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Somehow, a book on strategy by Michael Jordan's basketball coach just seems ridiculous on its face.  I mean, c'mon.  One of the best parts of living in Chicago was the opportunity to watch Jordan play on a regular basis.  No one can actually watch an entire NBA regular season game, but I quickly learned you didn't have to.  Basically, every Bulls game was a five point game, either way, until midway through the third quarter, at which point Michael would bear down, score fifteen to twenty points by himself and open the lead to double digits by halfway into the fourth and then they'd coast home.  So I'll give Phil Jackson some credit for installing a system that kept games close until Jordan time, but it seems likely that any of a number of competent coaches could have done the same.  To his credit, Jackson mostly recognizes this and is extremely gracious towards Michael.

Unfortunately, he is a little too gracious towards guys like Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen.  I don't necessarily buy the NBA line that its players are the best athletes in the world, but I will acknowledge that many of them are gifted and almost all are in peak physical shape.  In fact, pretty much every NBA team has two guys who could have replaced Horace and Scottie with similar results.  Michael simply consumed so much of opposing team's attention and defensive energies that these fairly ordinary players were made to look like superstars.

The thing that could have set them apart and raised them to the level of genuine greats would have been if they were willing to step up in the clutch and attempt, not necessarily make, mind you, just attempt, some big shots; this they both steadfastly refused to do and Jackson makes some effort to cover for them here.  Particularly egregious is his discussion of John Paxson's game winning shot against Phoenix.  Paxson was in many ways the most important player of Jordan's first threepeat team.  He was the one other guy who wanted to shoot late in games.  In the Suns game, Jackson characterizes the final play as Grant unselfishly kicking the ball out to an open teammate.  Anyone who remembers the game will recall that Grant passed up a little turn around jumper in favor of a long range shot by Paxson.  Jackson covers for several similar incidents involving Pippen, including the spontaneous migraine, but finally when he gets to the Knick playoff game where Pippen refused to take the floor for the final shot, even the kindly coach has to acknowledge that it was a disgraceful moment.

In general, it is interesting to get Jackson's observations on the changes in the NBA.  He has seen it all-- from playing on the Knick championship teams to coaching in the CBA to the high-tech, glitz and glitter of the Bulls run.  He talks about a year when the Knicks had three guys, including himself, injured, so they only dressed nine for games.  He had Georgetown's problem child Michael Graham in the CBA.  And, of course, he had Jordan, who was truly bigger than the game and elevated the League to extraordinary heights.

Less interesting are his dissertations on a variety of religious and philosophical practices, mostly Far Eastern and Native American, and his attempts to incorporate them into his coaching techniques.  They tend to be either totally laughable or totally empty, but are always dressed up to seem profound.  It sounds like Jackson had a pretty harsh and restrictive religious upbringing; hard to blame him for rebelling.  But all of that "be in the moment" jazz just seems like pure shtick.  If it works to give him an aura of mystery with his players and makes them just marginally more willing to listen to him, then by definition it's working.  But the mere thought of Shaquile O'Neal standing at the foul line trying to figure out what is the sound of one hand clapping is just too funny.

Particularly in light of how well he has the Lakers playing this year, Jackson deserves ample credit for the ability to get really good NBA teams to win big.  Of course, the fact that he now has Shaq and that he didn't win it all when Michael sat out for a couple of years should temper enthusiasm for his genius.  Buddhist jive aside, three main lessons emerge from the book: first, recognize both the potential and the limitations of your player--push them to reach the former, don't expect them to overcome the latter; second, you are better off having inferior player who can function well in a set system, than better players who are unreliable; third, if you want to win, it helps to have the best player in the NBA on your team, be he Michael or Shaquile.


Grade: (C+)


See also:

Sports (General)
Book-related and General Links:
    -INTERVIEW: Zen and the Art of Teamwork   (Lieber, Ron; Rao, Rajiv M.  Fortune)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Head coach of the Chicago Bulls, PHIL JACKSON (Fresh Air)
    -PROFILE : Brilliant Careers: Phil Jackson The Zen-iest coach in basketball has a cruel streak. He's weird and it works (José Klein, Salon)
    -ESSAY: Love and b-ball, according to Phil (Dave Kindred, The Sporting News)
    -ESSAY: Fare the well, Phil Jackson  (Kelly Dwyer, On Hoops)
    -ESSAY: Jordan carried burdened Bulls to six titles  in the '90s (Mark Alesia, SportsLine Senior Writer)
    -ESSAY: buddha chic: Tibetan Buddhism is hot in Hollywood, boffo in advertising, the cause of choice in rock 'n' roll (STEPHEN PROTHERO, Salon)
    -ARTICLE: Buddhist Practices Make Inroads in the US (Daniel B. Wood, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor)
    -ARTICLE: Jordan's comeback is still being celebrated (USA Today)
    -REVIEW: Phil is for real (Roland Lazenby, NANDO Sports Server NBA correspondent)
    -REVIEW: Manly advice books these days come in varying testosterone levels. Dwight Garner straps on his reading jock and checks them out. (DWIGHT GARNER, Salon)
    -REVIEW: Know one thing, there is no Bull to Jackson (TERRY PLUTO, Beacon Journal)
    -REVIEW: Zenmaster Phil Sacred Hoops by Phil Jackson and Hugh Delehanty (Chris Amos,  Book Reviews by 7th Grader)
    -REVIEW: (Christine Carr, Conscious Choice)
    -REVIEWS: (Epinions)
    -OBIT: Red Holzman dead at 78  (November 14, 1998, Kelly Dwyer, On Hoops)
    -BOOK LIST: Hardwood Hardbacks (Alex Sachare,
    -REVIEW: of PLAYING FOR KEEPS Michael Jordan and the World He Made By David Halberstam (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)


the book is just great. this review only shows how much its writer needs to learn about life, and basketball of course.

- mccarthy

- May-21-2005, 10:49