Basketball: Spiritual leader of the Bulls

Ian Whittell in Chicago meets the basketball coach with the magic touch
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The Independent Online
The circus that passes for the Chicago Bulls rolled into the conservative locale of Salt Lake City last week, closing in on their fifth NBA Championship in the last seven years.

Part rock band, part freak show, its starring cast is headed by the exquisitely gifted Michael Jordan, and features the talented Scottie Pippen and calculatingly eccentric Dennis Rodman. But perhaps its most intriguing member was a 50-something standing imperiously on the sidelines orchestrating events.

Grey-bearded, hair immaculately groomed, Phil Jackson, a self-confessed 1960s Vietnam war peacenik from rural North Dakota, is the most successful head coach in modern basketball.

By the time his contract with the Bulls expires at the end of the season, Jackson will be a free agent. The Bulls' two-year domination has left the information-rabid American media devoid of much subject matter. The destination of Jackson, Jordan and Rodman, whose contracts all expire this month, is of primary concern.

"This is the team I want to stay with," said Jackson, 51, last week. "Michael wants to come back, Scottie wants to come back and I want to come back and coach them."

Nevertheless, at least five NBA teams have officially or otherwise courted Jackson and the Orlando Magic were reportedly prepared to more than double the $2.75m (pounds 1.7m) he earned from the Bulls this season.

There is even the possibility that Jackson may take the year's sabbatical he requires for a hip replacement. The world's greatest player has been far more revealing about his plans, Jordan stating bluntly that Jackson's departure will result in him retiring. It is that intriguing relationship between coach and star player that lies at the heart of the Bulls phenomenon and the coach's man-management genius.

When Jackson took over the team in 1989, he inherited a talented squad eclipsed by Jordan's blinding genius and demanding persona, a situation summed up by the great man frequently referring to team- mates as "my supporting cast".

"I had to convince Michael that the route to greatness was in making others better and winning championships," said Jackson. It was an approach which may sound glaringly obvious, facile almost, in hindsight, but it is more the manner that Jackson has achieved his - and Jordan's - goal that makes him one of modern sport's truly inspirational leaders.

To understand the coach, one first has to understand the man. Brought up in a Christian household, Jackson eventually embraced a baffling pot pourri of religions and philosophies which he has applied to the very corporeal world of professional sport.

The "team room", a private area annexed to the Bulls' dressing room, illustrates, for example, the deep impression that the teachings of the Lakota Sioux have had on his psyche. Its walls feature a wooden arrow with a tobacco pouch, a symbol of prayer, a bear claw necklace, which conveys power and wisdom, the middle feather of an owl to represent harmony, plus photographs of Crazy Horse and a white buffalo, an Indian symbol of prosperity.

"This is our holy sanctuary," he explained. "The place where the players and the coaches come together and prepare our hearts and minds for battle, hidden from the probing eyes of the media and the harsh realities of the outside world."

Jackson even has a Native American name, "Swift Eagle", bestowed upon him by the grandson of the legendary Sioux warrior Red Cloud when he conducted a basketball camp on a reservation in the 1970s.

Bulls players have also been initiated into the techniques of meditation, yoga and visualisation by their leader. In an American sporting arena which expects its inspiration to come from fire and brimstone oratory, Jackson is more likely to quote Kipling, Whitman, Einstein, Zen philosophy or ancient Chinese fables.

"A journey of 1,000 miles starts with one breath," is one such Chinese proverb which Jackson has adopted and which now symbolically marks the start of every Chicago season.

But it is in the area of man management that Jackson excels. To enhance their minds, players are regularly given books to read - titles ranging from Zen Mind, Beginners' Mind through On The Road to Beavis and Butt- Head: This Book Sucks.

He has taken teams on pre-match tours of the US Senate and on the Staten Island Ferry. When Pippen's father died during a vital play-off series, he had his team encircle him and say the Lord's Prayer. An emotional Pippen responded with a brilliant match-winning performance. He has even managed to largely contain and earn the respect of the unpredictable Rodman.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that his outspoken approach has not always sat well with the Bulls' multi-millionaire owner, Jerry Reinsdorf. This can best be explained in their very differing philosophies. In one of their first conversations, Reinsdorf told his coach that people are motivated by one of two forces, fear or greed.

"That may be true," replied Jackson. "But I also think people are motivated by love."