Alpha Coach

Photo by Anne Fishbein
Up the hall at Lakers headquarters, emerging from a closed-door meeting, here comes Phil Jackson,

in a rolling cloud of three stiffly collegial, broadcast-booth- generation men. And though at 6'8" he is not even the tallest in the group, or the most famous for once, or officially the highest in command, still, in some failed word-portrait way, he is the Alpha. (Words


fail, “because the essence of the person is the


, which is spiritual,” reads one Jacksonesque e-mail.) By instinct the others seem to lag, or unconsciously find their slot within his dominant concept of Time.

My first failed-portrait impression being that the whole mystery is in his stride — which, broken down to its parts (spinal fusion, inability to toe-up on his right side, long arms sewn on charnel-house backward, with palms curled behind, like Joe Cocker), is a mutant horror, but in motion adds up somehow to swagger, and preen, and a sense of playful, wily threat. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (who’s being considered for a tutorial position — a job he would get) is the outsider in a blazer, hopeful voice lingering; Mitch Kupchak, the team's general manager, ushers from the rear in his own chesty hobble. But Jackson is out front, and he is pointing, and with each step spearing his finger toward the next in a gallery of framed Laker photos that line the wall. One. Two. Three. Four.

Until he gets to the photo of Vlade Divac. There he halts, wincing, pondering — and the others halt too, just like Phil. Phil and the Jacksonaires. Vlade, he worries, out loud.

So the others worry out loud, too, pronounce the koan after him — Vlade — mirroring precisely Jackson’s charismatic shtick (lightness, or profundity?), before the leader and his flock marvel and nod and move onward.

When Phil Jackson is coaching, he dreams about basketball. During the 2003 playoffs, he dreamed that all his team’s three-point attempts were off the rim (it was “really disturbing”); more recently, he dreamed that someone had strayed from position on offense, he can’t remember who, but it was more than a matter of degree. “It was someone completely out of position.” Now, in summer, the dreams have renewed. They may even have intensified, because three weeks before signing point guard Aaron McKie, Jackson dreamed that someone entirely new was trying to take the ball upcourt, trying to orient the triangle offense — a player whom he gradually recognized to be Oprah Winfrey.

Jackson does not take long to interpret this dream as his imagination’s ode to the difficulty of finding roster spots for possibly mismatched talents. Also, it was about “trying to coach basketball skills to someone who was completely not a basketball player.” Arguably, of course, that is coaching at its purest. But neither Jackson nor his audience is used to seeing him in so ultimate a test. (Jackson owns the NBA record for lifetime winning percentage, .725, and is the only man to coach teams to championships in both the Continental Basketball Association and the NBA.)

For that reason, you get the sense this year that Phil Jackson may finally be voyaging toward his doom, if doom can touch a man whose legend has so often been written. Think of the risk — offering failure the last word in a career that’s recorded nine world titles. Until you remember that Jackson gave failure the last word already, losing in five games to Detroit in 2004, then retiring. And such was the Jackson mystique that when he looked up at the expired game clock, skeptical amusement at his lip — that look of his that makes you wonder if maybe P.J. stands for Private Joke — you actually felt the network cameras tempted to train on Jackson’s exit rather than on rival coach Larry Brown’s ascension, scene-thievery duplicated exactly 12 months later: when it was Phil’s re-hiring, rather than Brown’s return to the finals, that merited saturation coverage in the Los Angeles Times. (“Twelve stories on the hiring of an NBA coach?” marveled one Arizona columnist.)

No one on Earth is as smart as people want to believe Jackson is — I stopped counting after the third article that mentioned him loaning Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo to Shaquille O’Neal. But he does love his Zen, and he does know how to stay out of a Moment’s way, until nearly everyone around him feels it — feels enough faith in Jackson’s faith to be the beneficiary of his winning aura, or at least not to fear losing. That aura, and the white-whiskered seasoning, and an awful lot of money ($30 million over three years, a salary more than 10 times that of Dodger manager Jim Tracy in what purports to be the national pastime), have given Jackson the Clintonian credibility at 60 to be both hip and unridiculous; to shake off sin and failure; to preach, figuratively, from both black and white pulpits. “He has this amazing presence,” begins one working acquaintance, who could be every working acquaintance. Rookie players, quoted in the press, have said thoroughly addled things like, “I think he’s supposed to be using all kinds of psychology on me.”

