When Chicago Bulls’ star Michael Jordan sacrifices a dramatic shot in favor of passing to a teammate with a clearer path to the basket, Coach Phil Jackson would say he is practicing a version of Zen and Lakota teachings.
Sports fanatics know this setup as the triangle offense. But the coaching strategy that served the Bulls through three consecutive championships - and has guided them this year to their best-ever regular season record and to the National Basketball Association conference finals - has its roots in Eastern and American Indian cultures.
Jackson, who calls himself a Zen Christian, has built a powerhouse unmatched in the NBA. He says his secret is combining the self-awareness aspect of Zen with the selfless warrior philosophy of the Lakota Sioux.
“The strength of the triangle offense is that it’s based on the Taoist principle of yielding to an opponent’s force in order to render him powerless,” Jackson wrote in his recent book, “Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior” (Hyperion, 1995).
“The idea is not to wilt or act dishonorably in the face of overwhelming force, but to be savvy enough to use the enemy’s own power against him…. Bottom line: there’s no need to overpower when you can outsmart.”
The influence of spirituality in professional basketball has spread beyond the Bulls and the Windy City and, observers say, it’s a growing phenomenon across the league.
Denver Nuggets’ guard Mahmond Abdul-Rauf, who was fined by the NBA for refusing to stand for the national anthem because he believed it contradicted his Muslim beliefs, is an example of the increasing number of sports figures who publicly exercise their religious convictions.
Players such as Houston Rockets’ center Hakeem Olajuwon, who also is a devout Muslim but does not share Abdul-Rauf’s view of the national anthem, are respected for their clean and healthy living, which is integral to their religion.
In Dallas, fans saw the effects of religion mixing with sports when former Dallas Mavericks’ owner Don Carter, because of his strong Baptist values, refused to renegotiate a deal on an arena where alcohol is sold.
For Jackson, named this season’s Coach of the Year, spirituality helps drive the Bulls. In addition to routine drills and physical workouts, the Bulls’ practice includes meditation, reciting aloud from a “modern-day re-interpretation” of the Ten Commandments, and reading other books assigned on road trips.
Jackson, the son of a Pentecostal preacher in Montana, wrote in his book that as a teenager he began to question his faith. He tried for years to experience the presence of the Holy Spirit, he said, but felt lost when he was unable to “speak in tongues” as other members of his faith did.
“When I was a boy, I was so caught up in the mental aspects of worship - building a wall in my mind with prayers and quotations from the Bible - that I lost track of the essence of Christianity,” writes Jackson. “Merging Zen and Christianity allowed me to reconnect with my spiritual core and begin to integrate my heart and mind.”
Jackson says he struggled with his spirituality through his early adult years until his older brother, Joe, introduced him to Zen Buddhism.
The future Bulls’ coach was then attending the University of North Dakota, where he became a two-time All-American in basketball.
As his career developed, so did his understanding of spirituality.
In 1967, Jackson was drafted by the New York Knickerbockers. He played there for 11 years and was part of the 1970 and 1973 championship teams before he was traded to the New Jersey Nets.
At the end of the second championship season with the Knicks, Jackson and teammate Bill Bradley started a six-year series of basketball clinics on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
It was an experience, he said, that has had a lasting impression on him.
Named “Swift Eagle” in a Lakota ceremony, Jackson was fascinated by the Lakotas’ pride in their warrior heritage, he said in his book.
He said he was taken with the tribe’s philosophy that a person is not merely an individual but an integral part of the universe.
Years later, after moving to Chicago, Jackson said, “It struck me that the Lakota way could serve as a paradigm for the Bulls because there were so many parallels between the warrior’s journey and life in the NBA.”
After ending his playing career in 1980, Jackson developed his coaching style based on techniques he learned from coaches he admired and respected and from lessons he learned on and off the court.
Jackson said it’s easy for players to get caught up in the “fantasy world of the NBA” and lose touch with reality.
“My job, as I see it, is to wake them out of that dreamlike state and get them grounded in the real world,” he said. “That’s why I like to introduce them to ideas outside the realm of the game, to show them that there’s more to life than basketball - and more to basketball than basketball.”
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