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A Model for Basketball and a Model for Life: Reading Phil Jackson's 'Sacred Hoops' Twent

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If you’re a basketball fan, you’ve heard of Phil Jackson in some shape or form.

He’s the thirteen-time NBA champion, twice as a player and eleven times as a coach. He’s the guy who tamed Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, convincing them to have faith in their teammates and the magical triangle offense. He’s the chilled-out vegetarian hippie whose lifestyle and look half belong in the 1970s. Jax is the Zen Master, whose laid-back demeanor and philosophical nature may confuse for a self-important pretentiousness. And in his current role as team President, Jackson is the savior quickly turned perpetrator of the Knicks’ struggles.

Amidst all of his labels and titles (no pun intended), Jackson is still a difficult guy to figure out. He has a mystique that can be captivating and also alienating; endearing and rather frustrating. As a New York Knicks fan who wants desperately to trust that Phil is leading the team in the right direction, I made it my mission this summer to find out more about him. Beyond the resume, why is it that I should buy into Phil Jackson’s very secretive scheme to turn the Knicks around? Is the triangle offense, as many people argue, out-of-date in today’s small-ball and three-point era?

To gain some clarity about Phil and what he brings to the Knicks, I picked up his 1995 National Best-Selling autobiography Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior. While the book does reveal secrets about the impalpable triangle offense, it accomplishes so much more than that. Sacred Hoops explains how values of mindfulness, teamwork, and compassion—when applied correctly—breed success on (and off) the basketball court.

A major reason why I found Sacred Hoops refreshing is that not once did it mention analytics or advanced statistics. In today’s game, teams rely so heavily on numbers and player tracking it’s almost nauseating. For instance, you could hear things like (note: the following are fake tendencies meant to simulate real ones): When Kyle Lowry gets the ball within ten feet of the hoop, his team scores 70% of the time; If Tristan Thompson is within four feet of a rebound opportunity, he grabs the board 85% of the time; Nick Young shoots more efficiently when he eats In-N-Out before games than when he eats Taco Bell.

While I see value in these types of statistics, I don’t think basketball can be simplified down to what a computer spits out. The game isn’t played by drones or robots programmed to behave in certain ways. It’s won and lost by people who have emotions, egos, families, and all the other baggage that comes with being human.

Jackson emphasizes the importance of creating an atmosphere of trust and togetherness on the court and in the locker room. Players must trust each other, understand their roles on the team, and have the same goals. As Phil puts it, guys must buy into the idea of putting the “We before Me.” Working as a collective unit rather than a bunch of individuals—a task much easier preached than practiced—is the ultimate objective.

Although these ideals may seem commonplace and obvious for any team that wants to be successful, it’s Phil’s methods of instilling them separate him from other leaders. Jackson taps into Eastern philosophy and Native American practices and sayings to help focus his players.

Phil often led his team through meditation to create a sense of clarity and mindfulness. He hung Native American artifacts throughout the locker room, each symbolizing a different team principle. He even intercut movie clips (from Pulp Fiction, The Wizard of Oz, etc.) with game film to fire up his guys and to take some of the monotony out of long film sessions.

My favorite “Jackson-ism” is how he’d recommend a vast array of books to his players in order to “expand their minds” on road trips. For example, he suggested Fever: Twelve Stories for Michael Jordan, Phil-favorite Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for John Paxon, and Beavis and Butt-Head: This Books Sucks for Stacey King. Jackson tailored his suggestions to fit the unique personalities and temperaments of his players.

Aside: If I ever get to meet Phil Jackson, I’d be sure to ask him for a book recommendation. He’s a master-reader—not only of books, but of people too. After even a five or ten minute conversation, I’m sure he could prescribe something interesting for me.

Sacred Hoops is chock-full of lessons and monikers to remember as you go through your daily life. Phil’s discussions of compassion, acceptance, and self-reflection resonate, especially since they aren’t the typical values you’d hear a coach preach to his or her team.

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One of the most powerful stories Jackson recounts is when Scottie Pippin’s father died before Game 5 of the 1990 Eastern Conference Semifinals. Phil was sure to acknowledge what was going on with Scottie, and the team formed a prayer circle around Pip in the locker room. Phil said “We may not be Scottie’s family, but we’re as close to him as anyone in his life. This is a critical time for him. We should tell him how much we love him and show compassion for his lost” (54).

So much about sports involves demonstrating and proving your masculinity. You need to be this macho warrior on the court or field whose desire to win cancels out any other emotions you may have. Phil Jackson believes this is stupid. In fact, many of his ideals dismantle classic masculine athlete stereotypes. You don’t have to be strong all the time. You can be vulnerable because it not only allows you to express how you’re truly feeling, but it will also ultimately help you form stronger bonds with teammates.

When Scottie’s father died, Jackson made sure to outwardly exhibit love and compassion so that the other players would rally around Pippen in his time of sadness. Players responded accordingly, and Pippin was overwhelmed by the support he received. He ended up scoring twenty-nine points that game.

Jackson’s anecdote is extremely important in terms of how we view men and masculinity in our society today. Part of “being a man” is to be an authoritative risk-taker who shows no signs of weakness. Men are less willing to express their feelings and more apt to take foolish risks because they want to prove themselves. This type of thinking can have significant impacts on men’s health and wellbeing, which Dr. Michael Kimmel discusses in length.

Phil’s gender expectation-shattering tactics, which he practiced with his team over twenty-five years ago, constitute a good model for how coaches should treat their players—no matter the level of play. Jackson taught that being open to each other and even to ourselves is key to forming profound relationships.

My goal before reading Sacred Hoops was to learn more about Phil Jackson and what he brings to the Knicks. Not only do I feel like the team is in safe hands, but I believe Phil brings a unique culture that the Knicks (and even New York City) really need—a culture that values teamwork, tolerance, compassion. I believe the Knicks will find success under Phil, maybe not immediately, but within the next couple of seasons.

Sacred Hoops is not just a book about basketball. It’s a guide containing important lessons that can be applied to many aspects of life. I envision (visualization is a crucial piece of Phil’s teachings) that Sacred Hoops will always sit on my desk, just in case I need to remember to step back for a moment and reflect on a difficult situation or time. It’ll serve as a reminder that showing sympathy and concern for a friend or colleague will allow me to relate to them in a deeper, healthier way. And of course, I can turn to Sacred Hoops to satiate a serious hunger for a good basketball story.

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