The Magic of Phil Jackson, and How It Can Translate to New Role with Knicks

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The Magic of Phil Jackson, and How It Can Translate to New Role with Knicks
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — Mad geniuses of all varieties—Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Dennis Rodman, Tex Winter—have been brought into their best focus with Phil Jackson's support. He has taught teams overly controlled to tap into their abandon, teams too reckless to harness their power.

Jackson's gift, which he brings to the New York Knicks beginning this week, is taking what is around him and leading it toward balance. If you were to boil down his business plan, long before it is to win, it is to make sense of and bring stability to all that is around him.

So if you happen to be around him, even if you're not as ferocious as Bryant or as awkward as Rodman, even when you don't get a ring if the last game is won, you learn about balance.

Wherever you work, you pick up on things your co-workers know and believe. My office has, for much of my journalism career, essentially featured Jackson in a nearby cubicle. And my job has been to understand and explain everything Jackson is doing.

Jackson has never been my coach—yet in a sense, he absolutely has.

Same as Derek Fisher or Brian Shaw, I learned you're a fool if you really try to treat everyone the same. Same as Lamar Odom or Andrew Bynum, I came to understand how important it is to quiet your mind to find focus in the moment. Same as Rick Fox or Luke Walton, I even breathe differently because of Jackson.

More than anything else, I learned that control is a fleeting concept.

My own father is a hard-driving authority figure who didn't want to hear explanations for not being the best in anything. In part from watching so much of Jackson's direction with his teams, I've shifted away from the heavy hand, including in my own parenting. So often I've confirmed how much better it is to let people go ahead and events play out, in order for everyone's lessons to spring forth organically.

Jackson's whole concept of not calling timeout epitomizes the spirit: Push, don't pull. Err on the side of encouraging experience and self-examination. The greatest leader is the invisible leader.

John Swart/Associated Press

Now Jackson is ready to embark on the next stage of his life, and it entails coaching without coaching. As the Knicks' president of basketball operations, he won't be calling or not calling timeouts. His challenge will be to build a winning team without being its primary voice.

The brilliant teacher is becoming the unproven school principal.

Here's the thing: When I think of Jackson, I don't see him as just a coach anyway. Or even a leader.

I see him as a trail guide.

And I don't know about you, but I would much rather be guided than coached or led. That's kind of the magic in the man.

It's also why it's foolish to assume he can't make this transition to a new style of team-building, even if others know far more salary-cap loopholes or have scouted far more college prospects.

Before it is about basketball, it is about hundreds of other things.

Jackson will have a vision, rest assured, about how to improve hundreds of things for the Knicks and get people to be stronger and more connected for the common goal.

He doesn't have to coach up the players every day to do it. Ask his staffers over the years and they'll tell you he coached 'em up even more than I'm telling you he coached me up without trying. Jackson imparts wisdom without that heavy hand, and he has always believed in delegating authority, the idea being to grow his underlings and thereby grow his own power as a side effect.

Everyone has his own trail to walk, and as long as he is present enough, Jackson will help everyone in New York step more confidently as individuals.

Beyond that, as Jackson has proved time and again, it is far more wonderful when our journeys are shared with others.

As Jackson wrote in his 1995 best-selling book Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior, he actually took a career placement test when considering giving up coaching in the CBA, and the best job fits were: housekeeper, trail guide, counselor and lawyer. But the week Jackson filed for unemployment, Jerry Krause called with a job opportunity with the Chicago Bulls, and one of the greatest coaches in sports history was on his way.

BETH A. KEISER/Associated Press

"Him and Vince Lombardi," Bryant said in a quiet moment as their time together was winding down. "That's it."

Bryant explained to me after getting back on top of the NBA world in 2009 and winning the league MVP award how all of these individual accomplishments he had in mind came to him only after Jackson sold him on letting them go. Control what you can control, trust your direction and your work, find peace that improves your life—and everything morphs into a wave on which you get carried where you want to go.

When that time together ended in 2011, Bryant was asked to explain the lessons he learned from Jackson. The answer from the once-uncoachable kid and win-at-all-costs maniac was about as all-encompassing as could be: "life in general."

While grappling with the struggles of the Lakers' utterly disappointing results last season under Mike D'Antoni, Bryant said, "I've been through tough situations in the past, and I'd always blow my top. Then I had a head coach who always kept calm, always focused on the X's and O's of things, and I learned from that."

But the imbalance in Bryant last week—as he complained impatiently about the Lakers' losing—was absurdly obvious to anyone who knows how much he gained from Jackson. A jerk move, more than one of Bryant's backers told me, and it was Bryant tipping back over to the old control freak, ready to strangle anyone who wasn't doing anything immediately to help.

It was Bryant missing Jackson.

One passage that I highlighted in my analysis of Jackson's 2013 book, Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success, explained Bryant's growth in winning his first title without Shaquille O'Neal in '09:

The most gratifying thing of all was watching Kobe transform from a selfish, demanding player into a leader that his teammates wanted to follow. To get there, Kobe had to learn to give in order to get back in return. Leadership is not about forcing your will on others. It's about mastering the art of letting go.

That's really the spirit of the entire book: less is more. People forget about the last part of the title: "The Soul of Success," but there's something apt about that phrase, which stretches across the bottom of that book cover, supporting Jackson's big name on the top and the images of those 11 NBA championship rings.

In a sort of twist on the old Seinfeld joke that the show is about nothing, Jackson ends the book by writing:

Winning a championship is a delicate balancing act, and there's only so much you can accomplish by exerting your will. As a leader your job is to do everything in your power to create the perfect conditions for success by benching your ego and inspiring your team to play the game the right way. But at some point, you need to let go and turn yourself over to the basketball gods.

The soul of success is surrendering to what is.

That is the spirit with which Jackson undertakes this new job.

He won't be able to do things the same way as before, and he won't have the tools to do everything he wants, but make no mistake about his intention to build the same enlightened community as always and push for the same results.

Jackson is big on poetic turns, and going back to the Knicks carries profound meaning for him. His mentor, Red Holzman, wasn't just a Knicks coach back in the day, it should be noted; Holzman was the Knicks general manager and running the basketball ops, too.

Dick Raphael/Getty Images

As a player, Jackson was part of two Knicks championship teams back then. Those squads, to many basketball purists, epitomize just how the team game is supposed to be played, and it was just Jackson's good fortune fresh out of college of having his path cross immediately with Holzman's.

You rarely get to choose who you work with in your job.

Sometimes it just works out pretty amazingly.

My kids were enriched by educational videos recommended by Bryant based on what his kids liked. I'm getting good use out of the posture-improving shirt I bought last season upon understanding the benefits of Dwight Howard wearing it.

But learning life lessons from Jackson isn't like that or anything the guy in the next cubicle over can offer. It's something special, as more people in New York are soon to understand, and I'm grateful for the growth.

 

Kevin Ding covers the Lakers for Bleacher Report.

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