Zen And The Art Of Basketball
Two weeks on the road to enlightenment with the Chicago Bulls
By Cory Johnson
from Swing magazine, March 1996
"Joey, I touched God! I touched God!" A young man in boots and a heavy down jacket is jumping up and down outside of the Four Season's Hotel in Philadelphia, hollering to anyone within earshot. "With this hand! I touched him! I touched GOD!"
A big cathedral looms across the street, but this guy is screaming about his encounter with a hotel guest--Michael Jordan, starting guard for the Chicago Bulls basketball club. I've been following the team for nearly a week and I've seen crowds swarm from quiet hotel lobbies, empty streets, anonymous strip joints, and secretive gyms, all seeking a piece of Jordan, his teammates, and their coach.
And, honestly, who wouldn't like to share their experience? Who wouldn't like to know what they've known? There's something special about this team, beyond their basketball talents, beyond their gaudy record, beyond their celebrity. They play this sometimes brutal game with joy, with a seemingly constant awareness of where they are and what they can do. They find opportunity in the face of adversity, peace in chaos, they conquer without anger or hate And yes, occasionally they can fly. Who wouldn't want that?
This is the kind of unique spirit the Bulls coach Phil Jackson, has sought to instill in his team. Jackson, who has guided this team for the past seven years, is a devoted student of Zen buddhist. InSacred Hoops, a book he wrote last year (with People senior editor Hugh Delehanty), he attributes much of the team's success, not to the talents of Jordan and Scottie Pippen (the Bulls tremendously skilled forward), not to discipline or diet, but to the study and lessons of Zen.
So I am following the Bulls in search of something more than basketball, grasshopper. I am searching for enlightenment. I want to know of the spiritual ground from which Michael Jordan soars. And I wonder whether Zen could teach us all how to fly with similar grace.
It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters,
in the end.--Ursula K. LeGuin
on a quiet Thursday morning in January, three newspaper reporters, two all-sports radio jocks, four television crews, and one magazine writer crowd into the press room at the Bulls custom-built practice facility in suburban Dearfield, Illinois. It's an off day.
Behind a glass wall the sound of basketballs echo in a large gymnasium, but we can't see their practice. Shades cover the windows. It's perfect metaphor for the Bulls organization: one part secretive, one part courting the limelight. They built a wall, but they built a glass wall. After almost two hours, the shade covering windows is drawn, and the reporters scramble down a hall into the gym.
Pippen, guard Ron Harper, and Jordan are challenging each other in a three-point shooting contest. Dennis Rodman, the enigmatic "bad boy", acquired this season from the San Antonio Spurs, and reserve center Jack Haley are practicing free throws. Tony Kukoc, formerly Eurpoe's greatest player snagged by the Bulls three years ago, is working his moves under the basket with an assistant coach. But the reporters want Michael. They mass around Jordan, all asking variations on the same theme: can the team win Seventy games this season.
As of this writing, the team is on pace to win 75 games in an 82-game season, obliterating the record held by the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers, who won 69. the reporters pummell Jordan with lame quesitons, and Jordan responds with seemingly trite answers. But in a Zen framework, Jordan's otherwise boring answers take on deeper meaning. "It's not about how many we win, we're just playing the game of basketball," he says. "We're not looking that far in advance. This team is focused per game."
The core of Zen is living in the present, and much of Jackson's training focuses on this point. To help me understand the team's psyche, Jackson had suggested I read the seminal Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki. And in it I can see in it the spirit of this club. When Suzuki writes about meditation, he might as well have written about won-lost records. "When you try to attain something, your mind starts to wander about somewhere else," Suzuki wrote. "When you do not try to attain anything, you have your own body and mind right here."
The beat reporters may miss it, but the spirituality of this team has a strong presence. Their team room, upstairs from the gym, is different from any other team's. Like other teams, they use it for strategy sessions and to review past games on video tape. But the Bulls inner sanctum is filled with artifacts of their coach's spiritual journey: a wooden arrow with a tobacco pouch tied to it, the Lakota Sioux symbol of prayer; a bear claw necklace, representing power and wisdom; the middle feather of an owl, for balance and harmony; a painting telling the story Crazy Horse; and photos of a white buffalo calf born two years ago in Wisconsin.
For much of this team, the spiritual approach to the game is new. Jordan and Pippen are the only players left from the group that won championships in 1991, 1992, and 1993. And Jackson is facing the challenge of instilling a team spirit in a group of cagey veterans and inexperienced players. In a few short months, he's trying to teach them a whole new way of thinking, getting them to focus on the moment to achieve a distant goal. "The young guys," says Pippen, "have no idea how deep we're going to get into it."
