At the towering height of 2.03 meters (roughly 6 feet 7 inches), it’s no surprise Phil Jackson’s life has revolved around the game of basketball. At high school he played basketball, football, and baseball, and was recruited to the University of North Dakota to play basketball. After years of playing Jackson decided to coach, and after his big break in 1987, went on to become one of America’s and the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) greatest basketball coaches. What sets this coach apart? His not-so-secret addition of mindfulness and Zen practice to his training sessions.
Born in Montana on 17 September 1945 to Charles and Elisabeth Jackson, Philip Douglas Jackson played for the New York Knicks from 1967–78 and for the New Jersey Nets from 1978–80. Retiring as a player in 1980, Jackson took up coaching and began in the lower-level leagues. In 1987, he was taken on as assistant coach for the Chicago Bulls, becoming head coach in 1989. In the years he was their coach, they won the NBA championship six times. Then, in 1999, he joined the Los Angeles Lakers, leading them to three NBA titles. During his career, he has worked with such star players as Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman, and Shaquille O’Neal.
Jackson’s unique use of Eastern philosophy in his coaching would become his trademark style. Reverend Noriaki Ito, head of Higashi Honganji Buddhist temple in Little Tokyo, LA, and a basketball fan, said in an interview in the Los Angeles Times that he saw a Buddhist influence on the Lakers’ game with Jackson as coach. “I liken Phil Jackson to a true martial arts master who realizes that the spiritual, mental and physical have to be integrated into one,” said Ito in 2000. Articulating why Jackson’s blend of Buddhism and basketball went so well, he said, “I notice more of a focus on denying individual egos for the benefit of the team. In Buddhism, suppressing the ego is central to any kind of awakening.”
Indeed, “Zen Master” has been one of Phil Jackson’s various nicknames. According to his biography, Jackson was influenced by his older brother Joe in his leaning towards Eastern philosophy. Raised by parents who were Pentecostal ministers, at first Jackson found the ideas daunting. He was curious about his brother's affinity for the East, however, and began to explore Zen after he entered the NBA. Jackson refers to Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind as his initial guide, and practiced with a group of Zen students during summers in Montana.