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A Conversation With Phil Jackson

The legendary coach talks leadership, spirituality and walking away

Phil Jackson, professional basketball coach, AARP Conversation


Retired American professional basketball coach and former player Phil Jackson.

The most successful coach in the history of American pro team sports — with 11 championships — and the best-selling author (with Hugh Delehanty, former AARP editor in chief) of Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success talked to the AARP Bulletin about the NBA, spirituality and how to know when it’s time to walk away from something you love.

Q: In Eleven Rings you talk about using nonauthoritarian methods to empower your players. Can those leadership techniques be applied off the court?

A: That’s the idea: You have to be true to yourself as a leader. That’s what resonates with the people you work with. I was brought up in the home of ministers; much of my outlook in life is from a spiritual direction.

Q: You were on a spiritually driven quest to inspire players to achieve team goals, but in a way that let them achieve self-discovery. What forces in your life shaped that philosophy?

A: My father and mother were the initial big influence. My father had a humble approach. He felt called to his mission — he was not ego-driven. He spent time praying for people. It was a model for me, and a type of ministerial rhythm for him. That’s one of the reasons why meditation has become an easier tool for me to use than most people. My mom and dad set up a house where our days began with morning daily devotions, [saying] prayers on our knees.

I expanded my horizons in college, studying psychology, philosophy and religion. Finally, playing basketball in New York for 14 years, I lived in a vibrant city full of ideas. That was an education in its own right.

Q: When you discuss “leadership from the inside out,” what do you mean?

A: You have to speak what you believe. You have to say what you know from experience — intellectual, visceral and intuitive. As a coach, I knew things of a higher calling could unify groups of men. As a player, I watched how a community developed into a team that worked together for the greater good. Sometimes it’s not the most physically talented teams that win — it’s the team that can best use its talents that wins.

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.

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.