Before I could correct her, she offered up the twin babies sitting in high chairs at her table as future Laker girls.
All the rumors about Phil Jackson, and all the rumors that will inevitably replace those rumors, are consequences of one large and indisputable fact: almost every professional basketball team in the world would be happy to hire him, right this second, in almost any capacity he would like — coach, general manager, equipment manager, backup power forward. Jackson has a particular talent for stepping in where others have failed, imposing his personality and shamanistic enthusiasms, and transforming already-good teams into champions. His new book is called “Eleven Rings,” after the number of titles he has won as a coach — the most by anyone. (The title omits the two rings he won in the 1970s as a scrappy role player for the New York Knicks.) Even if Jackson never returned to basketball, he would still go down as one of the greatest winners in sports history.
But Jackson will almost certainly return to basketball. One of his other great talents is coming out of retirement. He quit for the first time in 1987, when he stepped down as coach of the Albany Patroons, of the Continental Basketball Association, and decided to go to graduate school. Before he could enroll, however, the Chicago Bulls called. He went there as an assistant and eventually, as the head coach, led Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen to six championships. After that historic run, Jackson quit again, only to join the Lakers a year later, where he led Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal to three titles in a row. In 2004, after the Lakers lost in the finals, just before Shaq left for Miami, Jackson found himself suddenly out of a job. (He had tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade the team to keep Shaq.) This time, as if to show that he was really done, he published a tell-all book called “The Last Season.” But that, too, turned out not to be his last season. Although the book portrayed Bryant as a petulant villain, Jackson reunited with him one year later, and together they won two more championships. The next year they were blown out of the playoffs and Jackson retired again, this time presumably for good.
Except, of course, probably not.
After we talked for a while, I told Jackson that it was hard to imagine him not returning to basketball in some capacity.
“Can you think of anything else for me to do?” he asked.
I told him I couldn’t; basketball seemed too deeply ingrained.
“It’s a shame, isn’t it?” he said. “I thought maybe you thought I could be the president. Something really important.”
“Eleven Rings” is, like Jackson’s other books — like Jackson himself, for that matter — a strange hybrid. It’s part sports memoir, part New Age spirit quest, part pseudo-management tract. The fit is sometimes awkward. He quotes everyone from Lao-tzu to Gandhi to Jerry Garcia to Eckhart Tolle to the business guru Stephen Covey. He assesses his teams based on a weirdly schematic model borrowed from a book called “Tribal Leadership.” “During the 2008-9 season,” he writes, “the Lakers needed to shift from a Stage 3 team to a Stage 4 in order to win.” There’s a chapter called “The Jackson 11,” which purports to state Jackson’s core principles (4. The Road to Freedom Is a Beautiful System; 8. Keep Your Eye on the Spirit, Not on the Scoreboard). Though it’s nicely symmetrical to have 11 life lessons for 11 rings, the number seems more or less arbitrary: it could just as easily have been “The Jackson 12” or “The Jackson 5” or “The Jackson 953.” Most of what’s said in “Eleven Rings” has been said, sometimes better, in Jackson’s many previous books. There’s the story of his childhood among Pentecostal evangelists in Montana: a lonely kid memorizing Bible verses and trying — desperately but unsuccessfully — to speak in tongues. We learn about his discovery, as a young adult, of Zen Buddhism and the way of the Lakota warrior. There are the now-familiar tales of his unorthodox coaching techniques: practicing in the dark and in total silence, group meditation before film sessions, a special room full of Native American artifacts. (“Another Lakota practice I adopted was beating a drum when I wanted the players to congregate in the tribal room for a meeting.”)
This repetition is probably a result of the fact that Jackson is less a writer than a talker. He composed the book by speaking into a recorder and then, with his co-author, Hugh Delehanty, turning that audio into a text that made some kind of sense on the page. But the primary thing with Jackson — as with all the old bards, who were also known for repeating themselves — is the voice.
In person, Jackson’s voice is low and growly — a result of two elbows he took to the throat in his playing days. In conversation he comes off as both surprisingly shy and sometimes almost recklessly candid. He has based his entire career on the notion of basketball as a spiritual enterprise, and as such he considers the N.B.A. to be something like the Catholic Church: a powerful but flawed institution charged with administering that spirituality to the masses. Jackson is a born reformer, and when I asked him how the league might be changed to bring it more in line with the purity of the game, he — predictably — had lots to say.
The court should be lengthened and widened, he said, to accommodate the athleticism of today’s players. Timeouts and commercial breaks need to be cut back to restore the sport’s natural flow. Refereeing is a mess: they should stand closer to the action the way they did in the old days, so they can see the fouls better. They also need to find a way to control illegal contact: defensive players holding, offensive players pushing off (“LeBron James,” Jackson said, “has the best ‘off’ arm in the game”). James Naismith, Jackson said, invented basketball as “anti-football,” a sport in which brute violence would be replaced by free-moving fluidity, but excessive contact has destroyed that fluidity. Also, today’s players are allowed to cheat when they dribble: they routinely put their hand under the ball, which gives them far too much control. As a result, the game has become much more dependent on dribbling, less on motion and passing and teamwork. Over all, Jackson thinks the N.B.A. should aspire to be more like soccer, which has managed to remain a global juggernaut without corrupting the sanctity of its game. (“Although their jerseys are a mess,” he admits.)
