Phil Jackson and his wife, June, were biking home from assistant
coach Tex Winter's home one evening last month when Phil decided to
pick a fight with her.
''It was right after the Knicks eliminated the Hornets ((in the
Eastern Conference semifinals)),'' says June, ''so Phil had to start
getting into his angry power mode. I just happened to be there.''
Jackson, the most successful playoff coach in NBA history (his
winning percentage is .743), is a man of many modes. One of his
strengths is that he is conversant with aspects of human endeavor
besides the pick-and-roll, but, make no mistake about it, the tougher
the competition, the more competitive Jackson becomes.
Take the Eastern Conference finals against the Knicks, which was
in some respects a more arduous battle than the Bulls' six-game title
run against the Suns. In his dealings with the media, Jackson
relentlessly attacked the Knicks' physical style, offending Knick
players, Knick officials, Knick fans and, particularly, Knick coach
''Pat is going to win at all costs,'' Jackson said at one point.
''He's driven to do that. That's his motivation.'' On another
occasion Jackson proclaimed the Knicks' physical style ''fraught with
danger'' and said that a former player like Riley ''should know
better'' than to play that way. So angered was Riley that before
Game 3 at Chicago Stadium, he passed the word through his assistants
that he didn't want Jackson to shake his hand before or after the
game. True to form, these two proud coaches merely nodded at each
other when they passed a few feet apart after the Bulls had clinched
the series with a 96-88 victory in Game 6.
Jackson's attack, sometimes subtle, sometimes heavy-handed, was
part of a psychological war he had begun last season when he
perceived (accurately, as it turned out) that the Bulls' road to an
NBA championship would pass through New York. Everything Jackson said
or did during the '92-93 regular season and playoffs seemed an
attempt to get under Riley's skin and to convince the Bulls that they
were superior to the Knicks. Would one dare call Jackson, this flower
child of the '60s, manipulative or devious?
''No,'' says June, ''not in general. But Riley did seem to push
that button in him, didn't he?''
Jackson, however, is adept at pushing buttons too. During his
tenure with the Bulls his idealism has lessened somewhat; Jackson no
longer expects, for example, that most of his players will actually
read the books that he hands out to them from time to time on road
trips. But he still resolutely uses some psychological gimmicks that
can safely be called unconventional.
Before Game 7 of last year's second-round series against the
Knicks (which the Bulls won 110-81), Jackson recommended that his
players go home and rent Hanto Yo, a film about a young Native
American warrior who must visualize the white buffalo in his attempt
to become a man. This is not normal coaching behavior. Horace Grant
actually looked for the film and, when he couldn't find it, decided
to meditate instead. That was fine with Jackson, a former meditator
himself. During this year's series against the Knicks, Jackson
spliced into game films a clip from The Power of One, a movie set in
South Africa in which a black prisoner stands up to his white
oppressors. The point was that the time had come for the Bulls to
stand up to the Knicks. The Bulls sometimes snicker about Jackson's
methods -- and Jackson knows it -- but they've snickered less and
less as his tenure has gone on.
There's a kind of Zen presence about the Bulls -- the sometimes
superhuman abilities of Michael Jordan, the wizened guidance of
assistant coaches Johnny Bach and Tex Winter (a combined 88 years in
the business) and, of course, the ^ unpredictable, fuzzy nature of
Jackson. Then again, maybe the Bulls just have the best team in the
Jackson's greatest gift might be his ability to inspire in his
players a sense of freedom, a sense that there's room to experiment
and to have fun within the confines of a system. Jackson is a big fan
of the Berto Center, the Bulls' luxurious practice facility in
suburban Chicago, particularly because it restricts press access and
puts a premium on privacy. (Jackson reminds no one of general manager
Jerry Krause, but he is only slightly less paranoid about the press
than Krause.) Yet on occasion Jackson will bring his golden retriever
to the Berto Center and let him ramble around untended. One could not
imagine, say, Riley turning his dog loose at a Knick practice
Jackson does get angry on occasion -- ''Phil has a bark'' is the
way Bach puts it. And a player certainly doesn't want to be the
object of Jackson's scrutiny when the coach folds his long arms and
raises his eyebrows with that look of absolute incredulity, the same
one-two punch he sometimes gives NBA referees.But to many of the
players he remains something of a mystery. ''He's the most
nonfeedback coach I've ever seen,'' says former Bull Cliff
Levingston. Is that good or bad? ''Sometimes good, sometimes bad,''
says Levingston. ''I played for Mike Fratello ((on the Hawks, from
1984-85 through 1989-90)), and Mike is all over you all the time,
maybe a bit too much. But sometimes a player wants to hear from a
coach. And you don't get that from Phil.''
