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How Phil Jackson Was Great While Being "Bad"
The media goes wild with 42 seconds of a podcast that covered it all
Famed music producer Rick Rubin spoke with legendary NBA coach Phil Jackson for nearly three hours. The podcast went up on April 5th, to not much initial acclaim or controversy. As of last week, though, the episode is infamous, the subject of network news stories, because an aggregator finally noticed that Jackson admitted to being turned off by the social justice messaging in that 2020 NBA bubble.
That this happened feels almost like an illustration of the era. A highly accomplished old man gives us hours of stories and it all gets reduced down to a soundbite, fashioned into fuel for angry sanctimony. The podcast itself is a gloriously immersive journey through the ages. The response is mostly lot of reductive anger, fit for our constant state of present shock. This includes the side that now sees Jackson as a hero for one stream of consciousness musing. Everyone reacts according to predetermined positions and almost nothing actually gets considered. And the podcast itself gives you a lot to consider.
There are vivid portrayals of what it was like to play for the early 1970s New York Knicks. I mean, you feel like you’re right there, man. And then you’re hopping around in the time machine. You’re a kid in rural Montana, coming into a family once devastated by a locust plague, failing to convince your Mennonite mother that you be allowed to dance. Not go to a dance. Just dance at all. Then you’re broke and coaching in Puerto Rico. Then you’re trying to sell a young Michael Jordan on giving up the ball for the greater good, only to suddenly be in Utah, attempting to effectively manage Jordan’s very last seconds as a Chicago Bull. A beat passes and you’re in Los Angeles, having taken the Lakers job, and you’re starting to feel forbidden sparks between yourself and Jeanie Buss, then daughter of your team’s owner. Next you’re using Wilt Chamberlain’s accomplishments to motivate Shaq towards weight loss, only to see him eventually pump the brakes on fitness and make an enemy of a rising Kobe Bryant.
I could go on. The coach moseys through a lot, free-associating from decade to decade, and topic to topic, like older men do. He’s open, he’s arrogant, he’s reflective, he’s bombastic. He’s all of the things great men are at the end, wrapped into a single podcast. None of it really rises to the level of national interest, though. Instead, after the podcast has been out for weeks, the news stages a freakout over a 42-second snippet, all because the old man confesses that he was personally turned off by how a sports league briefly merged its brand with a modern political protest.
Over the past few days, various media members have angrily lectured Jackson. There’s a bit more context to what he was saying than what they assume, and his NBA avoidance is less clear than what’s being portrayed in aggregated stories, but I, weirdo who listened to the whole podcast, am tilting at windmills in pointing this out.
Some media members seemed especially peeved that Jackson had the audacity to joke with his grandkids about the social justice jerseys, a corporately curated piece of flare. ESPN analyst and former player Jalen Rose made the news by jumping at this opportunity:
You’re sitting up watching the game with your grandkids, and y’all think it’s funny when Justice passes the ball to Equal Opportunity. When somebody shows them who they are, believe them. So stop watching, forever.
But it is funny when Justice passes the ball to Equal Opportunity. And I’m tired of pretending it’s not. Now that the 2020 hysteria has long passed, you’d think it’d be easier to admit that the uniforms were at least kind of hilarious. It shouldn’t be surprising either that Jackson enjoyed joking about it all. The man wasn’t exactly Mr. Empathy in his day. He was a cruel, whimsical bastard, who thought that much of the NBA’s top down decrees were bullshit.
Those lecturing Jackson are not entirely wrong about his preferences, by the way. To be specific, I don’t think Phil Jackson has ever been all that comfortable with young Black culture. It might even be the only culture the Zen Buddhist Native American history aficionado is not enamored with.
There are a few Jackson quotes wherein he expresses misgivings about rap culture’s influence, and there’s also the infamous comments about LeBron James’ “posse.” For whatever it’s worth, Scottie Pippen called Jackson “racist.” Discoveries and rediscoveries of Jackson’s old comments lead to media malfunctions. Some have trouble reconciling who Phil Jackson is with his greatness within a largely Black sport.
There’s not much to reconcile, though. In a more adult culture, we can easily fathom human contradiction and success as separate from other considerations. In our current setup, where a panicky media-sourced verdict on moral correctness trumps quality evaluations, everyone is either categorized as “bad” or “good,” with a prevailing assumption that good can never come from “bad.” Louis CK goes from funniest comedian to actually never funny, based on the perception of his morality.
You see a variety of approaches to absorbing this knowledge of Jackson as outside the boundaries. I thought this Daily Beast article was pretty comprehensive on Jackson’s racial and racial-adjacent comments, but it draws bizarre conclusions from its solid summary. For instance, the article asserts Jackson’s “ideological evolution over the years” from progressive-minded to joining “the types getting performatively heated about Bud Light,” but the article also establishes that there were “clear indications” as far back as the 1990s that Jackson “had swung to the right.”
Okay, so which is it? There was this supposed ideological evolution … that appears to have been in a holding pattern for a quarter-century or so? The idea of Jackson betraying his past was made by a few commentators, absent any indication that Jackson changed on matters after his time playing for the 1960s and ‘70s New York Knicks.