A good merchant hides his goods and appears to have nothing; a skilled craftsman
leaves no traces -- Lao-Tzu
A day later, Jackson doesn't look much like a Zen master. We're in Philadelphia, where the Bulls are soundly thrashing a young 76ers team. But Jackson is livid, hollering at the referee from his seat on the sidelines. "C'mon! Where's your judgment on that?" he shouts angrily. Then he starts yelling at Kukoc. "Tony! To the post! Post! POST!" Kukoc refuses to back his shorter opponent into the basket, instead opting for a turnaround jumper that misses. Jackson growns in frustration, and Kukoc hangs his head.
Throughout the game, Jackson constantly calls on players to substitute in and out. "Dickie!" [Simpkins] "Steve!" [Kerr] "Harp" [Harper]. Most NBA coaches rely on about six players to carry the team, but before this game is over, Jackson uses most of the bench. "The thing about Phil is that he keeps it interesting, on and off the court," Kerr tells me later. "You could be in any game at any moment, so you're always ready."
Jackson had explained his approach to me at lunch over a steak sandwich. "This is a game where it takes twelve guys," he says. "At some point in the season, everyone is going to contribute. I like to keep people going, empower them in some way. I want everyone, players and coaches to contribute to the team. I learned that from my father. He could delegate a lot of jobs around and really work in harmony."
Phil's father Charles was a Pentecostal minister in Montana, where he and his wife Elisabeth raised three boys, Charles, Joe, and Phil. Theirs was a fundamentalist Christian home; worship was a strict rule. Phil's parents urged him towards the ministry, making him memorize extensive passages from the Scriptures and filling him with a fear of the Holy Spirit. But to his great disappointment, he never learned to "speak in tongues," as his parents faith demanded, and he began to drift from their religion. Eventually he was dodging services to work on his jump shot.
He played college ball at the University of North Dakota, and was drafted by the New York Knicks in 1967. But a back injury and spinal-fusion surgery forced him to miss a season and a half. As his physical skill deteriorated, Jackson adapted by strengthening his mental approach to the game and . H he went on to play another eleven years in the NBA. Hewas the Knick's beloved hippie, living in a loft above an auto repair shop in Manhattan and exploring all sorts of religious experiences.
After his playing career was over, Jackson took a job in 1978 coaching the to Albany Paltroons , of the low-rent Continental Basketball Association. On that dimly lit stage, with his family living in nearby Woodstock, Jackson experimented with some novel team-building techniques. He paid all the players the same salary and gave them equal playing time through the first three quarters of every game. The fourth quarter belonged to that night's hottest hands. They often traveled by bus (Jackson sometimes drove--while working on a crossword puzzle), which helped desolve cliques amoung the players. The team went on to win the CBA championship in 1984, and Jackson won Coach Of The Year in 1985. The lessons of that experience stay with him.
"You try to connect some strong bonds between these different groups on the team," says Jackson. "That's why our privacy is so important as a team. The team needs an environment where they can experience their own personal weaknesses, and feel like they can be supported by their group. They can be improved and corrected by their coach and be backed by their teammates. Coaching is constantly making the ties that go between all these individuals."
I think about the places where I've worked with people who never considered me a teammate, where jealousy, ego and envy destroyed the common work we were trying to achieve.p> Another classic Jackson technique for opening the minds of his players is reading assignments. "Phil comes on the plane with a big bag full of books at the beginning of a trip," explains Kerr. "Then he walks up the aisle and hands them out. He'll announce that a book report is due at the end of the trip. He's joking, of course, but the rookies don't know that." Jackson tailors his reading list to the individual players: former-Bull B.J. Armstrong got Zen Mind, Beginner Mind , former-Bull Stacey King got Mike Judge's Beavis & Butt-Head: This Book Sucks. "It's not that he's trying to give you a message, neccesarily" says Kerr, who has been assigned Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses and Tony Hillarman's A Thief of Time. "I thnk he's just trying to keep things interesting. It's an eighty-two game season, and it can get monotonous. Phil's trying to keep our minds active."
To Jackson, it's all about awareness. "What you do at every moment is important and has meaning," he says. "Even when we come into a place like Philadelphia, where the team has a losing record and we could be looking beyond them. But today's is important. There are people here that are going to enjoy the game, people looking forward to it, spending a lot of money, traveling distancesŠ And for the team, there's an experience to be had. That's why I encourage my players to be at every game, not miss any practiceeven if you're somewhat sickbecause you don't want to miss out on anything. It's an experience that you can't replace. You'd be missing out on this great experience."
If you meet the Buddha in the lane, feed him the ball. --Phil Jackson
I have this from very plugged-in theological sources: God is not dead. God is not even retired. And, sorry folks, Michael Jordan is not God.
But you wouldn't know that from the press clippings that greeted his return to basketball. After the murder of his father and a year-long fling with baseball, Jordan's comeback was hailed as a "second coming," "a gift from on high." Without any evident irony, Slam magazine (where I once worked) even compared Jordan's return to a combined resurrection of Dr. Martin Luther King and Jesus Christ. "Welcome back, God," they wrote.
