Why Basketball Won’t Leave Phil Jackson Alone

Why BasketballHere is a brief excerpt from an article written by Sam Anderson for The New York Times in which he explains “why basketball won’t leave Phil Jackson alone” and why “everyone wants to know what he is doing.” To read the complete article, check out others, and obtain subscription information, please click here.

Photo Credit: Art Streiber for The New York Times

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The first time I met Jackson, at the end of April, rumor had it that he might become the coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers. (Cleveland hired Mike Brown instead.) When we met again, a week later, the rumor was that he was maybe going to be an executive for the Toronto Raptors. While that rumor was still circulating, a new rumor popped up that he had taken a job with the Detroit Pistons. (Later it emerged that he agreed only to help the team, whose owner is a friend, choose its next head coach.) Then a rumor broke that the Brooklyn Nets were after him as a possible coach and/or president and/or part-owner.

What I can confirm, because I saw it with my own eyes, is that on the afternoon of Friday, May 3, Phil Jackson went shopping for groceries.

I was there. I witnessed Jackson — 13-time N.B.A. champion, winningest coach in basketball history, mystical Zen spirit guide to Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal — pick out a crusty loaf of whole-wheat bread and drop it in his basket. I saw him look at bamboo cutting boards and elect not to buy one. I watched him grab half a dozen eggs, then a small carton of goat-milk yogurt. (Goat milk, he said, makes the best yogurt.) I heard him fantasize, openly, about roasting some of the root vegetables on display — parsnips, rutabagas, some perfectly globular purple beets — but then resist because he had a busy week ahead and would be eating most of his dinners out. He selected, judiciously, an artichoke. He scrutinized the kale but went instead with Swiss chard, which the next day would go into his morning smoothie along with carrot, apple, protein powder and coconut water — part of his ongoing project to lose weight, which he’s finding difficult given his age (67) and all of his injuries (knee, hip, back, Achilles’).

In front of the heirloom tomatoes, a child came over to ask Jackson for his autograph; he complied, although he had to lean down and ask a couple of times to make sure he got the child’s name right.

Jackson had invited me to meet him at the grocery store, Bristol Farms. It’s just down the road from his house, as well as from the Lakers’ practice facility, where Jackson worked for more than a decade in an atmosphere of continuous drama and only slightly less continuous success. The store was conspicuously upscale. Its produce section looked like a work of art: monochromatic blocks of apples and onions and carrots and beets that had all clearly been stacked by hand into perfect bands of color, like a big, organic, locally sourced Rothko painting. The artichokes were the size of softballs. In the meat case, the ground beef had been hand-sculptured to look like sea anemones.

Although Jackson has an assistant, he prefers to do his own shopping. He likes to cook: risotto, stir-fry, Mexican food. Sometimes he makes meals for other people — his fiancée, Jeanie Buss, in L.A.; his brother Joe in Montana — but often, because he spends so much time alone, he cooks just to feed himself. He is nearing 70, with a very large body: 6 feet 8 inches tall, shoulders so wide and boxy it looks as if they’re artificially padded (his teammates used to call him Coat Hanger) and arms so long that, famously, as a young man he could sit in the back seat of a car and open both front doors at the same time. These days he walks with a visible hitch, a result of more than 45 years of sustained physical punishment. During his playing days, Jackson’s spine was fused to fix a herniated disc. By the end of his coaching tenure, after hip replacement and knee replacement, he had to sit on the sideline in a special ergonomic chair. His most recent injury happened when, after a long day of travel, he tried to extract his giant legs from a tiny car and — just like that — damaged his Achilles’ tendon. He has to wear special socks now to keep the swelling down, and he works regularly with a trainer to keep his body functioning at least at a minimal level. His most recent victory, he says, is being able to get up off the ground. Over the winter, Jackson underwent eight weeks of radiation therapy — 41 treatments — to try to eliminate the last vestiges of prostate cancer. (In 2011, he put off the treatment to finish coaching; he now sees it as a blessing that the Lakers were eliminated from the playoffs early that season.) Jackson hasn’t been able to play basketball in nearly 15 years, and he misses it. Sometimes at night he has vivid dreams that he’s playing again.

As we walked through the produce section, Jackson popped a red grape in his mouth. A Joni Mitchell song was playing on the sound system. At the register, he chatted amiably with the cashier, then asked her to wait while he lumbered off to get a bottle of wine.

I offered to help him carry his bags — paper, not plastic — but he did it himself, herky-jerkying out to his S.U.V., loading his trunk, then cranking his body carefully into the driver’s seat. He’d been running errands all day — going to the chiropractor, picking up his weekly jugs of alkaline water — and later he was planning to go to a Rolling Stones concert.

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To read the complete article, please click here.

Sam Anderson is the Times magazine’s critic at large. He last wrote about the writer Anne Carson.

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