This idea that somehow Jackson changed over time into this modern-day monster seems born out of an impulse to purify the past. Some just wish Phil Jackson had been a different Phil Jackson. Or maybe, that a different guy entirely had won those 11 rings, plus the two as a player. But the past isn’t pure. Jackson was Jackson back when he was coaching mostly Black players to a level of winning that’s yet to be equaled in the 3-point line era.
The other cope in response to the GOAT coach being bad is simply to deny that he was ever uniquely great.
Phil Jackson destroyed Gregg Popovich over the course of their rivalry, taking four out of five series. Pop’s Spurs, though their two-decade run of quality was impressive, never won back-to-back championships. Phil’s famously won 11 titles as coach, whereas Pop’s won five. I think we can admit, now that the Spurs have fallen apart post-Kawhi Leonard, that these coaches aren’t even in the same historical tiers. But that’s not really the point here. The point is that ideological assessments can infect an appraisal of accomplishment.
It can happen in the specific when Phil Jackson is known as half a racist, whereas Gregg Popovich is known as a more media-approved White man who sternly lectures Whites on their privilege. The recent rebrand of Pop is either despite or because he, for years, tried his best not to add Black American players to his roster. Quoting me:
As recently as 2013, Popovich told ESPN that he believed foreign players to be “fundamentally harder working than most American kids.” The American players, in Pop’s estimation, were “coddled” and “entitled” due to their AAU path. Perhaps he was talking about Matt Bonner and perhaps he wasn’t.
Popovich, now the most publicly progressive NBA coach on race, thought these Black kids coming up from AAU were lazy relative to Euros. He certainly appeared to relate better to foreign players than Black Americans. His screaming belittlement helped inspire Kawhi Leonard’s exit, for example. And yes, that’s what happened, even if there wasn’t much in the way of reporting on it out of the San Antonio media dead zone.
This isn’t to blame Pop for Kawhi leaving, as life with Leonard clearly has its drawbacks, but it is to say that big time coaches aren’t exactly checking their privilege in private. Every White coach is a reactionary, in some capacity, if not every coach writ large. They’re middle-aged grinders, hired to impose order on young Black guys who earn more money than they do and can easily get them fired. It’s a recipe for resentment, even in the best of situations. If the coaches aren’t fuming at the individuals, then they’re inveighing against whatever modern culture makes those individuals so damned troublesome.
Overall, this just isn’t a job for guys who want to listen and “do the work.” Sports is a hard edged world to navigate as an HC, one that requires ego and the willingness to command, manipulate and intimidate. You might want greatness to look like Ted Lasso. In reality, it’s more like the coldness of Bill Belichick.
The warmer hearted coaches might end up like Bill Walsh, architect of those great 1980s 49ers teams. Walsh manipulated his players so aggressively that many ended up hating him. This relationship damage haunted Walsh later in life and he sought to repent for all he’d done to win. In the moment, though, while at the top, he was not a man of conscience. When winning is the standard, above all else, other considerations get sacrificed.
The Secret of Success
It’s too bad less than a minute of offhand talk becomes the sort of news that overwhelms any other consideration of a podcast that was, overall, excellent. It’s a reflective episode, almost like an audio autobiography, as mediated by a curious outsider in Rubin. Yes, Jackson’s written books, but this experience is different. You’re just swimming in Phil’s mind as he follows Rubin’s gentle prompting. Since Rubin knows almost nothing about the NBA — at one point he asks what a “guard” is — the conversation is especially loose. From Jackson’s perspective, the sweat-drenched feet of a guy named Torres, a player he coached in Puerto Rico, is just as vivid a memory as anything Michael Jordan told him. There’s something hypnotic about inhabiting the consciousness of someone for whom the obscurely personal and famously personal have equal weight. Going to the strip club with Dennis Rodman is retold in the same languid manner as Jackson’s description of needing to pay back a property loan in the 1980s.
And yet, there is a thread to the podcast, something to tie it all together. Rubin is fascinated by whatever worked for Jackson, and wants to unpack the secrets of creative greatness in a different field. Jackson explains his various coaching strategies and they make sense. For all the mystical fascination surrounding the “Zen Master,” his tactics are quite digestible if not intuitive once revealed. For instance, Jackson decided to let the incoming Rodman break all the rules other players had to follow, because Rodman could be an excellent performer but he couldn’t follow rules. That exceptional indulgence necessitated buy-in from the others. Before Rodman was brought to the team, Jackson needed everyone to know that Dennis would live according to a separate standard. If Rodman had arrived absent such groundwork and flouted the rules, it would cause resentment and potentially break the team. Since players agreed to these conditions beforehand, though, it wasn’t a big deal. Many Jackson stories are like this. A problem is headed off because buy in arrives before the problem arises.
Simple. And yet other coaches would screw up the situation. And that’s sort of the podcast’s point. This is what coaching actually is, mostly, even if you can’t see it or reduce it to data. The coaches who neglect such management, and, at times, manipulations of their players, are the ones who lose. I can tell you that this is believed by Steve Kerr, current championship-winning Warriors coach and former player for Jackson. He would tell you that the job is mostly away from the sidelines and mostly about selling a guy on doing what’s best for all. You can think Phil Jackson was full of Eastern mysticism woo woo whatever, but nobody did this aspect better. And this aspect is the aspect, according to others who succeed.
