Phil Jackson: Lord of the Rings

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This should have been one of the great sports books of the decade, and yes, that ‘should’ has an intentionally ominous tone to it. The author Peter Richmond has written six other books both on sports, as well as a biography of Peggy Lee and the story of his father’s experiences in World War II. He has written for most of the great magazines that remain standing, including “The New Yorker,” “New York,” and “Vanity Fair,” all of whom stand for great reporting and great writing.

As to the subject, one can make a pretty good argument that Phil Jackson is the greatest professional sports coach or manager of all time. Between the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers, he coached those teams to eleven NBA championships, two more than the great Leonard ‘Red’ Auerbach. In baseball, Casey Stengel won seven World Series titles with the New York Yankees. In the National Football League, George Halas and Curly Lambeau each won six titles. Scotty Bowman won nine Stanley Cup championships in the NHL. One has to look overseas to find a greater total, where Manchester United’s Sir Alex Ferguson won thirteen Premier League titles (and a total of 49 major trophies).

But that is just winning. A winning record does not necessarily make for a compelling biography or even a great interview subject. In my lifetime – and my memory encompasses the entire Super Bowl era – the greatest quarterback has been Joe Montana. If you held a gun to my head, I could not repeat to you a single memorable Joe Montana quote. Nor Wayne Gretzky in hockey, nor for that matter the aforementioned Scotty Bowman. Michael Jordan of Jackson’s six championships with the Bulls is today noteworthy as a subject only because of a sheer braggadocio that would make a forty story skyscraper cringe itself into a quonset hut.

Phil Jackson always seemed a little different from the rest; a lot different, even. He had a solid career as a player with the New York Knicks (two more rings), even though he seemed composed only of shoulder blades and elbows attached like a child’s first experiments in building a robot with a Meccano set body and a Brillo pad head. He smoked pot; quoted Buddha, Gandhi, and assorted other philosophers and thinkers; wore sandals to work; and was known for passing out high brow books to his players. When his teams were struggling against an opponent making say a 12-2 run in the second half, where other coaches would jump out of their seat, call time-out and “Take Control!,” Jackson would cross his legs, pull out his nail clippers, and leave it up to his well-practiced team to sort it out for themselves. This is not a man who fits the mold of driven, screaming coach.

Where Richmond succeeds in Lord of the Rings is in describing the influences that built the Phil Jackson persona. Raised by expatriate Canadian fundamentalist Christians in Montana, he was a PK, a Pastor’s Kid, not allowed to dance with girls, drink, or do the standard teenage hell-raising. That rigorous background became balanced with Jackson’s deep love and admiration for the teachings of the Lakota native population, wherein the needs of the tribe supercede those of the individual – to speak the obvious, that is an absolute fundamental in creating a winning sport team.

All of that is terrific stuff, and while Richmond did not have access to Jackson himself for this book (although he has interviewed him previously, Jackson now saves himself for his own books and book tours), he did dig deeply into Jackson’s mind and methods through conversations with ex-players, former teammates, and friends. So one can read Lord of the Rings with the confidence that the author got the facts right.

And yet … and yet. It is an intriguing question amongst biographers as to just how much should one actually like one’s subject. When Roger Lewis wrote The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, a pretty harrowing read, it is absolutely obvious that the more Lewis knew of his subject, the more he hated him. Lord of the Rings is rather the opposite.

The furthest Richmond goes in terms of raising an eyebrow of bemused objectivity at Jackson is when he alludes that perhaps Phil grew to like the money and posh clothes so much that there grew an essential disconnect with the man who entered the Lakota sweat lodge. It is suggested that one or the other had to be to some degree false, as how could the two possibly exist in balance within one mind? For all of his strong statements about the evils of fracking on the environment, the only time Jackson has ever overtly campaigned politically was when his former Knick teammate Bill Bradley made a brief, disastrous run for the presidency in 2000. It is even suggested that Phil Jackson may even be a closet Republican who happens to burn sage and meditate.

Where I take massive issue with Lord of the Rings is in its completely unprofessional dismissal of the other teams and coaches during Jackson’s tenure. To take one example, Richmond refers to the former coach of the Knicks and current TV analyst Jeff Van Gundy as Jeff Van Gumby. I mean, really now! Pat Riley, of the Lakers, Knicks, and Heat, is called ‘incurious’ and ‘unintellectual.’ Well sorry, but I have read Riley’s excellent autobiography The Winner Within, and while he may choose different examples than Jackson in coaching his championship teams, Riley’s knowledge of team psychology and motivation equals that of Phil Jackson.

The mean-spiritedness is even more nauseating when it is applied to excellent coaches who did not happen to have Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen, or Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant as 40% of their starting line-ups. Doc Rivers’ Boston Celtics defeated Jackson’s Lakers in the 2008 Finals. However, when that same, by now aged Celtics team met the Lakers again in 2010 and Jackson’s team won, Richmond states flatly that ‘Rivers had been out-coached.’ That 2010 series hinged on a fourth-quarter, game seven rally driven by Metta World Peace getting hot at the right time. Had it been Ray Allen for the Celtics rather than Peace, would Jackson have been out-coached? Sport results are often too fine for such a flat dictate as ‘X out-coached Y.’

So there is something of the pilot fish of Richmond to Jackson’s huge floating shark; or perhaps the better metaphor is drawn from the old Warner Brothers cartoons. Do you remember the ones where the little dog yips along next to the big bulldog? ‘What are we gonna do Spike? Are ya gonna smash him Spike? Huh Spike, huh?’ It’s like that. In trying to elevate Phil Jackson – whose record requires no help – Richmond diminishes the opposition. This loses sight of the paradox that diminishing the opponent diminishes the achievement.

Lord of the Rings is a good book, but less than it could have, should have been. Jackson’s teams are fascinating as is the man himself. A little restraint by the author would have made Phil Jackson:The Lord of the Rings a championship-level book. Still, it is an excellent read for fans of basketball and those curious about this driven, larger-than-life master coach.

Be seeing you.

Reviewed By:

Star Count 3.5/5
Format Hard
Page Count 352 pages
Publisher Blue Rider Press
Publish Date 2013-Dec-26
ISBN 9780399158704 Buy this Book
Issue February 2014
Category Biographies & Memoirs


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