Zen and the Art of Winning NBA Championships
Who has the better life philosophy, Phil Jackson or Stan Van Gundy?
Why does Phil Jackson get to write all the books about the meaning of life? The coach and five-time author — dubbed the "Zen master" for his koan-heavy musings and pedagogical methods—won three straight NBA titles from 1991 to 1993 with one of the greatest players of all time. * Then he won three more NBA titles in a row when that same player came back. You, there, in the motivational aisle of Borders, paging through The Last Season: A Team in Search of Its Soul —does this resemble a problem you have had in your own life: Do you often wonder how you would go about winning your third set of three consecutive NBA titles? And, after you accomplish that, do you then wonder what you might do for an encore?
Jackson advises you to cultivate stillness. "[W]hat you really need to do," he writes in 1995's Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior, "is become more acutely aware of what's happening right now, this very moment."
But for those of us who aren't Phil Jackson, the moment is a stressful and upsetting place to dwell. If you think about your own moment enough, you might want to get up and start pacing. Wave your hands a little. Yell at somebody. Act like the Orlando Magic's Stan Van Gundy.
If the Magic do, somehow, pull out a comeback victory against the Lakers, some ghostwriter will probably have to rework the Stan Van Gundy story into an inspirational fable. Good luck.
Maybe the tale begins with supercoach Pat Riley, contemplating a new season with a Miami Heat squad that had lost 57 games the year before, choosing to flee to the executive suite and dump the head-coaching duties on his faithful assistant.
"Though the eagle may soar and fly close to the heavens, its view of the earth is broad and unclouded," Jackson writes. "In other words, you've got to work with what you've got." Van Gundy's team, with rookie Dwyane Wade, won 42 games that year and made the playoffs; the next season, after Riley traded for Shaquille O'Neal, the Heat won 59 games, swept the first two rounds of the playoffs, and lost the conference finals in 7 games.
Then, 21 games into the following season, Van Gundy—according to the official account—decided he wanted to spend more time with his family. Luckily, his boss, Pat Riley, chose that same moment to rediscover his own passion for working with players. Riley appointed himself coach again and led the Heat to a championship. Now, this is a situation that seems ripe for a self-help tome. What should you do when, after you do all the heavy lifting, the boss swoops in at the end to take all the credit? The lesson of the Stan Van Gundy story: You shut your mouth and move to Orlando.
Pat Riley was the one living in the moment then—once he'd noticed that the moment included Wade and Shaq. It's in these moments of opportunism that the slick-haired Riley and the shaggy, sage-bundle-burning Jackson are revealed to be more alike than their personas suggest.
For Jackson, moment-seizing isn't always about what's happening in the here and now. The Lakers coach's literary output is full of instances in which the master of the present turns a sharp eye to the horizon and beyond. In More Than a Game (2001), he says he chose to coach Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls instead of the New York Knicks because the Bulls' long-term chances looked better. In The Last Season (2004), he tells of how he left the Lakers when his pair of superstars, O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, decided they couldn't play together anymore. (Also, between Sacred Hoops and The Last Season, his domestic confidante changes from "my wife, June" to "Jeanie"—as in Jeanie Buss, the Lakers' executive vice president and daughter of team owner Jerry Buss. Seize the moment. Work with what you've got.)
Jackson's Zen is built on paradoxes. The anti-authoritarian guru is the one who demands that all his players submit and subsume themselves into his triangle system, till they are like a selfless band of Lakota warriors, who incidentally do what their chief wants done. To achieve true equality, the team is closed off to the outside, he explains in Sacred Hoops: "In order to build trust, the players need to know that they can be open and honest with each other, without seeing their words in the paper the next day."