Sports Nut

Zen and the Art of Winning NBA Championships

Who has the better life philosophy, Phil Jackson or Stan Van Gundy?

Stan Van Gundy. Click image to expand.
Stan Van Gundy

Why does Phil Jackson get to write all the books about the meaning of life? The coach and five-time authordubbed the “Zen master” for his koan-heavy musings and pedagogical methods—won three straight NBA titles from 1991 to 1993 with one of the greatest players of all time. * Then he won three more NBA titles in a row when that same player came back. You, there, in the motivational aisle of Borders, paging through The Last Season: A Team in Search of Its Soul —does this resemble a problem you have had in your own life: Do you often wonder how you would go about winning your third set of three consecutive NBA titles? And, after you accomplish that, do you then wonder what you might do for an encore?

Jackson advises you to cultivate stillness. “[W]hat you really need to do,” he writes in 1995’s Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior, “is become more acutely aware of what’s happening right now, this very moment.”

But for those of us who aren’t Phil Jackson, the moment is a stressful and upsetting place to dwell. If you think about your own moment enough, you might want to get up and start pacing. Wave your hands a little. Yell at somebody. Act like the Orlando Magic’s Stan Van Gundy.

If the Magic do, somehow, pull out a comeback victory against the Lakers, some ghostwriter will probably have to rework the Stan Van Gundy story into an inspirational fable. Good luck.

Maybe the tale begins with supercoach Pat Riley, contemplating a new season with a Miami Heat squad that had lost 57 games the year before, choosing to flee to the executive suite and dump the head-coaching duties on his faithful assistant.

“Though the eagle may soar and fly close to the heavens, its view of the earth is broad and unclouded,” Jackson writes. “In other words, you’ve got to work with what you’ve got.” Van Gundy’s team, with rookie Dwyane Wade, won 42 games that year and made the playoffs; the next season, after Riley traded for Shaquille O’Neal, the Heat won 59 games, swept the first two rounds of the playoffs, and lost the conference finals in 7 games.

Then, 21 games into the following season, Van Gundy—according to the official account—decided he wanted to spend more time with his family. Luckily, his boss, Pat Riley, chose that same moment to rediscover his own passion for working with players. Riley appointed himself coach again and led the Heat to a championship. Now, this is a situation that seems ripe for a self-help tome. What should you do when, after you do all the heavy lifting, the boss swoops in at the end to take all the credit? The lesson of the Stan Van Gundy story: You shut your mouth and move to Orlando.

Pat Riley was the one living in the moment then—once he’d noticed that the moment included Wade and Shaq. It’s in these moments of opportunism that the slick-haired Riley and the shaggy, sage-bundle-burning Jackson are revealed to be more alike than their personas suggest.

For Jackson, moment-seizing isn’t always about what’s happening in the here and now. The Lakers coach’s literary output is full of instances in which the master of the present turns a sharp eye to the horizon and beyond. In More Than a Game (2001), he says he chose to coach Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls instead of the New York Knicks because the Bulls’ long-term chances looked better. In The Last Season (2004), he tells of how he left the Lakers when his pair of superstars, O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, decided they couldn’t play together anymore. (Also, between Sacred Hoops and The Last Season, his domestic confidante changes from “my wife, June” to “Jeanie”—as in Jeanie Buss, the Lakers’ executive vice president and daughter of team owner Jerry Buss. Seize the moment. Work with what you’ve got.)

Jackson’s Zen is built on paradoxes. The anti-authoritarian guru is the one who demands that all his players submit and subsume themselves into his triangle system, till they are like a selfless band of Lakota warriors, who incidentally do what their chief wants done. To achieve true equality, the team is closed off to the outside, he explains in Sacred Hoops: “In order to build trust, the players need to know that they can be open and honest with each other, without seeing their words in the paper the next day.”

Fascinating words from someone who would go on to write another book blaming Kobe Bryant’s selfishness for breaking up the Lakers and complaining about Bryant’s taking a cell-phone call in the locker room before a playoff elimination game. Not that Kobe seems to hold a grudge about seeing the tribe’s private matters outlined by the chief. The Lakers missed the playoffs entirely while Jackson was away. Unity.

Meanwhile, Van Gundy—who got the Magic job only after the University of Florida’s Billy Donovan was hired and backed out—rarely appears to be in control. He engages in constant public debate with his own players, bargaining and bickering about game plans and personnel. This year, O’Neal derided Van Gundy as a “master of panic,” blaming his ex-coach for the Heat’s and the Magic’s previous playoff defeats. (Jackson, though he didn’t exactly stick up for his aging big man during the Kobe-Shaq feud, now gets nothing but love from the Big Quotable.)

After the Magic squandered a 14-point lead against Boston this year, to fall behind in the conference semifinals 3-2, star center Dwight Howard complained to the press that Van Gundy had gotten him only 10 shots. “The coaches have to recognize what’s working on the floor,” Howard said. Two games later, the Magic finished off the Celtics on the road in Game 7. Howard took nine shots. “We’ve been very, very good in difficult situations, which is really hard to understand with a coach who panics like I do,” Van Gundy said, between the sixth and seventh games of the Boston series.

In the finals, the public disagreements surrounded Van Gundy’s decision to reactivate Jameer Nelson. The All-Star point guard’s return from what had originally looked like a season-ending shoulder injury shortened the playing time for Nelson’s high-strung replacement, Rafer Alston, an ex-street-ball star who gets dejected when given anything less than free rein. “That’s unusual to start the game and then you don’t even touch the court in the second quarter,” he told reporters.

Van Gundy refused to blame himself for Alston’s performance but did confess to wearing Nelson down. “I may have overplayed him and he got tired,” the coach said. When Phil Jackson tries fearless self-criticism, he sounds like someone naming his weaknesses in a job interview. “My shortcomings are painfully obvious to me,” he explains in Sacred Hoops. “I have high expectations and don’t hand out praise easily.” How did he handle the Lakers wrong? From The Last Season: “Maybe I was incapable of communicating the selfless concepts required to produce success.”

The lesson of Stan Van Gundy’s playoff run is that the appearance of turmoil does not necessarily mean turmoil. When he talked to the press about his playing time, Rafer Alston was smiling. In the run-up to the Lakers series, Howard did a shrieking on-camera impression of his coach, pleading with assistant coach Patrick Ewing: “DWIIIGHT, can you get a rebound with two hands?! PAAAtrick! Talk to DWIIIght! He’s not making FREE throws!”

Who has the better life philosophy—the stern-faced icon trying to surpass Red Auerbach as the coach with the most total NBA championships or the frantic, disheveled guy trying to hold himself and his team together? “As the stillness becomes more stable, you tend to identify less with fleeting thoughts and feelings, such as fear, anger, or pain, and experience a state of inner harmony, regardless of changing circumstances,” Jackson wrote, 14 years ago. “You’ve got to be good in this business,” Van Gundy told the Washington Post this week, “but you’ve got to get a lot of breaks. If you don’t realize that, if you really think you’re sitting here because of your genius or anything, I don’t know, maybe your background is different, but I got my butt kicked a lot at every level, including this one.”

Correction, June 14, 2009: This article originally stated that Phil Jackson began his coaching career by winning three straight NBA titles. In fact, Jackson won his first championship in his second season. (Return to the corrected sentence.)