Jackson never wants to come across as preachy. He hates preachy,
and considering his background, that's not surprising. Jackson grew
up in the hardscrabble town of Williston, N.Dak., the son of a
Pentecostal preacher (Charles) and a soul-saving street-corner
evangelist (Elisabeth). He was not allowed to dance, listen to rock
'n' roll music, watch TV, read comic books or play cards. But Jackson
does not look back with bitterness on his childhood. It was a strange
one, to be sure, but he was not an outcast living in religious exile.
In fact, he was a joiner. He was a good student, he sang in church
and school choruses, he played three sports at Williston High. That's
what brought a young University of North Dakota coach named Bill
Fitch to town one day. Some college recruiters were interested in
Jackson's high- speed, no-control southpaw delivery from the baseball
mound, but Fitch saw a tenacious rebounder and defender in this gawky
6 ft. 8 in. kid. Jackson had a successful, albeit low-profile,
college basketball career, and the Knicks liked him well enough to
pick him in the second round of the 1967 draft, the 17th player
A turning point in Jackson's life occurred late in his freshman
year during a long automobile trip he took with his older brother,
Joe, who was then a graduate student at Texas. Joe had become
skeptical about his fundamentalist background, and his doubts
stimulated Phil's own questioning nature. By the time Phil earned a
combined degree in psychology, religion and philosophy, he had taken
courses from all over the curriculum and had all but rejected his
Pentecostal roots. His life had become a quest for knowledge and
experimentation, and he remains the only professional head coach in
any sport who admits to having used psychedelic drugs.
''I think the myopic way I grew up led to my experimentation,''
says Jackson, who is now 47. ''Everything that happened to me in the
1960s was in tune with my background. The whole psychedelic
experience was, as Timothy Leary said, 'a religious experience.' ''
There's one thing to remember about Jackson, though. Basketball
never took a backseat to what he calls his ''peripheral quests.'' He
and his pal Charley Rosen, a longtime CBA coach and something of a
basketball philosopher, have a saying: ''Basketball's not a metaphor
for life. Life's a metaphor for basketball.''
Jackson had a basketball mind -- if he hadn't, he could not have
remained in the NBA for 13 seasons (11 with the Knicks, two with the
New Jersey Nets) with his limited scoring (6.7 points per game). Yet
no one figured him for the coaching type. Too unconventional, too
trippy, maybe even too dangerous. Besides, Jackson had written in his
1975 memoir, Maverick, that he couldn't be an NBA coach because he
couldn't deal with the egos. Still, when Knick coach Red Holzman sent
Jackson to scout games from time to time back in his playing days,
Holzman found that Jackson had a gift for ''seeing'' the game and
breaking it down. Late in his career Jackson even served as a
player-assistant coach for the Nets under Kevin Loughery.
After his playing days ended in 1980, Jackson ran a health club in
Montana for a while, then worked as a Net TV commentator and finally
took a job as coach of the Albany Patroons of the CBA in 1983. He
interviewed in 1985 for an assistant's job with the Bulls, but
Jackson did not feel he was taken seriously by their coach, Stan
Albeck. Two years later Krause, Jackson's main advocate on the
Bulls, called him and asked him to interview for a position under
Doug Collins, and Jackson was hired. By the time Chicago lost to
Detroit in the '89 Eastern Conference finals, Bull management had
grown unhappy with the emotionally volatile Collins. Jackson took the
coach's job, paid one more year of dues, in which he lost to the
haughty Pistons, then won three straight titles.