To this character-driven screenplay, one can now add some unprecedented plot developments: the strongman forced to bluff without his nukes. The chance to prove why neither Michael Jordan nor Kobe Bryant ever won a championship without the selflessness of Jackson’s offense. The long-shot hope for a Los Angeles coach to extinguish one last Boston memory: the malevolent dibbuk Red Auerbach’s nine victory cigars as coach.

Not to mention the potential to become the only coaching legend in Los Angeles ever to come back from retirement and succeed. (Trojan John Robinson and Ram Chuck Knox failed.) Though even if the sequel ends unhappily, Jackson may prove the perfect coach for this moment, in this city — the former champ who’s prouder and cooler than whoever’s actually winning; the winner who’s tasted loss; a prince in absentia. A blue-state bumper sticker with the culture redrawn and the seasons in flux.

This is August in El Segundo, a short commute from Jackson’s house in Playa del Rey, where he hears ocean waves at night, but also the planes. Jackson has on khaki slacks and a pale-blue silk shirt, with his posture so flung back at the shoulder blades that at moments he looks like a man wearing pajamas backward. He already has had to sit for photos as His Hipster Radiance, notching his chin upward and beaming a soupy, close-lipped smile. Between poses, he quizzed the Lakers’ publicist, John Black, about concert dates (Lucinda Williams, Holly Williams, Pearl Jam), in a voice that sounded surprisingly bright: Jackson’s vocal register croaks down midway between Henry Kissinger and Barry White, but it also brims. The photo session got playful enough for Jackson to try cradling 10 regulation basketballs, but not enough for him to dance with one of the foam-cutout defenders that the team uses in drills. “It’s not really a partner,” Jackson begged off — and here his word choice turned senselessly erudite — “it’s kind of ?a protagonist.”

(After further prodding, Jackson looked himself over and delivered the quintessential tough-guy apology, “I don’t dance.”)

He really does use all those words, and read all those books — although sometimes the gaudy intellect backfires, and sometimes Jackson doesn’t know it. All the most unfortunate utterances in The Last Season, his coaching memoir of 2003–2004, involve Jackson sounding less gentle than he thinks, emotional vocabulary whirling around like Buster Keaton with a two-by-four. (Not wanting to be “too hard” on Devean George after benching him for a foolish post-up shot, Jackson merely assures him: “You lost my faith and trust.”) Three days after realizing he’s wrongly accused Gary Payton of a critical defensive lapse (and dressed him down in front of the team), Jackson burnishes his verbatim apology (“I’m going to make a mistake once in a while”) . . . then springboards to a few sentences on the virtue of humility. It’s Payton who digs up the S word (“I’m sorry about what happened”), and we’re left with the slightly troubled moral that after only three days, Jackson has forgiven the maligned party for feeling maligned.

Even correcting for the season’s context of crisis and disunity — with Kobe on trial, superstars feuding, it was imperative that Jackson assert his authority — the book conveyed little of the peace and centeredness of Jackson’s spiritual memoir, Sacred Hoops, or the boyish brotherhood and honor of, say, Pat Riley’s years in L.A. Jackson even committed the gone-Hollywood sin of complaining about his multimillion-dollar contract on the basis of “respect,” though by this time the disunity was epidemic.

Of course, he wrote the book never meaning to come back. As such, it offered candor. It burned bridges (I’ve had it with Kobe). And then he walked back in medallion and sandals through the smoking cinders to be re-hired.

