Master Of The Game

Coach Phil Jackson Brings A Little Zen Courtside

Phil Jackson has been known to walk into basketball practice beating a tom-tom. And he, from time to time, burns a kind of incense that smells like marijuana. The tom-tom is to call his team to attention.

It's all part of how he deals with a generation of young basketball millionaires he's charged with turning into champions. This master of the game has already won more NBA championships than any active coach. Carol Marin reports on what makes him so successful.

Before the game begins, as the Lakers take the floor in Los Angeles, the hip are happening, and the famous are gathering. And back in the bowels of the locker room, Phil Jackson is methodically preparing to walk out the tunnel and onto the court, precisely 60 seconds before the game begins. It's part of his ritual.

"I try not to touch anybody," Jackson says. "That's the only thing that bothers me, is people reaching out from the stands....There's a certain amount of energy that I feel I don't want to give off....This is where I'm focused on the court. It's not the distraction right now of the fans."

That may sound more new age than NBA. But the man who owns nine NBA championship rings, two as a player and seven as a coach, has some unusual ways of getting his team's attention.

"There are things that I do that I think are different and unique," Jackson says. Take his smudging a locker room with either sage or sweet grass, a custom Jackson says he learned from time spent with the Lakota Sioux in North Dakota.

The first time Jackson did this was about five years ago, he recalls. "(The players) had a good laugh about it because there's something about the acridic smoke that smells like it might be marijuana."

"He walked through, especially when we lost two games in a row or a game that we shouldn't have lost," with incense, recalls John Salley, who played for Jackson in Chicago and again last year in Los Angeles. "Evil spirits don't like the smoke. It's positive spirits that you awaken in the body."

Then there's Jackson's wordless way of communicating with players, a mind-meld, some might call it.

"If you ever see him staring, not staring at a guy like a boxer standing there, he's talking to them on a higher plain, trying to meditate his words to him,...trying to connect spiritually with him," says Salley, who won two of his four championship rings playing for Jackson.

In Chicago, Jackson's Bulls won six titles. And while Michael Jordan may get most of the credit, Jordan didn't win the NBA's biggest game until Jackson became his coach.

In Los Angeles Jackson did it again. Jackson's team won the championship in his first season. That's why players who might be reluctant converts don't question, at least openly, a coach who says to be successful he must balance his masculine side with his feminine side.

"It has to do a lot with the opening up your heart spae and seeing people from where they're at,...hav(ving) a lot of sympathetic ear to their plights as people," Jackson says. "There is a time to be tough. There's also a time to really kind of touch those other areas, the spiritual, emotional and intellectual."

But toughness is a big part of Jackson's success. He says his ultimate weapon is deciding who plays and who stays on the bench.

At one Philadelphia game, Jackson took his entire first string, including Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, out of one of the season's biggest games. It was the start of the fourth quarter, the Lakers were down by 12, and they were sent to the sideline.

"I didn't like the way we were playing," Jackson says. "I felt that I had to make a statement," Jackson says. "And the statement was, if you don't play team basketball, (sit down)."

Jackson says he's willing to take a loss if it means that the team gets better because of it.

Shaquille O'Neal, who had gone seven seasons without a championship, lobbied the Lakers to hire Jackson.

"Somebody once told me that somewhere in the world, there's somebody that looks like you and acts like you," O'Neal says. "And Phil Jackson is a white version of my father. A disciplinarian, bad back, played the game, understands the game...says what's on his mind no matter what."

Jackson teaches total teamwork. With the Triangle offense, each player on the court is asked to give up what is most important: the ball.

"This is the game I try to coach, in which everybody gets the ball, and everybody moves the ball, and everybody has a feel for the ball," Jackson says. "They have this idea that this is a community game."

"Its message is...the attachment to each other," Jackson adds.

This season the Lakers' superstars, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, have been in a running battle over who would be the team's leader, who gets the ball, who gets the shot.

At a game last week, O'Neal's father even went as far as heckling Bryant from the stands, calling him a ball hog. It all underscores what Jackson sees as one of the NBA's biggest problems: the star system.

He didn't even watch the All-Star game. "The All-Star game is a kind of slap in the face to basketball by making it a game of only superstars, who play one on one," he says. "Basically they don't play a conceptualized game where five people play together. And that's the goal of a coach, is to get five people to play together as one."

Jackson believes that the NBA is drafting players too young and unprepared to manage the basic details of daily living.

"We have to hire housekeepers, cooks, people who will make sure they know how to feed themselves," Jackson says. "This is about being able to live a complete life and knowing how to do that. You don't win in the NBA with players that are immature."

I Jackson could hand down a decree, he would say nobody comes to the NBA until 21. "It's a man's game. It's not for boys. No boys allowed in the NBA," he says.

"The league hasn't taken it in a real responsible way and (said) we will deny people the access to this league until they are 21," Jackson declares.

Jackson grew up playing basketball. His mother and father were Pentecostal ministers; about the only outside activity they allowed was sports. By the time he got to the NBA in 1967, he had become a Buddhist. He was the NBA's resident flower child, a rebel who grew his hair long and protested the Vietnam war. As a second-string forward for the Knicks, Jackson earned only $13,000 a year.

Times have changed. Shaquille O'Neal makes $8,000 a minute with his new contract, if you estimate he plays 48 minutes for each of 82 games a year.

That's more in two minutes than Jackson made his whole first year playing for the Knicks.

Now Jackson makes $6 million. But he says his salary is too inflated and that anyone in the country making more than the president is earning too much.

Jackson lives on the beach in southern California and sports a new designer hairstyle and a soul patch on his chin. He's also romantically involved with Lakers vice president Jeannie Buss, a 39-year-old onetime Playboy model, whose dad owns the team.

What about when players and reporters give Jackson heat for being in love with the boss' daughter? "We're not Brad Pitt and Jennifer Anniston," Buss says, laughing. "You know we're two adults. We have lived long lives and experiences. I really don't understand the fascination."

These days the public is fascinated by Jackson as much as the men he coaches. And Hollywood's glitterati turn out to watch, not just Shaq and Kobe, but the man they hope will turn the Lakers into the dynasty his Chicago team was.

It has been said one championship in Hollywood equals six championships in the Midwest because of all the attention Hollywood gets.

"We'll see how it works," Jackson says. "It's transient; glory is really transient here. It's here today and gone tomorrow. They're on to the next picture."

Jackson's addiction to basketball has carried a very high price. Physically, his walk tells it all. He has bad knees, bad hips, bad back.

Basketball has also left this 55-year-old father of five with two broken marriages. His second one to wife June is just ending after 25 years. He says in his newly published book, More Than a Game, that when he was offered the Lakers job, June Jackson asked him to choose: basketball or her.

"June felt that I was unable to commit to my relationship or my family because my career was too important to me. She saw me mired in my fame and my day-to-day habits, a prisoner of my own past," he wrote.

"I carry this desire of my team or my group to be the best with me 4 hours a day," he says.

And it's those hours in practice that Jackson says he values the most.

"The most important thing that they learn is that they play together. Because if they play for themselves, which is the real lure, they become disjointed and disengaged from each other," says the coach who has become a kind of minister, as his parents were.