NEAL CONAN, host:
Just over a week ago, the Los Angeles Lakers won the 2009 NBA championship, title number 15 for the Lakers and an all-time record 10 for Coach Phil Jackson. In his years with the Chicago Bulls and now the Lakers, some pro basketball writers dub Jackson the Zen master for urging his players to read philosophy. Now, more than a few call him the best coach ever.
We will stipulate to coach Jackson that many of you are great fans and admire his work. If you have an actual question for Phil Jackson, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Phil Jackson joins us now by phone from his office in Los Angeles.
Nice to have you with us on TALK OF THE NATION. Congratulations.
Mr. PHIL JACKSON (Coach, Los Angeles Lakers): Thanks, Neal.
CONAN: And I wonder, have you now accomplished everything you've ever wanted to as a coach?
Mr. JACKSON: You know, I never really thought about that as an accomplishment. I mean, you think about it in accumulation, yeah, it's incredible. But, you know, you just think about, you know, going back and winning a championship. And then, you know, those championships seem to roll up in threes, when I was with the Bulls a couple of times, with the Lakers here earlier.
And then, you know, I basically left the scene, was off into retirement and the Lakers were moving in another direction, but things didn't work out so well. And at the behest of the team, I came back to kind of bring them back to, you know, stability. They missed the playoffs in 2005, and so, you know, here we are, four years later, we're back in the championship.
So it wasn't really like a goal that I thought was ever going to be accomplished during this period of time.
CONAN: Well, if they're coming in threes, you'd hate to leave and miss the next two.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. JACKSON: Well, maybe, maybe not - who could tell. That's a tall order for any team, one as spectacular as you can hope for.
CONAN: There are many comparisons drawn in the past few weeks between you and Red Auerbach who, of course, won nine championships with the Boston Celtics, back in the day. Do you make any of those comparisons?
Mr. JACKSON: No. We're totally different people. And we have a very different agenda. We had a very different NBA to work under. His had the, obviously, eight teams, nine teams and 10 teams. And, you know, I started coaching there 28 teams, and now there are 30 teams. And so, you know, that's a totally different agenda.
Total players that played NBA basketball at that time was under 100 players. You know, now we have three times that number or more. And it's a worldwide sport, and it's a big thing, a lot of our players are from overseas.
What Red did was remarkable, was that he built a team, you know, from scratch, and I had an opportunity to come in to coach teams that were pretty well-formed in a couple occasions - both in Chicago and in L.A. And so I just was able to guide teams to that Promised Land, so to speak.
CONAN: When you were a player - people think you're ancient, but you're not that ancient, Red Auerbach was no longer coaching. He was president of the Boston Celtics when you were a player.
Mr. JACKSON: Yeah.
CONAN: Nevertheless, I'm sure you saw him from the courtside, and every once in a while, of course, you played on some great Knick teams, but Red would light the cigar when he thought the Celtics were about to win.
Mr. JACKSON: Yes. He was a - he's kind of a scourge of the NBA among coaches because there was a certain sort of arrogance behind that, you know? He wasn't beyond going into the locker room and berating the officials - the official's locker room - after a ballgame. And now you can't even discuss their competency without being fined by the league by a lot of money. So it was quite a different league at that time.
But Red, very competitive guy, and also a great promoter of basketball. I know one of my teammates, Bill Bradley, you know, had maintained a friendship with Red even though, you know, we were arch opponents against the Celtics in the late '60s and early '70s.
CONAN: Yeah. Those were the Dave Cowens' and John Havlicek teams that you and the Knicks played. You are more a role player on the Knicks. And I wonder, you played under another Red, Red Holzman.
Mr. JACKSON: That's right.
CONAN: And how much did he shape your philosophy of basketball?
Mr. JACKSON: Well, my Red was - Red Holzman - was a guy who was unruffled or unrivaled in his ability to remain calm and cool. He was a guy that, you know, espoused the middle path, Confucian way, you know, that, you know, everything should be taken, you know, on a sense of a level that was middle path - not too high, not too low and you get through the day just fine.
He was a very good manager of people. Never saw him draw a play, never drew a play on the paper. If he had a play or something he wanted to express on a blackboard, he called me up and say, Phil, draw up one of those things that those guys running over there in whatever, in Los Angeles or Boston or whoever we were playing.
So that was kind of a removed or an aloof attitude towards the game. He would end the huddles, which usually was 95 percent defense, with what you guys want to run when you're out there in offense? And kind of leave it up to us. And I thought that was a remarkable thing to do, to kind of give, you know, credence to the players.