What Jackson now says he would have done differently is confront things sooner. “My problem obviously was standing back, and being somewhat hurt. But,” and he is all done wallowing now, “I was able to overcome that by going through a process of saying, okay, I don’t need to extend the tenure that I have with this ball club, I just want to do the best job I can do this year . . . to be present in this moment, which is exactly where I want to be anyway. And that’s the lesson of the book. It’s not about the uncoachability of Kobe. It’s about me thinking about how I’d get along with him in the future if he signed. And it wasn’t about the future, it was about how I’m dealing with him Right Now. That was what I brought into play in the book, or I thought I did. Because I wasn’t sure everybody got it.”

Besides writing his book, when he had no one to please but himself, Jackson spent a lot of his time off in New Zealand and Australia, and then, folding himself into a teensy classroom desk, he helped some students from Animo Inglewood Charter High School produce a book themselves. It was for 826LA, the Venice offshoot of novelist Dave Eggers’ San Francisco outreach writing lab, and as the theme for the book's young authors, Jackson offered “Teamwork.” (It could have been far worse; Antonio Villaraigosa, next year’s guest editor, has selected “Dream With Me of Your L.A.”) Jackson’s former wife, June — a social worker and massage therapist who signs her communications “Peace” — had moved to San Francisco for a relationship that fizzled, then volunteered her time and connections to the project and, on the basis of one e-mail (“I pick my favors carefully,” she says), convinced Jackson to get involved. The coach impressed the staff with his unpampered commitment.

“He’d marked them up!” exudes Eggers, who watched Jackson drop by the Venice headquarters one day with a sheaf of student manuscripts. (A different sort of Jackson outtake: At the book-release dinner, when the music got too loud, a Weekly editor saw Jackson plug pinkies in either corner of his mouth to whistle time-out — conjuring ghosts of a previous existence.)

Through his girlfriend, Jeanie Buss, daughter of owner Jerry Buss and the team's executive V.P. of business operations, he also procured 81 upper-deck seats for a Lakers game, and made the steep climb from her luxury box to greet the students and to clown about the height. “I don’t think I’ve ever been up here before,” Jackson remarked.

Some of the things that reportedly have moved Jackson to tears over the past year — hearing the students’ life stories the first time, hearing an old hymn at a Garrison Keillor taping on the night of Jackson’s retirement — hint that he is no more finished with his Williston, North Dakota, upbringing than Keillor is with the Minnesota Lutherans. (The child of two Pentecostal ministers, Jackson formally lost religion in his teens, after failing to speak in tongues.) Both prodigals, while instinctively uneasy with conformity, defend their roots as quickly as flee them, and over the course of his career, Jackson’s often shown a certain fussy reflex to hedge his bets. Were he easier to pin down, he’d be easier to dismiss: Players wouldn’t assume they were being invited one step higher when he waxed incomprehensible; that air of psych-out wouldn’t rush into every void. And he wouldn’t have that Jackson knack of seeming neither too hip nor too square but somehow both. (The power of his “Zen-Christian” program upon players — Jackson’s teams are invited to both sit zazen and recite the Lord’s Prayer — may be that it slaps both traditions awake: the Christianity nudged toward Zen openness, the Zen toward a prairie-school morality.) The same Jackson, after all, who presided over the game’s most famous return to an ideal of teamwork — resurrecting the triangle offense, a cornball relic from the draftiest of collegiate gyms — had earlier helped define, along with ’70s New York teammate Bill Bradley, the game’s era of egghead eccentricity.

He was then reading William James, Carlos Castaneda and the biblical metaphysician Joel Goldsmith. “I always kind of look to see who has moved away from maybe a strict background?” Jackson offers, letting the obvious coincidence hover. “I kind of consider what Buddha did, or Jesus Christ re-defining another path through Judaism. The guy who established Sufism, the person who’s moving Islam in a more unearthy or non-material way. And I thought Joel [by arguing that thinking was mere effect, and spirit the only reality and cause] tried to do that with Mary Baker Eddy.”

Goldsmith was only a phase for Jackson. “But I really appreciate Joel for what served me as a person coming out of a strong Christian background — the idea of Scripture identifying me with the I Am, or the Big Mind, or that Buddha nature that we’ve inherited. The original mind.” Reading Goldsmith also gave Jackson “confidence that original sin isn’t the overriding principle” in one’s path to God — and thus was the church door closed behind him. Does that mean there’s no need for a personal savior? I ask.