Jeanie Buss, Jackson’s fiancée and the daughter of the Lakers’ recently deceased owner, Jerry Buss, thinks that Jackson is denying basketball something by staying away from it. He’s not so sure, but he has been meeting with N.B.A. owners about possible jobs. Nothing has grabbed him yet. He still texts and talks to players all the time. (In the middle of one of our conversations, the former Laker Luke Walton called to talk about his situation with his current team, the Cleveland Cavaliers.) Jackson has been serving as a kind of intersports guru, giving informal advice to an Israeli soccer coach — “All soccer involves triangles,” Jackson says — as well as to a couple of baseball managers. He grew up playing baseball and still thinks he would make a good coach. He has told the owner of the Chicago White Sox — his former boss with the Bulls, Jerry Reinsdorf — that he’s available. He seems to be only half joking.
The holy mission that would most likely pull Jackson back into basketball is the redemption of the triangle offense, which he feels has been unfairly maligned over the last few years. (He advises former assistants who are still coaching the triangle to call it by other names, just to avoid the stigma.) The triangle, as Jackson describes it, is a system of structured improvisation meant to empower players — Jackson has called it, multiple times, in his books, “five-man tai chi.” It’s designed to be infinitely flexible, to make everyone on the floor a threat to score at all times. Critics say it’s old-fashioned and too hard to learn, but Jackson answers these claims with righteous defiance. “It’s not true,” he told me with his most contemptuous smile. “It works.” He is an evangelist, preaching the gospel of equal-opportunity basketball, and he seems sure that his moment will come again.
For 40 years, Jackson has been spending his summers in Montana. He bought some property right on the edge of a large lake, not far from where he went to Bible camp as a kid, with his playoff share from the Knicks’ second championship. He has turned this into what he describes as a compound: three houses, one built by him and his brother in the 1970s, another a converted garage and a third that he had built by a Native American builder. (“It’s kind of like a combination of what you would call like kind of a Tibetan or Buddhist-looking house with Indian overtones,” he told me.) Even when he was coaching, he had an agreement that he could be there for two months every off-season. Over the decades, Jackson has learned the property well. He knows when to plant a garden — never before Memorial Day — and what crops will grow best (leafy greens, not tomatoes or corn). He has memorized the patterns of thermal currents that come off the lake. The nearest grocery store is six miles away; he spends many days alone. “It’s kind of a monastic life,” he said. If he gets lonely, he drives to the post office to chat with the postmistress.
Jackson’s life is organized around stark polarities. On one hand, he preaches a Zen acceptance of reality as it is. On the other, he is a man with very strong ideas about the way things should be — or as his opponents have often put it, he can be a bit of a whiner. (Non-Lakers fans will detect a certain radioactive irony in Jackson’s frequent complaints about referees.) As a player, Jackson was an unglamorous nonstar, and the triangle is designed to help that kind of role player flourish. And yet he’s never won an N.B.A. championship without superstars. His two homes, Montana and L.A., are complete opposites: anti-ego Buddhist reclusion versus the fame-drenched ego-circus of what is arguably the most scrutinized franchise in sports. He likes to portray himself as an anti-establishment loner, and yet he’s become deeply entangled in the Lakers organization, in part because of his relationship with Jeanie Buss and in part because the team has not been able to establish an identity since Jackson left; it seems as if every plot twist in the franchise’s ongoing soap opera somehow involves him. In his books, Jackson’s declarations of egolessness sometimes emanate strong whiffs of ego: “In that split-second all the pieces came together,” he writes in “Sacred Hoops,” “and my role as leader was just as it should be: invisible.” If this is invisibility, it is a highly visible form of it. These paradoxes — Jackson’s apparent ability to sit, happily, at opposite poles at the same time — are what make him one of the most mesmerizing personalities in sports.
Of the many plays that Phil Jackson diagramed for me, the one I couldn’t stop thinking about was something called the Drake Shuffle. The scheme was invented in the 1950s by a coach in Oklahoma, to be used by teams that lack a dominant scoring threat — no Wilt Chamberlain or Shaquille O’Neal or Michael Jordan to dump the ball to and get out of the way. Jackson described it to me as a “continuous offensive system,” which means that — unlike many plays, which have a definite endpoint or morph into something else when they get too much pressure — the Drake Shuffle never stops. You could run it, theoretically, forever. All five players move in coordinated motion, taking turns with and without the ball, until they’ve exhausted an elaborate cycle of screens and cuts and passes — at which point the play doesn’t end but starts all over again, with each participant now playing a different role within the same cycle. Everyone on the floor keeps moving, probing, trading off.
The Drake Shuffle sits at the center of a particularly Jacksonian nexus of ideas. It’s a scale-model democracy, a metaphor for the life cycle, a parable of the Buddhist idea of rebirth, one of the Lakota Sioux’s sacred hoops. Jackson’s career itself, with its endings and renewals, its retirements and unretirements, seems like a kind of existential Drake Shuffle, played out over 45 years. He’s gone from player to coach to retiree to whatever it is he’s doing now: cooking, writing, gardening, hiding, self-promoting, advising weary pilgrims from his sacred mountaintop, tantalizing struggling teams, driving endless Internet rumors. He’s in, he’s out, he has the ball, he doesn’t have the ball, he’s moving, he’s moving, he’s moving.