We have so many coaches that are really controlling coaches in this game now. And he was one of the guys that really promoted self-reliance.
CONAN: One more question I'll let the listeners have at you, and that is the - you're on that first great Knicks team that won the championship. You were hurt that year and…
Mr. JACKSON: That's right.
CONAN: …and didn't play. This second Knicks championship team, you were an important part of that team, not a starter, but an important part. Did that championship ring mean more to you than perhaps those you've won as a coach?
Mr. JACKSON: Yes. I think that playing is - playing gives you an understanding of what it takes to do this. And there's that certain sense of how much sacrifice players go - to what ends they go through to win a championship.
I mean, this day and age, we have four playoff rounds to get through. When I was playing, you know, we had three. And the fourth one, you know, makes that championship season almost seven weeks long. It just - it drives on and on, you know, and players get hurt. Every game is so much more physical than any other game that you've ever played before. So it means a lot to have won as a player.
CONAN: All right. Here's - let's get the callers on the line. Our guest, of course, Phil Jackson, coach of the world champion, Los Angeles Lakers, winner of 10 championships as a coach of the National Basketball Association. 800-9898-255; email: email@example.com.
And why don't we start with Larry. Larry with us from Sheridan in Oregon.
LARRY (Caller): Thanks for taking my call. Coach, I was just wondering, what role do you feel that a coach, a general manager, an owner or a commissioner might have in disciplinary actions or in any action when players have off court legal issues?
Mr. JACKSON: Well, I think that the - you know, you're in a binding agreement because you're an association. So we all kind of fall under a uniform statue of, you know, what is harmful to this association. We have to maintain a certain protocol.
That being said, commissioners can levy, you know, disciplinary actions, suspend guys, whatever, as we've seen with Michael Vick, for example, as a case. And here, Manny, our great Dodger here in L.A. has been suspended for some substance abuse in baseball. So those are some of the things that any of -the commissioner has to do. I think, you know, my level of discipline has to do with what hurts a team, what overrides a team's best interest - as does a general manager or a vice president of a basketball organization. That's where our discipline happens.
But, you know, we try to get players to be disciplined so that they can play together. So our fines start with - if you're late. And if you're late by, you know, a minute, you know, there's a silly fine. But if you're late by five minutes, then it goes to a major amount of money, you know, a considerable amount of money because anybody can be late five minutes. And, you know, we try and, you know, emphasize the fact that it's the discipline that makes teams coordinate and do things together because of the group effort.
LARRY: So, would that imply that it is kind of win at all costs as long as -you just trust that the upper echelons are dealing with discipline and you just try and get the best player on the court regardless what his antics might be?
Mr. JACKSON: No. Absolutely not. There's - you know, we always had the motto in Chicago that you don't draft talent. You draft - I mean, you don't draft character. You draft talent. You make sure that person has the talent and then you hope that you get a talented player, because that's the key, is, you know, talent can always be developed, but you have to have character. And we really have emphasized that in that department.
But that being said, a lot of our kids come from areas of the country and situations that make them very determine and very competitive, just by the nature of having grown up. And so, there is a lot of, you know, fine line between how far does discipline go. And I think that's the area you're trying to broach here.
CONAN: Larry, thanks very much. We'll give somebody else a chance.
LARRY: Appreciate it. Thanks.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to Brad. Brad with us from Detroit.
BRAD (Caller): Hi, Neal. Thanks for taking my call.
BRAD: Hi, coach. Congratulations on 10 championships.
Mr. JACKSON: Thanks.
BRAD: You commented some years back, that you enjoyed talking with Scotty Bowman, a long time coach of Detroit Red Wings. And I was curious what kind of things would you take away from conversations with other coaches from other sports and were there some specific other coaches that you'd like to talk to from other sports?
Mr. JACKSON: Well, you know, Avram Grant, who coached the Chelsea team last year, in the superior league in soccer, you know, came over, wants to practice last year during the finals. So we talked a lot about the basics of the game. You know, a lot of what we do, what they do, is you displace the defense by moving the ball - their field's like 10 times larger than a basketball court, obviously.
Hockey also uses - we always used to kid about hockey. Hockey is a give and go game. You know, there are very few picks and screens, but there are some things. But, you know, I grew up playing hockey in North Dakota as a kid when my parents move from Montana to North Dakota. So in North Dakota, where I went to college, the University of North Dakota, that's their, quote, unquote, "big sport," that's their major sport.
And so, I really relate to hockey understand the game and know the nuances of it. So that when you talk about it, it's entirely different than someone that, you know, doesn't have an opportunity and know hockey or been to hockey games. I've been to a number of hockey games. Scotty and I talked about championships, what make championship teams and characters that you have to have.