Jackson's greatest triumph may have been in getting Jordan to
accept the restrictions of Winter's triple-post offense. ''When I got
here, there was a feeling of impotence among some players who were
eliminated from the process of ball movement,'' says Jackson. ''I
came from the Knick system that incorporated all five players. Tex's
system made a lot of sense.''
That doesn't mean Jordan doesn't dominate the offense, nor does it
mean that the coach and the player have it all worked out nice and
tidy. Even in the Bulls' most recent championship quest, there were
times when the offense suffered from too much Jordan and too little
of everyone else. But as Jackson says, ''No one said it wouldn't be
an ongoing process, and no one said it would be easy.'' And
ultimately it worked, because Jackson and crew now have three rings.
Jackson continues to weave the traditional with the slightly
loopy, the same way he mixes his stylish Bigsby & Kruthers suits with
psychedelic ties hand- painted by Jerry Garcia, as befits a longtime
Grateful Dead fan. Just look at this year's championship series
against the Suns. In the final minutes of regulation in Game 3, it
was Jackson who told Scottie Pippen to throw the ball off Danny
Ainge's back on an inbounds play -- a move that led to a Pippen dunk.
Any traditional chalkboard coach would have been proud of that play.
Yet after the game, here was Jackson cross-referencing the Chicago
weather to his team's mental state. ''Hopefully the thunderstorm did
not only happen outside but internally for the players,'' he said.
Could you imagine Lenny Wilkens saying that?
Another example: Before Game 5 (a game the Bulls lost 108-98,
forcing them to win the series in Phoenix), Jackson was padding
around the Bull locker room about an hour before the game when he
suddenly delivered this analysis to several reporters. ''Did you know
there are three kinds of players in the game?'' Jackson asked. ''
'Fairies' are anyone under six-four. 'Goons' are players over
six-ten. And 'foons' are all those players between six-four and
six-ten. I was a foon, for example. Magic Johnson was a fairy who is
actually a goon.'' Then Jackson disappeared into his office, leaving
the reporters to ponder what it all meant.
Surprising to some Jackson watchers is that he has grown into the
job and shows no sign of giving it up. The time he must spend away
from his family, however, gnaws at him every day. The importance to
Jackson of his wife and five children was illustrated a couple of
months ago when he and three other local celebrities were asked by
the Victory Gardens Theater of Chicago to write a 10-minute stage
play for charity. Jackson's piece was not about sitting in a coach's
office and concocting backdoor plays. It was called Steel Cut Oats
and took place at a family breakfast table that resembled Jackson's
own. ''I sat around and thought of the important things in my life,''
Jackson says, ''and that's why I chose this subject.'' (The reviews
of the performance were good.)
Jackson's biggest challenge throughout the postseason, in fact,
was trying to attend the four graduation ceremonies that were taking
place in his household. He did see June get her master's degree in
social work from Illinois at Chicago, and he was home when their
oldest daughter, Chelsea, received her high school diploma. But he
was absent when the twins, Charley and Ben, graduated from eighth
grade. (Phil and June have another daughter, Brooke, who will be a
high school junior, and Phil has a daughter, Elizabeth, from his
Jackson zealously protects his private life and often takes his
family on the road with him. At this point he evidently feels he can
burn the candle at both ends and not slight his team, his loved ones
or, for that matter, his innate curiosity.
''Coaching in the NBA means a life of infinite challenges,
infinite adjustments,'' says Jackson, ''That's stimulating. That
keeps me going.''
Assistant coach Bach agrees: ''Phil seems to like the work more
than ever, to relish the challenge.''
The final word belongs to June. ''His mentor was Red Holzman, who
coached for a very long time,'' she says. ''And two of the men on his
staff right now, Johnny and Tex, are coaches who have been in the
business for a long time. I think Phil is very comfortable with who
he is and what he's doing. I see no end to this.''