In my week with the team, I didn't see the heavens open up for Michael Jordan, but the hoop sure seemed to. At home against the Supersonics he nailed 35 points, avenging one of the Bulls only losses this season. In Philadelphia, Jordan scored a season high 48 and sat out most of the fourth quarter. Two days later, he would against Washington would get 42.
He still scores practically at will, but Jordan is a changed man. At 33, he's not the trash talker he once was. He's still extremely competitive, but he's deeply concerned with the state of the game. He seems to have taken to Jackson's teachings about anger clouding awareness. Jackson would quote St. Augustine "Anger is a weed; hate is a tree."
In Philadelphia, Jordan was engaged in a battle with brash rookie Jerry Stackhouse, age 19, who had bragged that the NBA provided no challenge for him. On the court he trounced Stackhouse, who scored just 10 points while Jordan was in the game. But afterwards, Jordan insisted that the battle wasn't personal.
"I was talking to him on the court," he said. "It wasn't malicious, I was just trying to get the best out of him, and get him to relax. Because I want him to do well. I thought he was nervous. I thought he was rushing. 'Calm down, let the game come to you, don't chase the game.' It's kind of odd that I'm talking to my opponent like that, but I respect every competitor, you know, I want them to do well. I think we all must do what we can to restore the love of the game, the challenges of the game. I don't think it should ever come to a point where the businesses becomes the challenge. The basketball should be the challenge.""
Basketball has been a trancendant experience for Jordan. It has sent him to college, gave him a career, made him a millionaire, gave him the platform to become the most recognized man on the planet. Yet He seems constantly thankful for the blessings basketball has bestowed on him.
He is devoted to the game. On the court, he has a simmering attention, a constant focus. And he brings the same intensity to doing an interview, or signing an autograph, or smiling. That too is a fundamental tenant of Zen. Chinese master Huang Po said "If you can only rid yourselves of conceptual thought, you will have accomplished everything. But if you students of the Way do not rid yourselves of conceptual thought in a flash, even though you strive for eon after eon, you will never accomplish it."
Despite his myriad accomplishments, Jordan is always striving for more. "I feel I've played my best basketball when I play against the best competition," he says. "I think you need something to push you to improve. I would push anyone to try to help me improve as a basketball player. I didn't teach Jerry Stackhouse a lesson tonight. Basketball taught him a lesson."
Two monks were traveling together in a heavy downpour when they came upon a
beautiful woman in a silk kimono trying to cross a muddy intersection. "Come
on," said the first monk to the woman, and he carried her to a dry spot.
The second monk didn't say anything until much later. Finally he said "We monks
don't go near females. Why did you do that?"
"I left the woman back there," the first monk replied. "Are you still carrying her?"
Dennis Rodman asks me to meet him for dinner at strip joint called Delilah's Den. So as he munches on chicken wings, and near naked women with surgically augmented breasts bring us beer, he talks about his long strange trip from San Antonio last season.
"It wasn't that things were so bad," he says. "It's just that people didn't have anything else to write about." Rodman's antics gave a critical press plenty of material, and it wasn't just about hair dyes, tattoos and scrotum piercing. There were flagrant fouls, skipped practices, and missed team flights. He was suspended for a key playoff game. During another, he tossed a bag of ice at his head coach Bob Hill (whom Rodman refers to as "Boner"). He even head-butted the Spurs mascot, a fluffy big-eared Coyote. Last October, Rodman was traded to the Bulls for reserve center Will Purdue.
Jordan and Pippen were consulted before the trade, and Jackson met with Rodman to make sure he wanted to be a part of the Bulls. Jackson showed up for the meeting riding a Harley. Rodman was sold.
For the Bulls, he turned out to be the missing link. "Dennis really understands the game and he's fit in here because he works hard," says Pippen, who still wears a scar across his chin, courtesy of a hard foul administered by Rodman a few years back, when he was with the Detroit Pistons. Supposedly the two players did not talk for the first two months of the season, but the hostility seems to be behind them. "It's been a lot of fun this season, really," says Pippen, "not just winning but the attitude of the team. Everybody seems to be in to it. I mean, there's no animosity or jealousy on this team. Everybody's just having fun."
Jordan even credits Rodman with being in touch with the Bulls' spiritual core. "I think Dennis emotionally is into this team," said Jordan. "It's not just athletic ability. I think it's the mental. He knows what we are, what we're all about, and what we're trying to achieve. He wants to contribute to that, and you can sense that."
Jackson's system allows the players to be individuals. And Rodman, the most blatantly individual player in the game, is appreciative. "This team has the 'I-don't-give-a-fuck attitude,'" he says. "What ever you do, we can accept that, as long as every one can commit themselves to playing basketball. Anyone can do anything crazy and it's like, 'Okay, whatever.' Phil [Jackson]'s like a Deadhead. He can go out there and smoke a joint and people won't give a fuck." Rodman pauses and smiles. "But I'm sure Phil doesn't really do that."
