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Lakers: Sports Guru Phil

With his triangle offense and practical mysticism, Phil Jackson has brought good karma to the Lakers—and maybe a championship

There are strange doings in the far bottom reaches of the downtown Staples Center. On any given night, a dozen apostles gather at an appointed time in a room filled with dressing cubicles, garbing themselves in identical gold and purple raiment, and pledge devotion to their leader. * "Some guys have a voice that commands attention," explains one young disciple, a slender man named Robert Horry. "He has that voice."

"If he wasn't here, there's no way I'd be here," testifies another follower, a fellow named Ron Harper. "I'd probably be sitting at home."

A powerfully muscled man with deep, penetrating eyes offers the most riveting testimony of all. "He's a master of communication," says Shaquille O'Neal softly. "He knows he can say anything to me and I'll do it."

Shaq, Harper and Horry are referring, of course, to Phil Jackson—head coach of the stunningly resurgent Los Angeles Lakers, and the inspiration for the fastest-growing religious cult in town. As they drive through the playoffs, the Lakers are playing with the swagger of a team that believes an NBA title is its rightful destiny. Fans are feeling it, too: Hollywood stars are drifting back to their courtside seats at Staples Center like so many sparkling homing pigeons; mere mortal folks crowd round TV sets at Westside hangouts to root on the home team. A righteous buzz is in the air, and deprogrammers be damned.

And why not? It's been a decade since the Showtime Lakers, led by Magic, Kareem and Worthy, thrilled the Forum with their grace and acrobatics. After years of depressing Dodgers, contemptible Clippers and klutzy Kings, it's understandable if Los Angeles sporting fans are inclined—no, desperate—to believe that these Lakers are winding their way back to the promised land. Or to accept that Phil Jackson, maestro of those legendary Chicago Bulls teams that won six championships in the '90s, has been mystically drawn here—by the Southern California sun god, perhaps—to help fulfill a similar mission.

In a way, Jackson feels it, too. "Los Angeles has always been kind of a mecca," he says. "To me it's always been a great space, a big city that has a beach and the sun and the ocean and the variety of life that it provides. So much happened here that was negative in the early '90s. But I see this as a city that has always been kind of a healing point."

As basketball gurus go, Jackson might have less in common with Jerry West than with Jerry Garcia. Not to slight his mastery of the technical aspects of the game; you don't win six NBA titles by setting up plays on a Ouija board. But his coaching strategy is rooted in more spiritual, even biblical tenets. It's about finding creative freedom within a system that demands self-sacrifice, and building a trusting community of players within the dog-eat-dog world of professional hoops. A self-described "Zen Christian," Jackson says he doesn't just want to win, he wants to win the right way—which, as any Zen adept knows, is the way to win.

"The system that we run has a certain amount of selflessness," he explains in his somewhat elliptical manner. "It requires that you move the ball to the open man without deciding who that person is. So there's this innate ability to trust your teammates and yourself by letting go of this prized object, the basketball, and making it move between people."

Jackson, 54, is a physically impressive man; he stands about six feet eight, with broad shoulders and the stiff, halting walk of an ex-player who spent a decade taking floor burns for the New York Knicks back in the '70s. Talking to a reporter in an otherwise nondescript conference room at the Lakers' practice pod in El Segundo shortly before the playoffs, he peers down at the table as he speaks, as if carefully marshaling each thought. With his trademark dark suit, graying beard and nearly rimless spectacles, he looks like a college professor who grades hard. But his manner is friendly, leavened by a sardonic sense of humor and a low, rumbling voice that's kind of musical.

"I think we have three of maybe the most talented players since the time of Kareem and Worthy and Magic," Jackson goes on, referring to Shaq, Kobe Bryant and sharpshooter Glen Rice. "However, Baylor, West and Chamberlain [on the '68-'71 Lakers] outshone even those people. They were three of the greatest scorers in the game, and yet they couldn't win a championship. So yeah, we got the talent, we got the show, we got everything else—but how do you make all the pieces complement each other? That's really what my specialty is as a coach, to try to bring that to bear. And this team is learning that."

