Phil Jackson’s mindfulness and Zen-style approach helped teams like the Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls achieve success.
Phil Jackson is arguably the greatest coach in NBA history his accolades speak for themselves. He has 11 NBA Championship rings on this resume, 6 with the Chicago Bulls and 5 with the Los Angeles Lakers, the most in NBA history for a head coach.
Jackson has coached some of the greatest players of all time from the likes of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. A basketball Hall of Fame inductee known throughout the league as “The Zen Master” has impacted the game of basketball through his own style and grace.
After watching The Last Dance docuseries this year. I was especially intrigued with Phil Jackson’s approach to the game of basketball and how he was able to infuse Native American and Zen Buddhism philosophies to bring teams together for a common purpose and goal of winning a championship.
He would conduct basketball clinics on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation. From there he was interested in the Sioux Lakota’s practices and merged those leadership values into his professional and personal life.
As a basketball coach, he was able to connect with players like Dennis Rodman through Native American culture. “Dennis and I had this Native American bond between us,” Jackson said during The Last Dance docuseries.
Inside the team room Jackson had a bear claw necklace and various Native American artifacts which Dennis responded “Wow, I have this necklace from the Ponca Indians in Oklahoma. I’m hip to that” Jackson would add that in their tradition Dennis would be considered a heyoka – a backward walking person.
These people were different from the rest of the tribe similar to Dennis. “Phil realized that I was different, man,” Rodman said, but by allowing Dennis to be his own person it not only strengthened their relationship but the relationship between the team.
Growing up I’d hear stories of Phil’s philosophies from giving a handpicked book to inspire individual players, or filling the locker room with sage in order to break losing streaks, although most players thought it was marijuana.
Players would be asked about Phil’s techniques and in a 2009 interview with Conan O’Brien, Lakers point guard Derek Fisher mentioned that when the team isn’t playing well, Jackson would use sage. “I think he believes it gets rid of the evil spirits coming upon our team at the time. He has 10 championship rings and I’m at four going on five, so I think it’s working.”
His focus on mindfulness really helped teams remain in the present. Meditation really helped center players from outside worries and distractions. He believed in the concept of one breath, one mind. Most athletes focus on perfecting their game, training to get stronger, and eating healthy to maintain their bodies.
However, focusing on the mental aspect and building that in order to focus and connect with fellow teammates is just as important. The concept allowed his teams to approach problems with an open mind and allowed players to focus on the task at hand.
His coaching legacy now lives on through former players turned coaches – Steve Kerr, Luke Walton and Brian Shaw. I’m sure they’ve all taken bits and pieces of Phil’s style and applied it to their own teams.
I also feel current players should seek out and learn Phil’s philosophies, especially in today’s world where players are constantly distracted by social media. They are being scrutinized and critiqued by reporters, fans and fellow athletes on a daily basis and that can really take a toll on one’s psyche.
That is why Phil Jackson was able to be so successful with the teams he coached. He is a master at managing egos and bringing teams together. His contribution to the game of basketball is incredible, now retired he’s probably meditating and relaxing at his home in the calm and secluded state of Montana.