Friday, December 2, 2016

Book Review - MindGames (Phil Jackson's Long Strange Journey)

  I had Thanksgiving week off from work for the most part in that I worked from home a few hours each day and had the rest of the week for myself. I spent some time refining my basketball prediction program to account for some early season biases favoring teams with heavy home schedules. While I wasn’t pondering the imponderables of predicting basketball games I read MindGames, the 2001 biography of Phil Jackson by Roland Lazenby. The book brushes on Jackson’s youth as the athletic son of evangelical ministers, basketball career with the New York Knicks, coaching stints in the minor league CBA and as an assistant with the Bulls. The crux of the book is Jackson’s leading the Bulls to 6 championships in 8 seasons and how he manages and molds the diverse personalities on the team into those championship squads using philosophies he gleaned from his close proximity to Native American reservations in his youth and his experiences using psychedelic drugs in the 70’s.

  The mainstays of the 90’s Bulls were Michael Jordan (arguably the greatest player of all time) and superstar Scottie Pippen. They were the only players on all six championship teams. Jackson comes in for his share of the credit for guiding Jordan to trust his lesser talented teammates and installing a passing offense (the triple post or triangle offense) that gave defined roles and opportunities for the rest of the roster to contribute. Jordan and Pippen won three straight championships form 1991 to 1993 with the supporting cast of Horace Grant, Bill Cartwright, John Paxson, BJ Armstrong, etc... Then Jordan retired from basketball after his father was murdered and his personal gambling habits came under intense media scrutiny. After a failed attempt at becoming a baseball player, Jordan returned to basketball in 1995 but seemed old and slow in leading the Bulls to a second round playoff loss to the younger, athletic Orlando Magic of Penny Hardaway and Shaquille O’Neal.

  The playoff loss drove Jordan to get in the best shape of his life and rebuild his game to accommodate his aging body and in 1996 Jordan and Pippen led an entirely new supporting cast to the all-time best record of 72-10 (surpassed by the Warriors last season) and a championship (not matched by the Warriors last season) that was followed by two more. In the book, Jackson’s role is portrayed as a bridge between Jordan and his new cast of teammates (including Hall of Fame player/nut case Dennis Rodman) as well as trying to keep the front office led by Jerry Krause from dismantling the aging team with a cheaper group of players and coaches.

  The book ends up with the Bulls finally broken up and Jackson takes a year off before taking over as the coach of the supremely talented but perpetually under-achieving Shaquille O’Neal/Kobe Bryant Los Angeles Lakers team. Jackson wins the first of three more championships with the Lakers, providing a measure of validation that his methods are championship worthy even without Michael Jordan.

  This book does a great job of delving behind the scenes to show how Phil Jackson’s unique background and experiences formed his basketball philosophy. It is more than unabashed tribute to Jackson – there are plenty of examples of petty and self-serving actions. Whether discussing the good or bad there are plenty of quotes and explanations from Jackson for many of his unconventional actions from splicing scenes from movies into game film to picking out books for his players to read on road trips and even why he beats tom toms before home games. Throughout the book one has the sense that Jackson’s oddity’s are carefully measured to elicit responses from his teams and reduce the tedium of a six month season that is merely a prelude to yet another championship run.

  My only problem with the book is it needs an update to cover the 15 years since Jackson’s first Laker championship (there was an additional chapter added in the 2007 paperback reprint), where Jackson won 2 more Laker championships, left the team, started dating owner Jerry Buss’s daughter, came back to win 2 more championships, left the team again, and took over the basketball operations of the New York Knicks. The Knicks are in the third year of Jackson’s rebuilding project and the results are not encouraging. Jackson has drafted one all-star caliber player in Kristaps Porzingis but his first head coach (Derek Fisher) failed to make it through two full seasons. This year Jackson resorted to obtaining past but not present All-Stars Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah which shows me that Jackson has given up on building the team from within for now in favor of the quick fix. So far his team management skills have suffered in comparison with his 90’s coaching rival Pat Riley, who has built and rebuilt the Miami Heat into playoff teams three times since taking over the basketball operations in the mid 90’s.

  Phil Jackson was a great coach even if he has not proven to a great team builder with the Knicks. His detractors say he only won his record 11 championships because he had superstars like Jordan, Pippen, Bryant, and O’Neal on his team. I can’t think of very many coaches who have won championships without superstar talent but I was always struck how Jackson could get contributions from the lesser players on his teams and bring along young players and acclimate veterans from other teams into his system. There are lots of coaches that have great player and don’t win championships. Jackson has won championships and deserves the credit that brings.

  When I was looking at the Hall of Fame players Jackson coached I noticed that the Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf was inducted into the Hall this year, joining Jackson, Jordan, Pippen, and Dennis Rodman as the Hall of Famers from that Bulls run of 6 championships in 8 years. Left on the outside looking in was Jerry Krause the General Manager who was a finalist for the Hall but didn’t make the cut. The book protrays Krause as half buffoon and half as a gross overweight pig with food hanging on his face who habitually upsets the players by fouling the locker room bathroom just before game time. In every accounting of the Bulls championship run Krause gets some credit for hiring head coaches Doug Collins and Jackson. Jackson was brought in as an assistant after years of not being able to get an NBA job due to the self-inflicted damage to his reputation by his 1970’s autobiography ‘Maverick’ where he was very open about his recreational drug use. The digs on Krause center around the fact that Jordan was the one player he did not acquire and his boorish manner with the players and press. When Jordan retired from the Bulls, Krause drafted many future all-stars with his top of the lottery picks (Tyson Chandler, Elton Brand, Ron Artest) but was never able to even get to the playoffs and was let go after he gutted his roster to draft Eddie Curry and Chandler straight out of high school with the first two picks in the draft and failed to make the playoffs with his young inexperienced team. I don’t know if Krause is a deserving member of the basketball hall of fame but if the owner of the team that hired him was selected largely for the 6 championships that Krause oversaw as the general manager I’m not sure why he wouldn’t have been inducted at the same time.