His approach is subtle but sure-handed. Indeed, watching Jackson coach the Lakers on game nights is a little like attending Kabuki theater; the physical movements say it all. Mostly he sits with his fingers interlocked over crossed knees, his head tilted back and angled toward the action. If he's slightly agitated, he'll start to bend forward, his mouth opening to indicate various degrees of astonishment. Occasionally he'll bark at a ref going by, or get the attention of a player at the far end of the court by putting his fingers into the sides of his mouth and letting loose with a whistle you can hear up in the skybox.

But he rarely loses his cool. He calls time-outs when you least expect them, and doesn't call them when you do. When he's angry at the team, he lifts his lanky frame as they approach the bench, digs his hands into his pockets, contorts his upper torso and glares. His comments to players, whether pro or con, are understated but direct.

"He knows how to talk to guys," says Harper, the savvy guard who played four years for Jackson in Chicago and put off retirement to join him in L.A. "He don't holler and scream—a lot. But he's far from a pushover. He understands the game, he understands you, and you ain't gonna pull anything over his eyes. You can forget about that."

"He doesn't overdo the praise," adds backup center John Salley. "A lot of coaches know that their bread is buttered by certain players, but on his squad, everybody is equal. I've watched him tell Michael Jordan to sit down even when he had 43 points and could have gone for 60. I've seen him yell at Shaq. He's not an ass kisser with anybody."

Jackson's relationship with O'Neal, everyone's MVP this season, is a classic case in point. Before the new coach showed up last fall, no one doubted Shaq's ability or warrior spirit. But the big man could be moody and inconsistent—and playing second fiddle with the fans to Kobe, the Lakers' charismatic golden boy, didn't help. Like the rest of the team, he slacked off on defense, and his notorious inability to hit free throws made him a liability at crunch time.

Previous coaches tried to soft-pedal the problem. Jackson faced it head-on, telling a sportswriter early in the season that Shaq couldn't lead if he couldn't be counted on to sink his foul shots with the game on the line. At the same time, Jackson stoked Shaq's pride by making it clear that this Lakers team was his, not Kobe's, to lead—and instituting an offensive scheme, "the Triangle," that plays to his strengths as an agile scorer and sharp passer. He responded by raising his game to monster levels on both ends of the floor. And as the Lakers streaked toward the playoffs, Shaq started nailing down key victories by making free throws late in the game.

"Phil's a master psychologist, and criticism is a form of psychology" is the way Shaq sees it. "There's two ways to take it—you can either pout or cry about it, or get mad and try to prove the person wrong. I like proving people wrong. So he probably said that to make me get mad and work harder."

Shaq is definitely working harder these days. Not coincidentally, he regards Jackson with an admiration verging on reverence. "He's the white version of my father," O'Neal declares. "He never gives me the chance to slack off, never tells me how good I'm doing, and he's always real honest with me. He even walks like my dad," he adds with a smile. "Bad knees, bad back."

So if Shaq sees Jackson as a white version of his father, does that mean that Jackson sees Shaq as a black version of his son?

"No, I don't see that," Jackson demurs. "But one of the great things about this job is it's one of the few areas where you can work with male energy, with male personae, in a society that's now so decidedly unisexual. And a man who's got some discipline and some authority represents a father figure. Coaches represent that; teachers, mentors represent that. And more than anything else, I want to be a mentor to these young men. They're professional moneymaking machines basically; they generate immense amounts of capital, and for them to find happiness and a sense of peace in the midst of all that is very confusing. So in some ways in trying to do a job like this, it's about teaching values: that hard work pays off, and that there's a certain ethic which goes with everything—which is `You sow, you reap.'"

IF JACKSON sometimes sounds more like a missionary than a basketball coach, well, there's reason for that. Growing up in the rural enclave of Williston, North Dakota, he recalls in his book Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior, "our lives were dictated by the rhythms of church life." His father and mother were both Pentecostal ministers. There was no TV in the house, nor rock `n' roll music, nor comic books or even playing cards. Phil had to sneak out with his older brother just to see his first movie (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers), at the age of 17.

