Zen Master: Things to know about Bulls, Lakers icon Phil Jackson

Delfin Dioquino

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Zen Master: Things to know about Bulls, Lakers icon Phil Jackson
Phil Jackson is the winningest coach in NBA history and the only coach to capture 3 straight titles thrice

MANILA, Philippines – Phil Jackson will forever be remembered as a winner. 

Jackson won 11 titles in 20 seasons as a head coach in the NBA and guided some of the biggest stars in league history, among them Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Kobe Bryant, and Shaquille O’Neal.

Here are some things to know about the coaching icon: 

Championship collector

Everywhere Jackson went, success followed. 

As a player, he saw action in the NBA Finals thrice and won two titles with the New York Knicks, teaming up with legends Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere, Dick Barnett, Earl Monroe, and Jerry Lucas.

Following 12 seasons in the NBA as a player, Jackson shifted to coaching and went on to win another title as head coach for the Albany Patroons in the Continental Basketball Association in 1984. 

Jackson spent two seasons as assistant coach for the Chicago Bulls, and in 1989, replaced Doug Collins as head coach. 

With Jackson implementing the triangle offense innovated by his mentor and deputy Tex Winter, the Bulls transformed into one of the greatest teams in NBA history, winning 6 titles from 1991 to 1998. 

After his last season with the Bulls in 1998, Jackson went on to coach the Los Angeles Lakers, whom he helped win titles in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2009, and 2010.

In fact, Jackson is the winningest coach in NBA history with 11 championships – two more than Boston Celtics legend Red Auerbach – and the only coach to capture 3 straight crowns thrice. 

Jackson accumulated an impressive winning percentage of 70.4% in the regular season and 68.8% in the playoffs through 20 seasons as head coach. 

Coaching methods

As seen in Episode 4 of The Last Dance, Jackson infused Native American and Zen Buddhism philosophies into the Bulls’ culture. 

Meditation and mindfulness are also crucial parts of his coaching. 

“As much as we pump iron and we run to build our strength up, we need to build our mental strength up,” Jackson said in an interview with Oprah

“We need to build our mental strength so we can focus … so we can be in concert with one another in times of need.” 

Jackson said he attempted to get his players into tai chi and yoga but what his wards bought into was meditation. 

From the Bulls to the Lakers, the “Zen Master” was also known for lighting up an incense that contained sage, which his former players – among them O’Neal – suspected as cannabis. 

“I remember when we would lose a couple of games, he’d burn incense in our film room, burn the sage, and we were wondering if maybe he was burning something else,” former Bulls guard Steve Kerr told The Jump

An author on the side, Jackson was a voracious reader, and he tried to get his players into books.

Jackson revealed in a story for The Players’ Tribune he distributed books to Lakers players in the early 2000s and said he expected a report after finishing them. 

Influential mentor

Bryant, the late Lakers icon, said “everything changed” when Jackson began coaching him and the team. 

“Until that point, I really thought about the game from a tactical perspective: executing, fundamentals, training – the surface things,” Bryant told sportscaster Ahmad Rashad in an interview. 

“[When he came], I learned the spirituality of the game, the mindfulness that comes with the game, [how to] understand how to put yourself aside, how to try to quiet your ego and play effortless basketball.”

In his first season as head coach of the Lakers, Jackson guided Bryant, O’Neal, and their supporting cast to a championship, the first of 3 consecutive crowns. 

He left the Lakers in 2004 before returning in 2005, steering the team to 6 straight playoff appearances and another two titles before his departure in 2011. 

Jordan bared in The Last Dance he was not a fan of Jackson at first because he came in to “take the ball out of my hands” but went on to respect and become loyal to the 74-year-old tactician.

It is believed that Jackson being forced out of the Bulls by former general manager Jerry Krause following the 1997-1998 season played a major role in Jordan leaving the team and retiring from the NBA for the second time. 

“Phil Jackson, to me, is a professional Dean Smith,” Jordan said during his Hall of Fame speech, referring to his college coach at the University of North Carolina. 

“He challenged me mentally, not just physically. He understood the game along with Tex Winter. They taught me a lot about basketball.” – Rappler.com

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Delfin Dioquino

Delfin Dioquino dreamt of being a PBA player, but he did not have the skills to make it. So he pursued the next best thing to being an athlete – to write about them. He took up journalism at the University of Santo Tomas and joined Rappler as soon as he graduated in 2017.