CONAN: Hmm. Brad, thanks.
BRAD: Great. Thanks for taking my call.
CONAN: Sure. Bye. Let's see if we can get - this is Sam. Sam with us from Dayton in Ohio.
SAM (Caller): Yes. Hi. Thanks a lot. I was thinking about Abe Maslow in the last article that you had about the good society and a better society and so on. And I'm wondering if in the philosophy of teamwork, if it's - if he doesn't look at teamwork as the good team versus the bad team, or the good team versus the better team.
Mr. JACKSON: I'm a member of a - actually, the spokesperson for the Positive Coaching Alliance. It's called PCA. It's a national new movement. It's probably 10 years old, and it's about promoting the game, you know, from the standpoint of positive…
Mr. JACKSON: ...comments from coaches, positive comments from fans, positive behavior by parents in the stands.
And a lot of what we talk about is, you know, that there are - all the teams are talented. It's a matter of discipline, it's the matter of team character that make the difference between teams. The talent level is amazing in this game.
SAM: So it's not focusing on losers but winners.
Mr. JACKSON: That's a big part of it. And…
SAM: Okay. Well, thanks a lot. Appreciate that.
CONAN: All right, Sam, thanks very much.
And here's an email that we have from Tyjoni(ph). And I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly. Do you still assign book readings for your students? If so, what books are on the booklist?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. JACKSON: Yes, I do. And, you know, I gave them out - or give them out - you know, during a long road trip, when, you know, players have to spend, you know, two weeks, nine days, you know, anywhere from that on the road in a five to seven game road trip that, you know, might encompass, you know, coast to coast travel, long plane flights, late nights.
And this is a different age, you know? And there's very few kids that read books in our world. And the number of college graduates that play in the NBA has diminished by about 50 percent with, you know, early outs and number of international players that we have.
But, you know, I seem to find books for everybody - and we had a Chinese player, Sun Yue, in the team. I gave him "The Good Earth" by Pearl Buck this year, you know, look at his society prior to the revolution. Pau Gasol, who is a, you know, Spanish player on our team, I gave him Hemingway's book, "The Sun Also Rises," little book about, you know, the revolution, you know, in the '30s, with the - in Spain.
So I try to, you know, find an interest or a common denomination between, you know, the book and the player so that we can relate to something that, you know, I know and he knows.
CONAN: And now that you've got at least a couple of weeks to breathe a little bit, if you're coming back next year, what are you reading this summer?
Mr. JACKSON: You know, I have a booklist that I have going on. I've got a Kindle. I'm planning to download a number of those books on the list.
CONAN: There's a few authors waiting for your plug.
Mr. JACKSON: Well, I'm not going to give that up right now. But, you know, I do know that there's a Kingsolver book that I haven't read yet.
CONAN: Barbara Kingsolver?
Mr. JACKSON: Yeah. She's one of my favorite writers. I think she's terrific.
And, you know, I got a couple of recommendations that I'm going to go back and look at. You know, history - the history of Napoleon, again, has been written and I think I want to read, that is of interest to me. But you know, those are two of them.
And you know, a lot of them self - or, you know, books that are under the self-help kind of category in a bookstore, I often have one of those books going on the side - an early morning read or late night read.
CONAN: We just have a minute left with you. And there's been a lot of talk about the injuries that you've had to deal with. Were those from your days as a player? And do you talk to your players about the difficulties they may face in later life with the ailments they're going to have?
Mr. JACKSON: Oh, without a doubt. You know, we talked about it in the form of, you know, taking care of yourself, not playing too much, at the end of your career, you know, what you have to do, the physical therapy that's available to them now, strengthening themselves during the off-season so that they limit their injuries. All of that goes into it. And, you know, we do a, you know, complete, you know, workup on these players before they have their exit meetings, which just happened last week.
So we talked to them about their injuries that they've incurred or accumulated over their career, incurred the last year and how to, you know, work with them over the summertime so that they can rehab themselves and get themselves back in position. But it's a big part of it. You know, it's a big part of looking at some of these guys now that are turning 50, like Dominique Wilkins and, you know, the guys that, you know, were dunking those balls that were remarkable, that are just the generation behind me, and seeing them go through the kind of stuff that I had to go through 10 years ago. So it's an interesting transformation.
CONAN: Coach Phil Jackson, thanks very much. And again, congratulations.
Mr. JACKSON: Thanks, Neal. I enjoy your show.
CONAN: Thank you.
Tomorrow, Political Junkie Ken Rudin joins us with a new trivia question. This is NPR News.
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