“It means,” Jackson says, “that you’re saved by every breath you take... Grace is there, in that next inbreath of life.”

Even without going kabbalistic on the mystical properties of the Triangle, you could easily be convinced by Jackson’s eyes over the next two decades that all the secret Rosicrucian power of the universe rested solely on his side of the scoring table, with opposing coaches in the role of screaming children. What’s ironic is that the team that finally dethroned him did so by a feat of spiritual role reversal — for the Pistons had played as teammates all year long, while the Lakers never came together till it was too late. Though at least that outcome served, in a bitter form of vindication, to prove Jackson’s point.

Then came the dismissal, the Garrison Keillor moment of recovered identity. Fishing in Montana. The prospect of life after sports.

Like any millionaire from the Left with instant name recognition, charisma, a reputation as a uniter and fluency in the language of faith, he was sounded out for political office. (Earlier, he’d been offered the chance to run Bill Bradley’s 2000 primary campaign in Iowa.) A group of friends had him pegged for a Senate seat in Montana, and Jackson thought about it, too, before deciding he wasn’t up to all the greeting and meeting. Moreover, his politics had shifted, or softened — whatever it is that makes your kids tease that you’ve gone conservative while you deny it, and your eyes light up at words like trade-off and balance. Jackson thinks Jimmy Carter was compassionate but ineffective, Clinton too far right to be properly called a Democrat, but the edge that strangely animates him nowadays runs toward some newish frontier mean — the radicalism of Compromise — although it’s hard to follow his vision along this frontier exactly, because his words are so measured and vague.

“I still think that I submit, apply and read,” he says, nearly losing me already, “all that’s on the left. And yet I really like the balancing act that we have to do in this country between the tradeoffs of business, big business, and private industry, and individual rights and big government and our decisions on how to assist and develop peace in the Middle East, versus how to fight terrorism in a war. You know, those really drive my interests a lot.”

It has also dawned on Jackson that the nation’s political choices have been flattened by a two-party lens. “You don’t know what you’re getting from either party, basically . . . You could get a person that’s for right to life or for choice in the Republican Party. In the Democratic Party, you could get a person that’s interested in minority rights, or people who are interested in all the other types of rights — the splinter groups that have taken the Democratic Party so far away from where it was 30 years ago. And you can get people who are for choice, and people who aren’t. I think we’ve engineered our government so much to our two-party system that we’ve lost the ability to appeal to people on the basis of a position that they want. Do they want social action, as a people of conscience and a people that’s going through a Depression need a guy like Roosevelt? Do we want militaristic concerns that are much more conservative [just] because we wanted to tighten things up in the government?”

As candidate Jackson sees it — and here he sounds just like the hands-off coach we’ve seen smiling when his team is stymied by the game’s flow — “I’m actually writing to friends and family that we need to be patient and remember that politics is not something that changes with a person or a party so much as it changes with how the population moves. And when the movement of the population is to the degree where there’s an energy source that comes out of that majority, then our country will respond. But we haven’t consolidated ideas yet. We haven’t collectively thought about things. And the people that have are the people on the fundamental Right. They’re passionate about how they want to see the world, and how they want government to react.” Then Jackson lands on a Yogi Berra–ism: “But I think the middle will swing.”

A Phil Jackson White House would know how to call a foreign adventure a mistake. “Terrorism exists regardless of whether we have this vigilant, angry, retaliatory nature or if we carry this compassionate front. And I think there is something of an advantage spot to retaliation, coming from the standpoint of fear. Unfortunately, that’s been carried out now for three or four years. And the level of how far we go with this type of worldview is, I think, reaching an end, where we’re seeing, hey, this isn’t going to get it done. Now we have to try another way.”

On other controversies, President Jackson would be enigmatic, Sphinx-like, far off: possibly a projection of our hopes, possibly a prodigal from North Dakota, trying to contain the contradictions of his own divided past.

