Phil Jackson: 7 Steps to Knowing the Zen Master

The art of peaceful living isn't necessarily synonymous with NBA coaches—with the exception of Phil Jackson, of course. Here are seven factoids that may help you get to know the 'Zen Master' of hoops.
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Phil Jackson Photo

Do a Google search of former NBA coach Phil Jackson, and chances are you'll see something alarming when his associated images pop up: His face is serene. He's pleasantly smiling. He's even laughing! Perhaps the most dramatic photo you'll see is of him whistling with his pinkies... 

So where is the savage imagery you'd expect to see if you googled any other head honcho in the NBA? Well, everyone knows that Jackson, who's currently the president of the New York Knicks, is the ultimate 'Zen Master' of the NBA court. 

Rather than barking his head off or dancing around like an angry maniac in a spiffy suit, Jackson led group meditations and preached the concepts of compassion and selflessness to win an NBA-record 11 championships from the sidelines. Oh yeah, and he also happens to be engaged to Los Angeles Lakers president and former Playboy model Jeanie Buss, which we're sure caused him to namaste a few times over.

Phil Jackson Jeanie Buss Photo

The Handholding Bling Team: Jeanie Buss and Jackson watching a game at the Stapes Center in Los Angeles, 2013. (Photo: Noel Vasquez/Getty Images)

Jackson’s immense success has afforded him the opportunity to write multiple books about his experiences, and while many fans are familiar with his blue-collar playing career and love of Native American folklore, not all facets of his colorful life are part of public knowledge. Here are seven things you may not know about the guru of spiritual hoops:

Taking a Crack at the Bat

Jackson was once a promising baseball player. A whirling dervish of arms and legs on the pitcher’s mound, the 6’8” left-hander threw a one-hitter as a sophomore at the University of North Dakota. He even blasted a line-drive double off baseball Hall of Famer Satchel Paige in an exhibition game, although the legendary pitcher was at least 60 at the time. Jackson also began his coaching career in the sport, steering the Babe Ruth division of the North Dakota town of Williston to two state championships during his college years.

Snap, Oh Snap!

Jackson didn't just have an eye for the ball, he also proved to be handy with the camera, helping Madison Square Garden photographer George Kalinsky document the Knicks’ 1969-70 season. Their efforts resulted in the publication of Jackson’s first book, Take It All!, but the photo diary was missing one key picture: Before Willis Reed famously played Game 7 of the 1970 NBA finals with a torn thigh muscle, Jackson snapped a priceless shot of the Knicks captain being injected with a giant shot of Carbocaine. The photo was nixed by coach Red Holzman, who felt it would upstage the press photographers who sought to earn a living with their work.

What’s in a Name?

Young Phil Jackson Photo

'Bones' Jackson stopping by the Knicks office at Madison Square Garden during the college draft.  (Photo: Dan Farrell/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

Jackson is a man of many nicknames. As a 6’1”, 150-pound teenager, he was called “Bones” by his teammates at Williston High School. He then became “The Mop” in college for his habit of diving on the floor after the ball, and "Coat Hanger" and "Head and Shoulders" in the NBA due to his gangly build. Knicks broadcaster Marv Albert offered more respect by calling him “Action Jackson,” and the player was named "Swift Eagle" in a Lakota Indian ceremony in the early 1970s. Nowadays, in an appropriate tribute to the man who fused the seemingly incompatible elements of Buddhism and professional sports into a championship elixir, Jackson is most commonly known as “The Zen Master."

Origins of 'The Zen Master'

So how exactly did a jock wind up a devotee of Zen Buddhism, anyway? It started when Jackson was a college freshman and in the midst of a long car ride with his older brother Joe. Raised by Pentecostal ministers, Jackson was shaken when he encountered Darwinism and other theories that contradicted his upbringing, and Joe explained how he had grown to embrace the Eastern school of thought. Jackson later explored Zen in greater detail after reaching the NBA. Crediting Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind as his primary guide, he embarked on a lifelong journey with his new discipline by sitting with a group of Zen students in Montana during his summers.

Touch and Go on the Tube

Before becoming a full-time basketball coach, Jackson tried his hand as a broadcaster. He initially made guest TV appearances for Knicks games during his injury hiatus in 1969-70, and after finishing his playing career in 1980, he provided color commentary for Knicks radio broadcasts. The following year, he worked alongside Marv Albert's brother, Steve, as a color commentator for the New Jersey Nets and also called a few games for St. John's University. But despite his immense knowledge of the sport, Jackson never felt comfortable behind a microphone, and his growly voice wasn’t ideally suited for the job.

Raising the Bar

After earning his first basketball head-coaching job with the Albany Patroons of the Continental Basketball Association in 1983, Jackson led his team to the CBA championship the following year. He then sent team president Jim Coyne a letter requesting an annual raise from $25,000 to $30,000, as well as a $7 bump in his road per diem. “I will never put a team in monetary stress for a few more bucks,” he wrote, "but I do think you know I am worth that much." Coyne agreed to the salary raise but rejected the per diem request. Illustrating just how much the demand for his services has increased since then, Jackson signed a five-year, $60 million deal when he took over as Knicks president in March 2014.

LA Lakers Phil Jackson Photo

Jackson with his Zen-in-training warriors, the L.A. Lakers, during a session in Barcelona Spain, 2010. (Photo: LLUIS GENE/AFP/Getty Images)

Reading Rainbow

Jackson became known for distributing books to his players before the start of a long midseason road trip. So which popular titles made the cut? For Shaquille O’Neal, an unstoppable big man with outside interests in acting and rap, it was Herman Hesse’s spiritual-fulfillment tale of Siddhartha. Fellow Laker Kobe Bryant, meanwhile, received Chinese general Sun Tzu's The Art of War. However, not all of Jackson’s choices have been hailed as literary masterpieces. The coach forked over editions of his book Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior to several players, but perhaps his most unusual selection was his gift to forward Stacey King: a copy of Beavis & Butthead: This Book Sucks.