Ever calm on the sidelines, at the eye of the Los Angeles Lakers maelstrom, the embodiment of Zen detachment: For me, it's all about Phil Jackson.
It's counter-intuitive, almost maddening how in the most spectacularly chippy moments, he won't call a time-out, as if his vantage point affords him a deeper insight than the rest of us. If we could somehow see the game through his eyes, it would appear to us as a series of energetic patterns, formidable vectors, ellipses of light that reveal The Truth. We'd react differently then. Maybe we'd win.
When the opposing team finds its rhythm and makes a run against The Lakers, Phil remains dispassionate. Where most coaches would freak out, stop the play, attempt to berate, inspire or beg his guys to get back into the game, Phil's minimalist approach allows his players space to fail, to make adjustments, to learn, to improve. Watching Phil let the game breathe reminds me of War Games, at the end when the dumb computer hasn't caught up with its own end-game scenario. Matthew Broderick watches in desperation, pleading with the behemoth to "Learn! Learn!" Watching the Lakers, I'm Matthew Broderick.
Phil doesn't yell, though. He just trusts. And, amazingly, his team does learn—not only individually but collectively, and sometimes in blinding flashes of brilliance. Consider Game 5 against the Denver Nuggets: It had been a brutal battle, with the teams dominating in waves of force, two warring mobs moving back and forth, up and down. Then comes the fourth quarter. Something changes. Suddenly, the Lakers have found a way to guard the Nuggets. They've evolved in real time, right before our eyes. The group mind has evaluated the other team's vulnerabilities, subtle weaknesses to be parlayed into turnovers, steals and fouls. An ever-expanding database became powerful Laker defense. It was truly astonishing, as if they'd phase-shifted into a parallel universe where an alternate Lakers team exploded onto the court with an almost manic energy, leaving the Nuggets to scramble helplessly.
Then comes Game 6. The Lakers want to close it out and avoid a return trip Denver's high altitude, near-delirious home court. Here's what gets me: The Lakers come out in the first quarter with the same energy and skill they'd reached in that last quarter of Game 5. They sustain that momentum, winning the series, getting to the Finals, winning Game 1 by 25 points, eventually taking another title in five games.
As LeBron James now knows, even the most extreme talents cannot dominate individually. That's why I love Phil: He's won 10 championships (more than any other NBA coach) and only one NBA Coach of the Year honor. He doesn't let the quest for solo virtuosity ensnare his team. He perceives individual talent as a structural component of the game, the win and, eventually, yet another championship.