Friday, July 3, 2009

Phil Jackson: The "Zen Master"

Phil Jackson is the current head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. His reputation was established as head coach of the Chicago Bulls from 1989 through 1998; during his tenure, Chicago won six NBA titles. His next team, the Los Angeles Lakers, won three consecutive NBA titles from 2000-2002, and another in 2009, giving him 10 NBA titles as a coach, surpassing the record 9 he previously shared with Red Auerbach.

Jackson is known for his use of Tex Winter's triangle offense as well as a holistic approach to coaching that is influenced by Eastern philosophy, earning him the nickname "Zen Master". (Jackson cites Robert Pirsig's book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as one of the major guiding forces in his life.) He also applies Native American spiritual practices as documented in his book "Sacred Hoops."

Motivational Techniques

One of Jackson's many accomplishments is that he succeeds like no other in keeping the ego's of superstars - like Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant - in check. He uses an array of motivational techniques for that. With the Chicago Bulls, Jackson sometimes replaced the training by a meditation session. Still he gives players specially chosen books for them to read during the long travels in the NBA.

The famous 'triangle offense', Jackson's offensive system, leaves the players a lot of freedom. The triangle doesn't require players to run into tight, studied patterns, but is a game of nuance, where attackers continuously react to the positions of their defenders and the movements of their teammates. It's a system that requires a lot of maturity from the executioners, for if a superstar - read: Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant - goes it alone too much, the triangle blocks.

Along with being called the "Zen Master," Jackson is known as the master of mind games. In the Laker film room before the 2000 playoffs, Jackson displayed images of Edward Norton's character from the movie American History X, who has a bald head and a tattoo of a swastika, alternating with photos with Sacramento's white, shaved-headed and tattooed point guard, Jason Williams. Jackson then displayed pictures of Adolf Hitler alternately appearing with Sacramento coach Rick Adelman. When Rick Adelman learned of this, he openly questioned Jackson's motivational techniques saying Jackson had "crossed the line." Nevertheless, the Lakers went on to win the series and the championship.

In addition, in the 2001 NBA Finals against the Philadelphia 76ers, Jackson had Tyronn Lue, a player on the Lakers team who was comparable in size and height to Sixers star Allen Iverson, wear a sock on his arm during Lakers practice to simulate Iverson's use of a compression arm sleeve as part of his regular gametime attire. Philadelphia media considered this to be a mind game tactic of Jackson's, but the main idea was to simulate what a game against Iverson is like, right down to the tattoos and cornrows (which Lue also had).

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