Spiritual Journey Leads Lakers Coach to Serenity, NBA Finals

By Daniel Burke
Religion News Service
Saturday, June 14, 2008

It was the second game of the NBA finals Sunday night, and Phil Jackson's Los Angeles Lakers were losing badly.

A sideline reporter asked the veteran coach how his team could mount a comeback against the vaunted Boston Celtics.

"We'll get into the game," Jackson said, "by relaxing."

There's little stamping and shouting on the sidelines with Jackson. Instead, the serene 62-year-old looks like Buddha on the bench, calm as he watches the Lakers whittle down the Celtics' lead.

It was vintage Jackson, whose success in the NBA is matched only by his unorthodox methods.

Weaving together his twin passions of spirituality and basketball, Jackson seems as interested in developing his players' intellectual imaginations as he is in drawing up defenses.

He's been known to give players books by Nietzsche and Langston Hughes. His teams don't play seasons, they undertake "sacred quests." Players practice Buddhist meditation before they practice jump shots. Jackson describes their signature offense as "five-man tai chi." He summons his team to meetings by beating a Native American drum, and team rooms are decorated with Native American totems -- wooden arrows and bear claws -- rather than banners and trophies.

Yet Jackson has earned plenty of those, too. His nine championships -- six coaching the Chicago Bulls and three leading the Lakers -- ties an NBA coaching record. No coach has won a higher percentage of playoff and regular season games, and last year he was inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame.

Now Jackson and his Lakers, who play Game 5 against the Celtics tomorrow, are in the NBA finals again.

The secret of his success?

"Meditation and cigars," Jackson has joked with his friend, writer Charley Rosen.

He was jesting, partly.

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