The Head Coach

Athletes may be known more for brawn than brains, but Phil Jackson figures having them hit the books can't hurt. Nine NBA championships prove he's on to something.


March/April 2003

By Steve Knopper

Three years ago, Phil Jackson, the NBA coach with the best win-loss record and the man who brought meditation and Zen philosophy techniques to professional basketball, arrived in Los Angeles with the six championship rings he earned in Chicago, and halfway through his first season with the Lakers he did something he had also done with the Bulls: He turned the team into a book club. He distributed titles to everyone on the team; among the books were Friedrich Nietzsche's Ecce Homo, for towering center Shaquille O'Neal, and Paul Beatty's The White Boy Shuffle -- a story about a young, basketball-playing poet -- for Kobe Bryant, the squad's other superstar. Then Jackson jokingly told the team that book reports were due in a few days. To his amazement, O'Neal turned in two solid pages at the end of a subsequent road trip. Bryant, however, never connected with The White Boy Shuffle, proclaiming its use of hip-hop language "bogus," according to Jackson. Unfazed by the mixed success of that first try, Jackson continued handing out books.

"I've told them the biggest compliment I can have is if, at some point in their lifetimes, they put it on the shelf and understand the connection between why I bought the book and where I thought it would take them," the fifty-seven-year-old coach says, sipping tea in the lobby of Denver's Brown Palace Hotel, his gigantic legs folded behind a tiny coffee table. He's realistic about his hopes, though. "Most of the players," Jackson acknowledges, "are men of action, not men of intellectual pursuit."

Jackson can fairly be called both. A former NBA player, a practicing Buddhist and the author of several books, he grew up the basketball-, baseball- and football-playing son of two Pentecostal ministers in Great Falls, Montana. His family had no television set, and he devoted whatever time he could to reading, devouring four titles a week out of the local library. By high school Jackson had read the World Book Encyclopedia, and he moved on to W. Somerset Maugham and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. By the late '60s, when "Action Jackson" joined the New York Knicks, he'd begun to read Zen philosophy.

As a coach, Jackson's great skill is melding superlative individual talents into unselfish team players. In his "Triple-Post Offense," a complex style of play that's very different from the ways other NBA teams approach the game, incoming players must forget much of what they've learned elsewhere and adapt themselves to a new scheme of things. That's where the books -- many of which Jackson finds while scouring mom-and-pop shops around the country -- come in. Like a good literature professor, Jackson hopes the books he assigns will reveal fundamental truths to the men who read them, helping player and coach understand each other. They are springboards for the casual conversations that Jackson uses, in part, to determine what each player's role will be.

"Shaq likes to please," Jackson says, shifting his broad, hunched shoulders against a couch clearly built for much smaller people. "Kobe doesn't. Kobe's kind of anti-establishment. He's a rebel." Although Bryant has continued to snug Jackson's reading recommendations, the coach says he is still searching for one "that can touch him."

Jackson seems to have lit a fire within O'Neal, however. The seven-footer is now a big fan of Hermann Hesse's Siddartha, and still speaks fondly of Nietzsche's egomaniacal Ecce Homo -- which, with chapters such as "Why I Am So Wise" and "Why I Am a Destiny," was perhaps the perfect book for the Superman-tattooed O'Neal to have gotten first. "Nietzsche was so intelligent and advanced," O'Neal says. "And that's how I am. I'm the black, basketball-playing Nietzsche." (He also once declared himself "The Big Aristotle," now a favorite nickname for him among sportswriters.)

This season, the Lakers need Superman more than ever. They opened with a dismal record, losing nineteen of their first thirty games. By early January, though -- and perhaps not coincidentally -- Jackson had yet to distribute any new books. "I've got to hurry and do it," he says, "because this team needs it right now, the way we've been playing. We've been focusing a little too much on basketball."