I wouldn’t normally cite Skip Bayless as anything besides entertaining, but a) he covered the 1990s Chicago Bulls and b) I found his derisive assessment of Jackson to be illustratively self-contradictory. In between Shannon Sharpe calling Jackson “dum dum” and Bayless mocking him as “Big Chief Triangle,” Skip says:
He was known then as the Zen Master. I started in the Chicago Tribune calling him the Spin Master. Spin Master, because, he was a lot of hypocritical Hocus Pocus.
Seconds later, Bayless adds:
He was a Svengali with both Jordan and Kobe and then Shaq. He was a Rasputin. He somehow could cast his spell around these superstars in ways that shocked me because they couldn’t see through him. They bought his BS. It was a lot of BS, but it worked. I’ve always said he was the greatest juggler of superstar egos I’ve ever seen.
It’s not actually bullshit if it works, ya know.
There’s been a bit of revisionism on Jackson, not just in the sports debate shows, but also in the recent jeremiads against him. A jab here, a shot there, a mention about how he, as a senior citizen, wasn’t a very good Knicks general manager. You see it in this segment.
Sure he won, but he coached Mike. And Scottie and Shaq and Kobe. His “legend was built off the backs” of Black superstars. It seems sort of dumb to assert “Phil Jackson was a great coach,” because it’s like proving there’s water in Lake Tahoe, but I’d note that the Bulls weren’t exactly title favorites when he took over. Jackson, in his own Trumpy way, would also remind you that the Bulls weren’t even a winning team until he arrived as an assistant coach. He’d also probably note that he earned his Bulls assistant job by winning the Continental Basketball Association championship, when his players weren’t world-beaters. This is a guy who literally never missed the playoffs, ever, not even when Smush Parker was his starting point guard. He also won 55 games the season after Michael Jordan retired.
When Jackson was given the head coach role in 1990, Chicago was specifically projected to be the fourth-best team, meaning that three consecutive titles weren’t really in anyone’s cards. And when Jackson joined the Shaq-Kobe Lakers, they were projected by Vegas to finish behind Mike Dunleavy’s Blazers. A juggernaut seems more predetermined in retrospect, after all the winning, which Jackson did more than anyone else.
But how did all that winning happen? That’s what Rubin wants to know on the podcast, and he finds answers that overlap with his knowledge of music. Jackson’s teams sought to “play the game in 4/4 time,” a collective rhythm that allowed them to coordinate their actions. For all the mystery and fascination with the Triangle, Jackson’s storied though seldom-imitated system, he doesn’t come off like its salesman on the podcast. What’s more important than his system, from Jackson’s perspective, is that you play with a system. He found it maddening that Doug Collins, the coach who preceded Jackson, played without one. From Phil’s perspective, you need some sort of organizing structure from which the freedom within 4/4 then flows. You want guys being themselves, in the moment, while connected to one another.
Structure brings freedom, as has been said in this space. Phil Jackson might be a former hippie, and still “anti-establishment” by his own accounting, but he believes in organization. The popular misunderstanding is that Jackson ruled through a regime of implacable vagueness.
Yes, Jackson went off-script, and got weird. Among many other oddities, he screened The Wizard of Oz for players, and had a Tai Chi-master host practice. But even if such moves inspire Kobe Bryant to leave the facility, they serve an overall purpose. If you’ve read Luke Burgis’ Wanting, you’ve seen that great leaders use oddness to establish their bonafides as antimemetic. It sends the message of, “I don’t follow everyone else, so follow me if you seek a differentiated path.” The weird, inscrutable guy mostly wanted his players to do obvious, simple things. And so they did.
Jackson’s overall management strategy was to relate to each of his twelve players as an individual first, so as to later bring their talents into the fold. Once again, pretty simple, but seldom done in the league. Perhaps he was cold to the dominant culture among players, but he wasn’t attempting to relate to a culture; he was trying to connect with specific people. For instance, he and Dennis Rodman bonded over a shared love of Native American lore, which Rodman had adopted while playing in Oklahoma. Phil was relating to Dennis, the curious explorer. Not Dennis, The Black Guy.
Perhaps Jackson could so clearly see individuals because he was aware of his own autonomy within superficial contradictions. Why did this Buddhist seem personally, spiritually aggrieved about having to play on Christmas? How is it that this evangelist for kumbaya togetherness also worked as a vicious Machiavellian operator? How could a man so in tune with the sensitivities of individual players have been so ruthlessly cutting with his barbs? How is it that Jackson learned deep psychological truths about the men he commanded but, in his telling to Rubin, retained no desire to speak with them afterwards? And yes, how is it that Jackson was able to connect while seeming so disconnected from the culture he operated within? These are interesting questions, if you’re in the business of being interested. The media isn’t so much interested, though. There are no tensions, no complexities, no nuance. And when you throw that all out, in search of purity, you end up losing greatness itself in the exchange.