Basketball was acceptable recreational fare, however, and Jackson proved a gifted student of the game. Tall and athletic, with unusually long arms (in high school, he could sit in the back-seat of a car and simultaneously open both doors in the front), he became an all-American at the University of North Dakota while earning a combined degree in religion, psychology and philosophy. Then it was on to the Knicks, where Jackson became a valuable seventh man on their two championship squads of the early '70s while forging an enduring friendship with teammate and future U.S. Senator Bill Bradley.

He also became the Knicks' designated hippie, tossing off the shackles of his cloistered upbringing to embrace the experimental spirit of the times. He grew his hair long (for an NBA player, anyway), explored spiritual philosophies ranging from Lakota Sioux to Zen Buddhist and occasionally imbibed popular nonprescription drugs. In his early memoir Maverick, he credited an LSD trip with helping him glean the value of sublimating his ego for the good of the team. But he struggled to reconcile his sense of ethics with an exceedingly aggressive style of play.

"I was a ferocious player, and yet I'm not a very ferocious individual," he says. "I'm a pretty peaceful person, and yet my aggression was full out on the basketball court—commonly known as a hacker. So I had to deal with that dichotomy. What is legitimate? Where do you cross the line, and what is the code of honor, so to speak? And then how far and how deep can you go into this world while still living your life as best you can as a parent and as a citizen?"

For Jackson, professional basketball provides the best of both worlds—an arena where peaceable ideals and a warrior spirit can both be given free rein. "There isn't a whole lot of territory where you can claim that for yourself," he points out. "But here we have this territory in our lives where we can claim it, embrace it, get paid for it, and people enjoy watching it, too."

As a Knick, Jackson swore he'd never coach; players' egos were too much to deal with, he figured. But his basketball jones ran deep; two years after he retired in 1980, he was coaching the Albany Patroons in the Continental Basketball Association, a league filled with NBA has-beens and never-weres.

Turned out he had a flair for the job. "We played this one game against the Tampa Bay Thrillers where they kicked our ass, just obliterated us in every facet of the game," recalls Charles Rosen, Jackson's assistant coach at the time. "And we had to play them again two nights later. So we had a full practice in between, and I was thinking, This is just a waste of time. But Phil came in and made three or four really minor adjustments—and next game. That's when I realized that this guy sees deep enough into the game to see where the mainspring is and can see how making an adjustment to one gear affects all these other gears. He has the ability to do that."

By the late '80s, Jackson had been hired as an assistant to hyperbolic Chicago Bulls coach Doug Collins, and when Collins was fired a year later, Jackson took over. His quiet sense of authority turned out to be a welcome antidote. He promoted a mix of court fundamentals and an intuitive sense of "being in the moment" similar to what he had enjoyed while playing with the Knicks. It also didn't hurt to have Michael Jordan on his side. By the time the Bulls won their sixth NBA title, Jordan swore he'd retire rather than play for another coach, and when Jackson left the Bulls after the 1997-98 season, the greatest player in NBA history proved good on his word.

The Bulls featured an exceedingly colorful cast of characters, right down to the tint in Dennis Rodman's hair, and Jackson fit right in. He decorated the team's meeting room with Native American artifacts, lit sticks of sage to ward off evil spirits, conducted practices in dead silence to encourage Zen-like focus and regularly gave players books to read. Such proclivities seem to drive some of Jackson's more button-down coaching rivals to distraction; Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy once derisively referred to Jackson as "Big Chief Triangle," and the name stuck. But Jackson typically gets the last laugh; after all, bugging opposing coaches just means he's gotten a competitive edge.

"He is so competitive," declares Rosen. "That's one main reason why he and Michael Jordan got on so well. When we were coaching together, we used to play a lot of one-on-one games. We've played maybe 400 times. I beat him once—and I had to blatantly foul him and knock him down to do it. He was really pissed about it, too, because I hadn't beat him fair."

