Phil Jackson and the Essence of Basketball

Yesterday, Howard Beck published a fine profile of New York Knicks President Phil Jackson. Jackson, a former player (on the championship teams of the Knicks in 1970 and 1973) and coach (of 11 championship teams in Chicago and Los Angeles), is at least as well known for the string of popular books popular books blending autobiography, basketball strategy and tactics, and a mix of fundamentalist Christianity, Lakota Sioux religion, and Zen Buddhism; nuggets of wisdom from which he occasionally releases in interviews with the media.  All this makes Jackson an extremely interesting figure to me combining as he does, in his approach to the game, a love of basketball, an interest in the nuts and bolts of the game, and an awareness of wider social, philosophical and psychological issues shaping and shaped by basketball.

These days, Beck and others are especially interested in the decisions Jackson plans to make to improve the Knicks during this NBA off season and in the principles guiding those decisions. I’m not so interested in what he will do with the Knicks, but Beck’s profile from yesterday offered a nicely distilled version of the philosophy Jackson has always espoused and that I am very much interested in.  Given the misunderstandings that some of my recent writing has engendered, I want to say up front that I’m not taking issue with Jackson’s abilities as a coach.  But I am interested in the limitations and implications of some of the underpinnings of his views of the game and the world. So let me start with what Jackson said and then try to explain my reservations. In his interview, Jackson offered both a critique of today’s game and a few basic principles he’d like to see the NBA, and his Knicks in particular, get back to.  So what has Jackson seen that bothers him?

When I watch some of these playoff games, and I look at what’s being run out there, as what people call an offense, it’s really quite remarkable to see how far our game has fallen from a team game. Four guys stand around watching one guy dribble a basketball.

He seems to  be thinking especially of how the Cavaliers responded to injuries to key players by emphasizing an isolation-style offense in which LeBron James dominated the ball, ran down the shot clock and then looked either to score, get to the free throw line, or, if he was double-teamed, find an open teammate.  Of course, LeBron himself, well-known for his unselfishness and efficiency as a player, was not happy with the tactic.  But, as many observers noted, with a severely depleted roster, Cleveland really didn’t have too many options. Yet Jackson had criticism for James:

I watch LeBron James, for example, He might [travel] every other time he catches the basketball if he’s off the ball. He catches the ball, moves both his feet. You see it happen all the time.

Jackson is not alone in this criticism of James, though the criticism might be leveled with equal validity at many other NBA players.  For Jackson, though, this particular problem bespeaks a larger malaise:

There’s no structure, there’s no discipline, there’s no ‘How do we play this game’ type of attitude. And it goes all the way through the game. To the point where now guys don’t screen—they push guys off with their hands.

And here already is where Jackson starts to become interesting to me, when he invokes values such as “structure” and “discipline” from outside of basketball to explain why he has a problem with the game as he sees it today.  He goes on:

The game actually has some beauty to it, and we’ve kind of taken some of that out of it to make it individualized. It’s a lot of who we are as a country, individualized stuff.

It seems to me as though Jackson means to connect the “structure” and “discipline” he sees as missing in the game (as exemplified by LeBron’s play in the finals) to other values “beauty” and (implicitly) “cooperation”.  Indeed, Jackson says as much—while adding one more, very important, time-honored value—in elaborating upon what was missing with a musical analogy:

It struck me: How can we get so far away from the real truth of what we’re trying to do? And if you give people structure, just like a jazz musician—he’s gotta learn melody, and he’s gotta learn the basic parts of music—and then he can learn how to improvise. And that’s basically what team play is all about.

“Structure,” “discipline,” “beauty,” “cooperation,” “truth.”  I have no quarrel that these are part of basketball.  On the contrary, part of what draws me to Phil Jackson is that in steadfastly invoking such values over the course of his career he implicitly and sometimes explicitly affirms the connections between basketball and things that are not basketball and thereby the importance of basketball as a cultural form to be taken seriously.  In this particular case, these terms connect the sport to art (“beauty” and “structure”), to morality (“structure,” “discipline,” and “cooperation”) and to politics (“cooperation” invoked, by contrast, to how we do things in American society).  

“Truth” seems, as it often does in culture, to serve as a kind of overarching trump value, governing and tying together all the rest.  “Truth” here seems to mean  “how things should be” according to some fixed essential identity to basketball that involves prominently exhibiting the other values he invokes.  So that Jackson seems to be saying that it’s not basketball, in his view, if it doesn’t revolve around “structure,” “discipline,” “beauty,” and “cooperation.”

I think things—LeBron’s performance, the state of today’s NBA, and basketball in general—are more complex than what Jackson allows.  It’s hard, for example, for me to see James’ performance in the final as lacking in structure or discipline given that James systematically and with almost relentless consistency employed an offensive tactic that ran counter to his own sense of how basketball should be played and, indeed, counter to his team played for most of the season.

