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AARP Bulletin

A Conversation With Phil Jackson

The legendary coach talks leadership, spirituality and walking away

Q: You say that the soul of success is “surrendering to what is.” What can leaders, or any of us, do to let go of ego and serve as greater inspirations?

A: I was caught in a world that accepts only championships as the final accomplishment — everything else falls short! The second time I coached the Lakers, the team had no expectation of winning a championship, yet individual excellence could still be achieved.

One of the forces was Kobe [Bryant] and his tremendous drive to win a championship — and his desire to be traded. It was a big conflict. He had to accept being on this less-than-great team and sublimating his talent; [he had to] accept a role where he had to wait and persevere. I was able to convince him to stay on course, to elevate his teammates rather than see them as impediments. I think that was one of the final stages of his developing into the well-rounded person he’s become.

Q: You were an NBA lifer — 37 years as a player and head coach — who struggled to pull away from it. Have you mastered the art of letting go?

A: You know, I have. You ride the NBA’s crazy schedule, which starts in October and releases you — maybe !— in June. Your life is not your own. It’s 24/7. Your personal life becomes secondary. Your team involvement becomes your primary force. It’s a pleasure to sit back and know I don’t have to jump into that tornado.

You miss the community: your staff, the 25 or 30 people surrounding you — that’s a loss. I’ve been able to continue those relationships, but it isn’t easy.

Q: Any advice for those with physical challenges who want to keep their future vibrant? Have you found contentment without the game?

A: Health is the most beneficial wealth. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, or how successful you’ve been — without it you’re basically sidelined. At 68, maintaining good health has become my main goal. I had four or five operations in the last four or five years, and those things always take a toll on you. Now it’s a process of putting together a healthy lifestyle. I’ve always maintained a healthy diet, but the inactivity caused by hip and knee operations has limited my physical capabilities. So finding an exercise is important to me.

Coaching was successful for me, but I don’t think I can repeat it. I can’t be as effective a coach now that I’m not as physically active, and I accept that. It’s easy for me to sit on the sidelines now and understand that the game has changed — to applaud its changes and critique its excesses. I’m really enjoying this period in my life.

Next page: Learning lessons after 50. »

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