Master of Zen and the art of coaching

Rupert Cornwell says teamwork is everything to new man's role model
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Study Phil Jackson's leisure interests - his fascination with Zen mysticism, and his devotion to the Grateful Dead and the New York Times crossword puzzle - and you'd put him down as a flake. Consider his professional record and you cannot but conclude he is one of the greatest basketball coaches in history. Put the two together (as you must, for the two aspects of his life are inseparable) and you end up with one of the most intriguing figures on the sporting stage anywhere.

Study Phil Jackson's leisure interests - his fascination with Zen mysticism, and his devotion to the Grateful Dead and the New York Times crossword puzzle - and you'd put him down as a flake. Consider his professional record and you cannot but conclude he is one of the greatest basketball coaches in history. Put the two together (as you must, for the two aspects of his life are inseparable) and you end up with one of the most intriguing figures on the sporting stage anywhere.

It is hardly surprising that, as Steve McClaren admits, the Jackson way is becoming an inspiration to managers and coaches in continents, and disciplines, far from his own. When you lead two different teams, in the most competitive and finely balanced of leagues, to seven world championships in 10 years, the "how" becomes even more fascinating than the "what".

The "what" consists of two NBA hat-tricks with the Chicago Bulls, 1991-1993 and 1996-1998, moulding some of the most talented yet difficult players into a single, all-conquering unit, followed by another NBA title this year with the Los Angeles Lakers.

The trick he has pulled off is the most basic, yet the most elusive, in coaching: how to ensure a team is equal to, and if possible more than, the sum of the parts. The first at least sounds simplicity itself - until you think how many illustrious sports teams have underachieved, how many great players have failed to translate individual brilliance into team success.

That was the case of Chicago in 1989, when Jackson succeeded Doug Collins as head coach. In Michael Jordan the Bulls might have possessed the greatest basketball player of all time, but until Jackson arrived, Jordan hadn't won a single NBA championship. In eight seasons from 1991, including one lost to a quixotic venture into baseball, he won six.

And so to the "how". The day he took over the Bulls, Jackson wrote in his 1995 memoir, Sacred Hoops: "I vowed to create an environment based on the principles of selflessness and compassion I'd learnt as a Christian in my parents' home, sitting on a cushion practising Zen, and studying the teachings of the Lakota Sioux."

The specific on-court technique he devised was the "offensive triangle", using Jordan as part of a unit that, in keeping with the tenets of Zen, focuses on attacking an opponent at his weakest point. First however, and here lies his peculiar genius, you must convince someone like Jordan to merge his own individual genius with the requirements of the team. Not that Jordan was a selfish player - rather that his team-mates tended to play exclusively to him. By the same token, though, if opponents could nullify Jordan, they would nullify the Bulls.

The key, Jackson realised, was "making players connect with something larger than themselves". The model can be traced to the Native Americans of the Northern Plains, whom Jackson knew from his childhood, when his father was a Methodist minister. Jackson, a close colleague once said, believed the Bulls were "a tribe on a sacred journey, whose destination was the NBA championship".

A master psychologist, he imparted this belief not just to Jordan, but to stars as temperamental as Dennis Rodman. The team was what mattered; only within the framework of the team could their talents fully blossom.

The result was a bench completely integrated into the Bulls system, allowing Jackson to conduct the bold substitutions and play re-organisations that became his trademark. "The reason we won three straight [titles] between 1991 and 1993 was that we plugged into the power of one-ness instead of the power of one man," Jackson wrote in Sacred Hoops.

Or as long-time player Bill Cartwright put it: "Most teams have guys who want to win, but aren't willing to do what it takes. What it takes is to give yourself over to the team and do your part. That may not always make you happy, but you've to do it. Because when you do, you win." That is the Phil Jackson way. Simple to describe but so hard to achieve.

If McClaren can turn the Zen master's words into deeds, his temporary role may quickly become permanent.

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