Article Thumbnail

Gregg Popovich Is the Real Zen Master of Basketball

The Spurs’ head coach has usurped Phil Jackson as the league’s reigning intellectual

If there were ever a sign that the America of my youth no longer exists, it’s that I remember a time when Phil Jackson was regarded as an unassailable genius — and not just within the realm of basketball.

Growing up in Chicago during the Jordan Bulls era, it was a given that Jackson was a coach of unparalleled talent and intellect, both as a Xs-and-Os wiz and as a leader of men. Only he, the vaguely mystical Phil Jackson, possessed the strategic and emotional intelligence to effectively manage two separate NBA dynasties, and to command the respect of superstar players Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, all of whom are among the greatest players and largest egos in NBA history.

But it’s now somewhat embarrassing to admit that I ever held Jackson in such high esteem. In just a few years, Jackson has tarnished his reputation as a beautiful basketball mind to the point that it’s impossible to consider him in those terms today. And his parallel reputation as the NBA’s most progressive social thinker has been summarily quashed by Gregg Popovich, the San Antonio Spurs coach who’s emerged over the past few years as a legitimate public intellectual (in addition to also being nearly as successful on the court).

Jackson’s aura of infallibility was partly due to his employing the Triangle offense, a scheme as esoteric as Jackson himself. Nevermind that the Triangle is actually the brainchild of Tex Winter, Jackson’s assistant coach with both the Bulls and Lakers, and that no one (Winter included) has ever been able to provide a succinct description of how in the hell it actually works, or what makes it such an effective means for scoring buckets and winning basketball games. What’s important is that the Triangle is complicated, and that alone gave Jackson gravitas.

The other, and arguably more important, part to Jackson’s stature was his perception as something of a basketball shaman. He was a practicing Buddhist who went by the nickname “The Zen Master.” He forced players to meditate and burned incense in the locker room before games. He was interested in Native American folklore and recited passages from The Jungle Book (the book) as a motivational tool: “For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf. And the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.” As the Bulls coach, he gave each player a personalized reading assignment, including Song of Solomon (for Michael Jordan), The Ways of White Folks (for Scottie Pippen), On the Road (Will Perdue) and Beavis & Butt-Head: This Book Sucks (Stacey King).

Many of these practices are catalogued in Jackson’s memoirs, Spiritual Hoops: Spiritual Lesson of a Hardwood Warrior and Eleven Rings, whose titles should tell you everything about the image the man has actively tried to cultivate.

For years, Jackson’s unconventional methods were heralded as superior — and it was hard to argue against the results. He won 11 NBA championships over his stints with the Bulls and Lakers, more than any coach in NBA history.

But as Pixar founder Ed Catmull is fond of saying, “Success hides problems.” And as the veneer of success has faded in recent years, Jackson has started to look more like an out-of-touch assclown than some mystical sage.

This June, the New York Knicks fired Jackson after serving only three years as team president. His tenure in the Knicks front office was abysmal (the team had a sub-.400 win percentage in each of his three seasons), and it was marked with controversy.

Jackson forced the team to use the Triangle and stubbornly refused to let them stop doing so, even when it became apparent that the Triangle was a poor fit for today’s game (which prioritizes spacing and outside shooting), and despite its being an especially poor fit for Kristaps Porzingis (the only bright spot on an otherwise embarrassing roster). Jackson responded to Porzingis’ inspired play by dragging him in the media and saying he’d like to trade the young Latvian phenom for reasons that remain unclear to anyone who’s seen Porzingis play.

No wonder Knicks fans met his firing with delight.

What happened to you, Phil?

You seemed so woke (for lack of a better term) back then — a pot-smoking product of 1960s counterculture who understood the league’s inherent racial issues and handled them deftly. Now you’re falling asleep in the middle of player evaluations and making quasi-racist comments about Lebron James and his “posse.” Also, you wasted the tail end of Melo’s prime, you incompetent, sadistic bastard. Not to mention, you hate (or at the very least misunderstand) the advanced statistics that have come to define sports, basketball included.

Then again, when I really think about it, Jackson never said anything particularly provocative and insightful about the inherent racial issues of the NBA — where all the players are black, and virtually all the owners and front-office personnel are white — or the larger social issues surrounding the sport and country. Granted, sports were fiercely apolitical back then (and by design), but Jackson’s spiritual guru shtick allowed us to presume he was a man with a progressive worldview. Yet he’s been conspicuously silent on such matters the past few years, even as other players and coaches have taken it upon themselves to speak, loudly, about them — Popovich maybe most of all.

Popovich went on one his signature tirades earlier this week, criticizing our country in no uncertain terms.

It wasn’t a blip, either. For the last year or so, Popovich has been regularly delivering diatribes to the media about the myriad problems facing oppressed communities in the U.S., and how they intersect.

He does so despite the serious ire he receives from Breitbart et al and the fact that he coaches in a large city in the middle of Texas, the reddest region of one of the reddest states. He also does so without a hint of cynical virtue-signaling.

All the while, Jackson says nothing. In this way, he’s become something like the Joel Osteen of sports — someone who allegedly stands for something but whose words are proven hollow by his actions (or lack thereof). It’s strange because Jackson would seemingly have nothing to lose by speaking out. He’s no longer employed by the Knicks, and the three cities where he’s worked (Chicago, Los Angeles and New York) couldn’t be more sympathetic to progressive thinking. In Chicago and L.A. in particular, the press and fans were more than complicit in spinning the narrative of the Brilliant Phil Jackson — a man whose intellect far transcended basketball. Come playoff time, the networks did the same thing — pumping up the Zen Master as a man who has no intellectual equal.

Except he now does: Popovich.

And this week, that has never been more clear.