“I think anything that splits groups of people,” he writes in an e-mail, “such as abortion/gay marriage/taxation benefits/stem-cell research have to have been worked out for definitions that are publicly acceptable to become a candidate . . . I find the bickering between left and right just what it is: bickering.”

It’s an adventure, sometimes, choosing and pruning Phil Jackson’s quotes, which often give way to the fuzziest monotone of pronouns and prepositions — that vagueness of his that makes you wonder if P.J. also stands for emperor’s pajamas. (“It’s an authoritarian chain of events in which things happen . . . happening not on one level but on another level, maybe happening on a financial level, which the structure of the team’s cap or salary or whatever else was a problem, of how we’re going to adjust these salaries to keep a competitive team if we have Shaq and Kobe, and Kobe’s chosen free agency and how are we gonna keep this guy, and we have to be beholden on some level to keep associated with the Lakers . . .”)

But after I push his former wife for a key to him, she relents that this is simply Phil being Phil — equal parts guarded and coy, the man who boasted in his book about being able to throw smoke at the media in moments of damage control.

“My answer to why he’s so frequently misunderstood is that he’s unclear,” June Jackson says by phone, with what sounds like an adoring exasperation.

“Unclear?” I repeat.

“It’s even unclear to him. He learned early on to dodge, because people don’t want to be pinned down publicly in their statements. So you just become kind of a master of obscurity, which people misinterpret as aloofness. What appears to be his standoffishness is just obscurity and opaqueness. And then people say, ‘Oh my God — it’s brilliance!’”

Other times, this quality looks like prudence, discretion, or chivalry. He won’t talk about how his twin sons reportedly lobbied against his return to coaching — or how, specifically, he made up with Jerry Buss after writing that the Lakers’ owner publicly lied in 2004 about a contract extension for Jackson being on the table. Actually, Jackson first will chant bureaucratic antiphony over the question — “It was a situation that was wide-open and remained so by Dr. Buss inviting me back and really stating how much he wanted me to come back, and talking about how he got in this space, and kind of opened the door for me.” Until I e-mail, weeks later, “What actually was SAID by way of apologies and forgivenesses?”

That is when Jackson writes back about the impossibility of getting a man’s whole story in words. “I’m aware of your desire to flesh this story out...” But on the Buss question, he answers, “No comment.”

The defining moments of Phil Jackson’s summer have thus far divided into a coaching highlight and a fathering highlight. The coaching highlight was an interview with new forward Kwame Brown. “The team needs a big man that can athletically play at an elevated level,” Jackson says, “and he’s a key to our success.”

The fathering highlight was “when my two daughters’ fiancés asked me for the honor of asking my daughters to become their wives.”

Some years back, Jackson had taken a personality test offered by the NBA. His top callings were 1) Homemaker; 2) Trail Guide.

Jackson, in fact, had a Mr. Mom phase, in the 1980s, after four kids (two girls, then twin boys) had been born within four years. It looked like this: breakfast, dressing, carpool to school, lunch for the twins, nap time, pickup at school, dinner, baths and bed. June left at 7 a.m. for work and got home at 10 p.m. The boys went with Jackson to Puerto Rico for summer league, which started early, while June kept the girls until the last day of school. Jackson didn’t consciously open his mind to coaching in the NBA until his oldest daughter reached seventh grade. Nowadays, Jackson’s son Ben, a 26-year-old MFA candidate in poetry at Warren Wilson, is secure enough in his father’s house to let a writing project take over the floor of Jackson’s home office, which is going to be moved to Lakers HQ in a matter of hours (Jackson remembers to warn one of the Laker secretaries to warn the movers). For that matter, the secretaries are secure enough to stash their mochiattas in Jackson’s office fridge.

Still, if he doesn’t intimidate anyone who really knows him, he doesn’t over-sympathize with them either. “Gentle but not warm” is how a New York Times Magazine profile described Jackson a few years back, and he admits that label “might be close . . . There is a certain Puritan resolve that resonates through my life and my siblings’ lives. It comes with the Anglo mentality of ‘God helps those who help themselves.’ ”

Jackson’s role, he says, is to help his loved ones realize that fact. “Or,” he rephrases, speaking from atop a hill that he’s clearly climbed himself, “one works out their own salvation.”

