Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Zen Master for a Buck

I lose sunglasses with alarming regularity, so a couple years ago I decided to never spend more than $1 on a pair. With my latest pair likely in a Florida landfill somewhere, I trotted off to the Dollar Store to acquire yet another pair. While there, I swooped past the book aisle and noticed that Laker's coach Phil Jackson's 2004 book The Last Season was available.

I remembered the hype this book got when it came out, and I couldn't pass up getting a $25 hardback for a buck. In a few short days, I've breezed through most of it, and I can see why it got attention when it was released. Jackson is remarkably candid. I can also see why it is on the dollar rack; it is already quite dated. It's hard to believe that only three years ago, Shaq and Kobe were teammates and Jackson was contemplating leaving the game for good.

It is a bit odd to contextualize Jackson's harsh portrayals of Kobe Bryant with the current media attention Kobe is gathering. On one level, Kobe's recent headlines are a completely logical, almost too convenient, sequel to the book. On the other hand, it strains credulity to contemplate how long this soap opera has continued. In 2004, Phil seemed fed up with Kobe (and vice versa). After several years, he seemed at the end of the rope, going so far as to proclaim at one point that he wouldn't return to the team if Kobe were expected to be back. The fact that it was Phil who supposedly talked Kobe down off the metaphorical ledge this month makes me quite curious to know how their relationship has evolved since then, particularly in light of Phil's candor in the book (which included his accounts of Kobe's oversensitivity).

Some amusing and or interesting things I learned from the book:
1) Shaq never warms up. He wants to save his energy for the game. Maybe that is the right approach, since he tends to get tired at the end of games.
2) Players are quite sensitive to what is written about them in the papers. Given the decline in newspaper readership, I'm inclined to believe that they put way too much stock in what is being written on a daily basis. (Despite the overwhelming crush of attention Kobe's rape trial got, how often do people even think about it anymore? I actually had an "Oh, yeah" moment when I started reading the book and realized that the Laker dynasty's last season coincided with the year of the trial).
3) George Karl should have been fined for trading Ray Allen for Gary Payton. (I know he wasn't the GM, but that deal had his name written all over it).
4) Jackson for the most part quit arguing with officials in Chicago because he noticed that it egged on Dennis Rodman to start arguing with officials and lose focus.
5) Jackson and Jeanie Buss went to a Travis concert.

Jackson said his rep as a counter culture figure is overblown. I'd have to agree with him. So many coaches (and players for that matter) are so alike in how they approach life that anyone who slightly breaks the mold gets a label. Bill Walton is a true counter culture figure, but probably the only one in basketball (Dock Ellis and Bill Lee being a few in baseball). Jackson's practice of Zen Buddhism is also overblown. His "Zen master" nickname comes from his devotion to Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Ironically, Pirsig didn't become a practicing Zen Buddhist until after the book became a hit.

Finally, I took something instructive from Jackson's teaching philosophy. He occasionally asked his team to meditate together. Here's a quote from the book:

Did the players achieve peace, a oneness of thought? Were they able to let go, to open their consciousness to a new level of trust? Probably not.

He also describes his practice of inserting movie clips into game video:

Yesterday, by showing Shrek, I was trying to compare the story of an ogre winning the heart of a princess to the challenge we face in the playoffs. Can this team, by embracing the basketball gods, turn an ugly season into a championship? Did the players pick up on the message? I doubt it, just like I doubt they learned much from our meditation session...Yet I feel an obligation to put the possibility out there.
Though I'd question some of these actions (particularly his qualification to lead a meditation session), I admire his philosophy. His choice of the word "obligation," strikes me as something that many professionals in many fields should embrace. Even in the event that odds of success are as low as Shaq's free throw percentage, the individual is not absolved from giving the best shot possible.


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