Jackson has worked hard to reach out to Rodman. Rodman's book assignment was Jackson's own Sacred Hoops. "I felt like he was talking about me," says Rodman. "I believe in visualization and the Zen and looking past to the beyond and things like that. I was like, 'Damn, he's on my same page.'"
Rodman has his own mediation ritual that predates his service with the Bulls. A mutual friend once described it as "Dennis's eye-of-the-tiger thing." But having witnessed it today, I now know it's a very peaceful process. About an hour before the game, Rodman would sit back deep into his locker stall, his eyes wide open, staring out into space. He seemed aware of everyone else in the locker room, but he paid them no mind. "I'm not thinking about basketball," he explains, knocking off the last of the chicken wings. "I just blank out everything. Basketball is not important right now. I don't think basketball right now. I concentrated on what I've gotta go and do, what I gotta do tonight. I'm just going to hang out and have a good time. The basketball will just happen."
With that, he summons the buxom "shot girl," who takes turns straddling our laps, whipping out a bottle of booze in each hand and pouring them straight into our mouths. I'm not sure what happened after that, but I'm wondering if this is the right path to enlightenment.
For a raindrop, joy is entering the river--Ghalib
The Bulls are actually losing. A strapping Washington Bullets team has worn their way to a five point lead in the third quarter. And I remember what Wennington said to me the day before. "All this Zen-stuff looks great when we're winning."
I think the hardest thing about Zen, about any religion, is faith. But Zen masters warn if you push, you won't find it. You have to be aware and let it come to you. You have to accept that it's always there. "If you try to attain enlightenment," wrote Shunryu Suzuki. "You are wasting your time your black cushion."
Jackson decides to put on a trap, that is, let his players swarm on every opponent who has the ball. And suddenly, Rodman looks like he's been cut loose. He's challenging everything. On an inbounds pass, he's doing jumping jacks in the opponents face, forcing the Bullet player into a bad pass. Pippen snags it and dishes right back to Rodman under the hoop. Rodman instantly taps it back to Pippen for the slam over the dazed Bullet player.
The entire energy level of the game has changed. Even the bad bounces are now in their favor. Back at mid-court, Steve Kerr slips on wet spot on floor. But he pulls himself up just as the Bullets point guard Tim Legler arrives with the ball. Jordan senses Legler's instant of confusion and swats the ball out of Legler's hands into Kerr's. Without even looking back, Jordan races alone to his basket, receiving the pass from Kerr. As Jordan takes to the air, the entire arena seems to take a collective gasp. Soaring towards the rim, Jordan swings the ball with two hands in a little circle, then jams it into the hoop. ŠThe crowd goes bananas, the Bulls players jump up from the bench screaming, and they cruise to a 116-109 victory.
After the game, Jackson has to endure more questions about the 70 win plateau. But I ask him if one could find Zen meaning in such a game. "All that seventy stuff is in the future," he says. "But the Zen comes from an approach to each situation. Let's play this play. Okay, this play is messed up--let's go on to the next play. Let's learn from those mistakes and then let's go on. But each play, each moment is like a breath and a release."
His players have achieved a remarkable unity and I've had the rare opportunity to see it on and off the court. This is a special season and they seem to be taking it all in, enjoying each situation as it presents itself. In Zen, it is said that all you needs to do to reach enlightenment is "chop wood, carry water." That is, at every moment, with every task, you must pay attention fully, and involve yourself in it completely. On the Chicago Bulls each player fully individual, and everyone is completely aware of their identity as a team. And they're loving every minute of it.
This team plays together, even parties together. That night, Rodman, Haley and I run into half a dozen other players at a nightclub. Tomorrow is an travel day, and Dennis is buying shots by the dozens. We're surrounded by girls from the strip joint next door and the teams is laughing and carrying on. Steve Kerr wraps his arm around my shoulder. "You make me laugh, man," he shouts over the music. "You probably think it's always like this!"
I ask Wennington is this team spirit is a result of Zen. He leans down and says "All this Zen-stuff looks great when we're winning." But if the effect is as intended, can the cause be ignored? Jackson's team religion creates an environment for winning--and winning is the result.
Jackson told me that for many years he kept a picture of Sri Chimnoy on his bathroom mirror with a caption that read "Make your work your play, and your play your work." To the Bulls, and to the world at large, Jackson works as a basketball coach, his players play. But for me, Jackson and his Bulls have been Zen teachers. Students of Zen are sometimes asked koans--nonsense questions that bring the student, through the contemplation of it, to greater awareness. So I ask: "Can the path of a bouncing ball lead to enlightenment?"