As for the NBA more generally, I’m not sure why Jackson doesn’t find in the Warriors (or the Spurs last season—okay he did praise them). But why not the Heat in the two seasons previous to that, or the Mavericks in 2011—all NBA champions) exactly the “structure,” “discipline,” “beauty” and “cooperation” he claims are missing in the sport today.  Plenty of people have written about this over the past few years and, moreover, reported on how various less successful teams seek to model themselves after these winning teams. It’s odd to me that someone as experienced with and involved in pro basketball should make the general claims about the sport today that Jackson makes.

But what about the sport itself? Is there a “true” way to play basketball? Some approach that best exhibits a core essence to the sport, without which what is going on is basketball in name only?  Here’s where it gets tricky. On the one hand, the answer must obviously be “yes” because otherwise how would we know that what we are watching or playing or talking about is basketball and not, say, football or chess or cooking.  For many, that might settle it.  But it gets more complicated if we take a second to ask what is that thing that makes it basketball and not any of those other things.  A ball? A hoop? Players? Those all seem like minimum requirements.

But Jackson is adding in other requirements.  Leaving aside that there is probably reasonable disagreement, in and out of basketball, on just what “beauty” or “structure” or “discipline” or “cooperation” mean, do we really want to say that it’s not “true” basketball or that we’ve strayed from the “truth” of basketball if those things aren’t present? All of this might seem like the kind of esoteric overthinking that people who do my job are often accused of.  After all, there is vast unspoken consensus on what basketball is, Phil doesn’t really mean that what LeBron is doing isn’t actually basketball but something else, and, perhaps most importantly, there seems to be nothing at stake: nothing anybody cares about and deserves gets taken away from them because of the way in which we define basketball.  Except that, historically, this is exactly what has happened in basketball.

Historians of the sport know that almost since the time of its invention, controversies and debates have played out over what is and isn’t basketball.  Is it basketball if you dribble the ball? What if you play physically? Is it basketball if you shoot it off the backboard or play in (or not in) a cage? Is it basketball without a center jump after each made basket? How about the dunk? Is that basketball? In my research, I’ve discovered that over the years self-appointed custodians of basketball have argued, like Jackson, for the exclusion, of certain elements of the game on the basis of a sometimes implicit sometimes explicit claim about what the essence of the game might be.

I fear that at this point, in the wake of my posts last week on Lebron and coaching, on Steph Curry, on coaching and on racism, that I may lose some readers.  But be that as it may, it is a demonstrable fact that over the course of the history of the sport, some of those claims and the resulting exclusions have been made if not with the intention of then certainly with the effect of excluding certain kinds of plays or styles of play and the players most commonly associated with it.  It’s a sad, but unavoidable and—given the history of the United States over the same time period—unsurprising fact that the players most often excluded or, if included, derided and criticized in the name of some supposed essence of basketball have been African-American.

Phil Jackson on the NBA’s new dress code (2005)

It would be absurd to argue that with these comments Phil Jackson was expressing a desire to exclude black players from basketball. And if we all agree that he’s not, why then bother with all of what many reading this might consider to be irrelevant, because ancient, history?

My answer is it doesn’t, unless you believe that language and culture matters because it carries forward our assumptions, attitudes and habits of thought. And, more specifically, that the language and culture of the past, if we use it in ignorance of its past uses, shapes our present, making certain kinds of change possible and other kinds of change impossible. It would be nice, maybe, if we could each of get to start all over again every time we used language. Speak and write with a blank slate and so feel somehow sure that we were conveying only our intended meanings and nothing more. But that is not how language works and so I believe that it be hooves us to be attentive of the social history of the language we use and inventive in coming with ways of talking about the things we care about that minimize the danger of inadvertently repeating harmful ideas and patterns of thought from the past. phil-jackson-joins-knicks

So what about the essence of basketball? My own view is that it’s best to keep our list of essential requirements minimal and responsive to changes in the game initiated by those intimately involved in play, above all: the players.  This allows a variety of styles of play to flourish and provides the requisite diversity for the game to thrive and for new forms, styles, tactics, maneuvers. It’s best too, in this regard, to beware of an understandable tendency to cling too tightly to forms of the past, especially those with which we identify with particular successes or with a particularly enjoyable basketball moment. It’s this last that I suspect Phil Jackson might be having a problem with, but perhaps not.

I think that, guided by these ideas, Phil Jackson might have said something like this: “I think it’s too bad, and I suspect LeBron also feels this way, that the imperative of competition and the constraints of the roster, required he and his teammates to play a style of ball that focused so heavily on his actions and left his teammates uninvolved or passive so much of the time, for the simple reason that basketball is a game of numbers and of using movement of ball and bodies and the space of the floor to create advantages in numbers. I recognize that most of the successful teams throughout history have done this, right up to the present day.  And I’m heartened to see that among today’s players there are so many who can dribble, pass and shoot and make plays for others, becoming functionally interchangeable while retaining their distinctive individual abilities. This balance of distinctive individuality expressed in harmony with that of others gives us a kind of liberty, a license, one that it would be good to see more of in our society.”  That’s a commentary, candid but informed by a critical sense of history and a nuanced appreciation of the present and free of any appeal to some fixed essence of the sport, that I could get behind.

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