When Jackson quit the Bulls and took a year off at his family retreat in Montana, about 15 NBA teams made bids for his services, according to Jackson's agent, Todd Musburger, some more lucrative than the five-year, $6 million-per deal he signed with the Lakers. There was also an invite to work on Bill Bradley's presidential campaign, which Jackson passed on as well. "He realized he still had a lot of games to coach before he slept," says Musburger. "He'd always been intrigued by Shaq; he admired Kobe. He didn't want to spend a lot of time rebuilding a team. And L.A. itself has always been a lure to him."

"It was really important to me to enjoy this situation," Jackson explains. "I'd always kidded my friends in California that it's a laid-back existence here, and that all the work gets done in the east because of the weather, and what else are you going to do there? But I have found out that there's a tremendous amount of intensity and frenetic energy that goes along with L.A. living."

And coaching the Lakers. Off the court, however, Jackson's lifestyle falls somewhat short of frenetic. "I'm basically kind of a monk in my life—I have kind of that attitude of going into hibernation and being quiet, contained. So what L.A. has been good for is getting me out. When I first got here, I went to the Ford Theater and saw Natalie Merchant, went to the Greek for Linda Ronstadt and Bruce Hornsby—he's an old friend of mine. Another friend, John Lithgow, lives only a mile from me in Montana, and we spent more time in Montana together than we have here."

Married in 1972 and the father of five grown children, Jackson says he purchased a home in L.A. "somewhere near the ocean," where he currently resides with one of his daughters. His wife, June, remains at their home in Woodstock, New York. The idea that L.A. could ever become Jackson's permanent domicile strikes him as unlikely. "The way I grew up, so far from any metropolis, I think there's always a longing in my being for big cities. Though I can't take them for long periods of time."

In a sense, Jackson came to town as the quintessential L.A. pilgrim—a loner in the big city who longs for a sense of community. The difference for him was, as coach of the Lakers, he knew how to build one, starting with nuts and bolts. He emphasized defense and conditioning and imported his cast of assistant coaches from Chicago, including the venerable Tex Winter, now 78. And Jackson's team-building strategies have extended off the court as well. There haven't been any sage burnings of late, but he still hands out books, like the Friedrich Nietzsche tome he presented to Shaq. At Christmastime, Jackson had each of the Lakers play Secret Santa to a teammate. True to his regal nature, Shaq stretched the proposed $100 spending limit by giving Derek Fisher a $5,000 Rolex, but nobody seemed to mind.

"The system that he's instituted here forces us to be more of a community on the basketball court, and as a result it's kind of changed the way we are off the court as well," says Kobe Bryant. "I mean, not to the point where we're hanging out with each other all the time. But there's a certain bond that's there now without doing that."

Not that those bonds are likely to mature if the Lakers flame out in the playoffs again—and Jackson acknowledges that having the best record in the league going in ratchets up the pressure. "What I make clear to the players is, if you've done everything the right way through the regular season, then you can't get upset about the playoffs, because it's just more of the same thing, and you've got to approach it the same way.

"I think our chances are real good. We might end up having the toughest opponents to get to the finals, as far as our matchups," he cautions, referring to the possibility of playing consecutive series against San Antonio and Portland—arguably the Lakers' toughest conference rivals. "But I have been telling the guys that we want to take on the best teams. That's what the championship is: You don't get it by skating through. You earn it."

It's Jackson's job to do just that, of course, and after a decade of not-quite-good-enough, an NBA title should make even fair-weather fans stand up and cheer. Yet as Jackson goes on to talk about his coaching philosophy and the communal values of the Triangle offense, you realize he's actually embarked on a larger crusade.

"I got in trouble with some jazz fans when the season opened and I said that rather than being like a John Coltrane improvisation, we're playing this game like a Bach sonata, where we have a lot of harmonic voices blending together rather than one standout voice," he recalls. "What I meant was, we're not trying to put on a show with just individual stuff. It's group effort that's inclusive of all the members of the team.

"So the involvement is as continual as a string quintet might be," Jackson goes on, "and everyone has a little harmonic part to play. And in seeing that, the team understands the value of all the members of their community, and they can resonate to that."

So, in other words, the Triangle offense isn't just a good way to win a basketball game? It's morally uplifting as well?

Jackson laughs, then turns serious. "Yeah, it is," he replies. "There's no doubt about it."