John Cage as a basketball coach – Phil Jackson’s artistry
[See also the “drawings” at the bottom of this additional piece by Sam Anderson: The Rembrandt of Basketball]
Jackson’s life is organized around stark polarities. On one hand, he preaches a Zen acceptance of reality as it is. On the other, he is a man with very strong ideas about the way things should be — or as his opponents have often put it, he can be a bit of a whiner. (Non-Lakers fans will detect a certain radioactive irony in Jackson’s frequent complaints about referees.) As a player, Jackson was an unglamorous nonstar, and the triangle is designed to help that kind of role player flourish. And yet he’s never won an N.B.A. championship without superstars. His two homes, Montana and L.A., are complete opposites: anti-ego Buddhist reclusion versus the fame-drenched ego-circus of what is arguably the most scrutinized franchise in sports. He likes to portray himself as an anti-establishment loner, and yet he’s become deeply entangled in the Lakers organization, in part because of his relationship with Jeanie Buss and in part because the team has not been able to establish an identity since Jackson left; it seems as if every plot twist in the franchise’s ongoing soap opera somehow involves him. In his books, Jackson’s declarations of egolessness sometimes emanate strong whiffs of ego: “In that split-second all the pieces came together,” he writes in “Sacred Hoops,” “and my role as leader was just as it should be: invisible.” If this is invisibility, it is a highly visible form of it. These paradoxes — Jackson’s apparent ability to sit, happily, at opposite poles at the same time — are what make him one of the most mesmerizing personalities in sports.
Of the many plays that Phil Jackson diagramed for me, the one I couldn’t stop thinking about was something called the Drake Shuffle. The scheme was invented in the 1950s by a coach in Oklahoma, to be used by teams that lack a dominant scoring threat — no Wilt Chamberlain or Shaquille O’Neal or Michael Jordan to dump the ball to and get out of the way. Jackson described it to me as a “continuous offensive system,” which means that — unlike many plays, which have a definite endpoint or morph into something else when they get too much pressure — the Drake Shuffle never stops. You could run it, theoretically, forever. All five players move in coordinated motion, taking turns with and without the ball, until they’ve exhausted an elaborate cycle of screens and cuts and passes — at which point the play doesn’t end but starts all over again, with each participant now playing a different role within the same cycle. Everyone on the floor keeps moving, probing, trading off.
The Drake Shuffle sits at the center of a particularly Jacksonian nexus of ideas. It’s a scale-model democracy, a metaphor for the life cycle, a parable of the Buddhist idea of rebirth, one of the Lakota Sioux’s sacred hoops. Jackson’s career itself, with its endings and renewals, its retirements and unretirements, seems like a kind of existential Drake Shuffle, played out over 45 years. He’s gone from player to coach to retiree to whatever it is he’s doing now: cooking, writing, gardening, hiding, self-promoting, advising weary pilgrims from his sacred mountaintop, tantalizing struggling teams, driving endless Internet rumors. He’s in, he’s out, he has the ball, he doesn’t have the ball, he’s moving, he’s moving, he’s moving.