If there is something lighter and freer about Jackson with the Lakers this time around, it may be because he has chosen to return to a thing he loves when even people close to him suspect it’s folly; something that may require him to be younger than the calendar says he is; something that pleases his girlfriend more than it does his kids, whose gift it will nevertheless be to have seen their father pursue his bliss. It is a California story that many children have watched many parents write. And at this moment, Jackson seems like one of them, set free by his fallible choices, returned to the fraternal loneliness of war among warriors — a kind of spiritual happy bachelor. “I told Jeanie,” he says, “that I had some visions about the team, so it’s starting to feel like the right thing now. It’s starting to come together.”

I urge him to tell me the vision.

“Just movement,” he says happily. “Just the dance.”

The other interesting prospect about getting to see Jackson coach again is how Jackson’s 10th championship, should he ever win it, will have an indefinable, theological quality that makes it about more than basketball. It will feel, as all Jackson’s championships have, like the victory of his secret weapon over someone else’s lesser weapon — a triumph of the Force, or of Zen mind, or faith in the Infinite Invisible — whatever rushes to fill the margins of his enigma in a last-minute, fourth-quarter, seventh-game bluff. The third vocational recommendation on that personality test Jackson took: Minister.

If Jackson winds up seeming less free this time around, it will quickly be apparent that there is nothing in the world more tragic and absurd than a man trying to go home to what’s gone. For it’s not only a different Lakers team, but a different time, and a different world. One could easily think that one’s era has passed.

I ask Jackson how old is too old for a coach to be effective. I ask if today’s players could relate to a leader like John Wooden. “I think they could listen,” Jackson stipulates. “I don’t think they could relate.”

This sends him on a side reflection. “In my first game in Madison Square Garden, in 1967, the NBA was celebrating its 20-year anniversary, and they introduced the heroes of 1947 — it’s hard to imagine, but I’ve been around this league for almost two-thirds of its lifetime. So it’s with a certain amount of pride that you look back and say, gee, this sport’s really gotten to be a leader — for its innovation, for the way it’s captured America and the world, for the passion with which it’s played. And for me it’s a way of communicating.” Despite the corporate wording, Jackson’s eyes have come to life now. He is talking about his medium, his competitive calling, the one that comes before homemaker and trail leader and minister. “It’s a way of demonstrating a sense of — well, Bradley would say ‘tribal warfare.’ It’s gamesmanship. That fun space.” You get the feeling Jackson would like to whip your ass on the court right now, to be precisely Zen about it.

That is a good sign. Another is that he has been working to define the official Lakers theme for 2005, something that apparently will begin with the letter R. “Redemption, reunification — kind of like to regain — well, maybe not the glory of this organization, but the pride, really, that the team has carried itself with — a certain sense of Being a Laker. It’s about the sense of confidence that a group of guys have when they move, and they act, and coordinate themselves with each other.” This feels ethereal, but I can see that it’s very like the margin of mystery Jackson values most about himself. I can also see how it’s the intangibles of winning that really move him, and how basketball, which could just as easily never have been invented, which could not possibly be a divine calling, somehow is.

I envy Jackson: how grounded he seems in the now, where all things are possible, and freed. Whereas I’m so impatient, so un-Phil — so less at home in Time. I want to smile and let my thoughts run, like players puzzling out the flow of the game, like Oprah Winfrey.

Or is it a sportsman’s shuck? The void that the Lakers will stake a season of moments on — does anything rush to fill it? What do writers most often get wrong about you? I e-mail Jackson in Montana, along with a list of my follow-up questions, to which he answers, cryptically, maybe predictably: “The spiritual aspect of my life.”

And portraits fail, but with the opening game approaching, the man who says you can’t capture a person in words signs off in (literal or ironic?) homage to radio ham Paul Harvey: “Alan, now you’ve got the rest of the story. pj.”


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