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AARP Bulletin

A Conversation With Phil Jackson

The legendary coach talks leadership, spirituality and walking away

Q: How does someone know when it’s time to walk away from his or her life’s work?

A: I believe events and forces change the course of our lives. We all wanted to see Michael Jordan walk away from basketball after his last [championship-winning] shot against the Utah Jazz in 1998, but he wasn’t finished. Psychologically, we said, “How can he get any higher? Any greater?” Yet there was a personal balance that made him seek another level.

During the famous work stoppage two years ago, [former Lakers owner] Jerry Buss asked me to coach another year. It became a struggle for me to go to practice; the pain and discomfort made me spend the afternoon in bed, elevating my leg before I could continue in the evening. Those are the signs that tell you, “Hey, it’s time to step back.”

Q: What interests you about today’s NBA?

A: There’s a real magnetism drawing me back. Analytics — what we call “Billy Beane Basketball” — have come in. So it’s an interesting time. We have nine coaches who’ve never coached a pro game starting out as NBA coaches this season, and a number of young general managers. There’s turnover and revision going on in the game, but I don’t feel that I have to protect it; I just enjoy watching how things will evolve.

Q: Fly-fishing, motorcycling — you lead an active life. What does Phil Jackson’s inner voice tell him about his future?

A: Whatever the next challenge or issue is, it will show itself. If it’s not in basketball, it will be somewhere else. I just have to stay open to when it presents itself. But I really can’t predict it right now. I’ve been asked to assist a basketball program, but I’m not interested in leaving Southern California. Last year, there was a chance I would go back via Sacramento relocating its NBA franchise to Seattle, but that fell through. It wasn’t disappointing, though; I accepted it.

The other thing is to assist [Jackson’s fiancée] Jeannie Buss. She’s the focal point of the Lakers in sorting out how they move forward without her father. I can be supportive without being intrusive: I’m the guy who cooks the meals, goes grocery shopping — little things like that. A lot of people served me over the years — Jeannie was a big help to me in my life — so it’s nice to have this give-back role.

Q: How is your health?

A: Well, I thought I had things moving along pretty well. I had to go through 40-some sessions of radiation [for prostate cancer] last winter, but I had a personal trainer, and I did therapy last year. I’ve realized I have to be really careful as I get my strength back.

Q: Anything left on your bucket list?

A: Well, my son is getting married in Istanbul next year. His fiancée is this sweet Turkish girl and I’m looking forward to the family adventure.

Q: What was the best lesson, personal or professional, you learned after 50?

A: This is a very personal thing, but I’ll explore it with you. When I came back to coaching in 1999-2000, my wife [June] and I split up. We had a directional change: She did not want to go back into the [coaching] life. Our children had graduated from college and were out in the world. We just took two different courses in life.

It was a difficult situation for me because she’d been such a strong support. But she had given up the housekeeper/mother/etc. role — it was gone. Our thinking was, “How can we continue to make a strong family?” We were able to conquer the hard feelings that might have happened, and develop a really wonderful relationship.

I have to give credit to her and Jeannie. Both helped me find a way to do this that was equitable and peaceful. Even though it was personally painful for me, it was expansive. In the process of moving forward with my life, it allowed June to lead the life she wanted. I can’t explain it in words, but all of this was done ... graciously. It was another life lesson in letting go.

Jon Saraceno, who met Jackson while covering the NBA for USA Today, is a freelance journalist now covering sports and popular culture.

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