On his first day as coach of the Los Angeles Lakers in 1999, Phil Jackson pulled Shaquille O’Neal aside and offered him a deal. Do it my way, Jackson said, and I guarantee that you’ll win the National Basketball Association’s Most Valuable Player award. If you don’t, enjoy free rein on the court.
O’Neal obliged. He was named MVP, garnering 120 of 121 first-place votes.
“Phil is a psychology expert,” said O’Neal, who won three titles alongside Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles. In all, the Jackson-led Lakers won five rings, giving the coach a record 11 championships following his six with the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls.
Jackson, a voracious reader and author of seven books who infuses his basketball teachings with philosophy and literature, returned to New York today. He was introduced as president of the Knicks, a franchise former NBA Commissioner David Stern once dubbed “not a model of intelligent management” in the wake of a sex harassment suit that cost Madison Square Garden (MSG) $11.6 million.
“Phil tries to expand his players’ horizons -- both on and off the court,” Stern said in an e-mail. “It is done at the team and league level, but when the coach does it, or when it is strongly supported by management, success will be achieved -- both on and off the court.”
Knicks owner James Dolan said he “willingly and gratefully” ceded control of the franchise to Jackson, 68, who has been known to give his players books, including his own, hoping they extract the applicable message.
He introduced O’Neal to Friedrich Nietzsche, a philosopher, poet and composer, hoping that the struggles the player faced wouldn’t change his fun-loving nature. He gave Bryant “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu to teach him that leaders cannot enjoy special treatment or amenity if they are to command the respect of the rank and file.
Jackson said last year that Knicks All-Star Carmelo Anthony, who can choose to become a free agent after the season, would benefit from reading his 1995 book “Sacred Hoops.” In it Jackson made the point that Jordan needed to foster a team-first atmosphere for those Bulls to succeed. Chicago, which won titles from 1991-93, won another three in a row beginning in 1996.
Anthony, citing time constraints, said he hasn’t read any of his new boss’s books, although he’s open to doing “whatever” it takes to win. “As long as it’s gonna put me in a position to win,” said Anthony, who is known as Melo.
O’Neal suggested Anthony find the time to digest whatever Jackson tells him to read.
“If Carmelo wants to win, he has to listen to guys with great knowledge,” O’Neal said in a telephone interview.
Jackson during his introductory press conference at Madison Square Garden said he has “no problems” saying Anthony is part of the team’s future.
Henry Bibby, Jackson’s former teammate on New York’s 1973 title team, the franchise’s most recent championship, said in a telephone interview he’d find it hard to fathom anyone in basketball who wouldn’t listen to Jackson. While the methods are unconventional, the results are proven.
“He’s figured out how to get it done with the Zen that he uses, the different motivational approaches,” said Bibby, now an assistant with the Detroit Pistons, whose owner, Platinum Equity LLC founder Tom Gores, last year hired Jackson as a consultant.
Jackson has always demonstrated an insatiable appetite for learning, former teammates said.
Hall of Famer and current MSG broadcaster Walt “Clyde” Frazier, a member of New York’s championship-winning teams in 1970 and 1973, said his former roommate loved to read. He also loved to meander and discover, which didn’t always mesh with Frazier’s penchant for 18 hours of sleep each day.
“Come on, Clyde -- He was always getting me out to go see things, to explore,” Frazier said in an interview. “He was always inquisitive.”
Jackson didn’t always want to be a basketball player or coach. He and his ex-wife saw sports as a vehicle to more important endeavors, which he wrote about in the 1975 book “Maverick: More Than a Game.”
“Maxine and I were basically interested in intellectual pursuits. We both felt that going back to school and doing graduate work was more important in the long run. Basketball was nothing more than a stepping stone and a temporary interlude until I became a psychologist,” Jackson wrote in the book, which was co-written by Charley Rosen, his former Continental Basketball Association assistant.
The NBA, Jackson wrote, was a test tube that would allow him to write a Masters’ dissertation on player personalities.
Rosen in a telephone interview said Jackson covets intelligence and curiosity. He wants it from players, co-workers and even bosses.
“It’s native to him, he always emphasizes his intelligence,” said Rosen, whose books include “Sammy Wong, All-American,” which was published this month. “He expanded and continues to expand his fields of interest. He’s a curious guy. He’s into a lot of different things. He’d like others to be that way.”
Even his fellow coaches.
Michael Goldberg, the executive director of the NBA Coaches’ Association, in a telephone interview said Jackson, a member of the organization’s rules committee, always went beyond X’s and O’s.
“It’s not so much the pursuit of a particular excellence that drives Phil, but the visions that are the dream of having a group work together toward a common end and receive satisfaction from that,” Goldberg said. “Phil talked from a philosophical standpoint about how to get players, coaches, general managers and ownership on the same page.”
That said, former Knicks coaches and executives haven’t always found it easy to mesh with Dolan, who has asserted his will throughout the company, even in team operations and player personnel matters.
Rosen was asked which book he would recommend Jackson give to Dolan at the outset of their working relationship. He laughed for a few seconds before answering.
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” he said.
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