Phil Jackson: The Lubricating Oil

Mike Nelson, AFP, Getty Images
Mike Nelson, AFP, Getty Images

Phil Jackson never saw a movie until his senior year in high school. TV? His family didn't own one. Dancing? Not allowed. For a while he thought he'd follow his parents, both Assemblies of God ministers in Montana, into soul saving.

But he ended up playing in the NBA, experimenting with LSD, living in Woodstock, coaching the world's most famous athlete, moving to Los Angeles and dating the boss' daughter -- The Man's daughter? Did I mention she's posed nude for Playboy?

OK, so I may have skipped over a few details.

ZEN SCHMEN

Somewhere in there, Jackson collected more titles than any other NBA coach all the while hearing snide comments from his peers. Arrogant. Egomaniac. Front runner.

An NBA coach read a column I wrote making the case for Jackson as Coach of the Year several seasons ago. He saw me coming toward him down a hallway the same day. His disdain was palpable. I had to be kidding, right? No, I said, I wasn't kidding. Well, then, I simply didn't know what coaching was all about.

Red Auerbach, the legendary Boston Celtics coach and architect, griped that Jackson "picked his spots" as an NBA coach. The shorthand: He had Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in Chicago, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles. Who couldn't win with that?

Auerbach's nine NBA titles -- eight of them consecutively -- was the standard until Jackson won his 10th two seasons ago when the Lakers dispatched Orlando in five games.

Jackson immediately donned a Roman numeral "X" hat. He said his kids gave it to him. Not the classiest move for sure to make it all about himself. Then again, it's not as if he lit a cigar on the bench.

The 11th title for Jackson came just a few weeks ago in a Game 7 squeaker over Red's old team, after which Jackson hopped in his car and drove to Montana to contemplate retirement.

Auerbach, who died in 2006, wasn't so insanely protective of his legacy that he didn't see the value of Jackson's approach. In fact, he allowed that Jackson was a "great coach." What a concession. You mean, Auerbach didn't have a locker room full of Hall of Famers in Boston? He won with inspiration and perspiration?

Old Red simply had more respect for coaches who took on the bigger challenge of molding mediocrity into excellence.

"He never tried building a team and teaching the fundamentals," Auerbach was quoted saying. "When he's gone in there, they've been ready-made for him. It's just a matter of putting his system in there. They don't worry about developing players if they're not good enough. They just go get someone else."

Well, now...Jackson dispelled that notion when he reclaimed a Lakers team that hit the skids in 2004-05 without Jackson and went 34-48. He rehabilitated a team that no longer had Shaquille O'Neal, mending a failed relationship with Kobe Bryant (Bryant called Jackson's triangle offense "boring"; Jackson wrote a book calling Bryant "uncoachable.")

The result? Five years later, the Lakers are back-to-back champs. If Jackson returns, he's in position for his fourth "threepeat."

READING LIST

Phil Jackson's attempts to get players to think beyond basketball has led to a tradition. Every year, he goes to the bookstore and buys each player a book to take on the first long trip of the season.

Here's what he handed out to his 2009-2010 Lakers in January:
Ron Artest: "Sacred Hoops" by Phil Jackson.
*
Luke Walton: "The Monkey Wrench Gang" by Edward Abbey.
*
Pau Gasol: "2666" by Roberto Bolano.
*
Sasha Vujacic: "Reservation Blues" by Sherman Alexie.
*
Andrew Bynum: "Six Easy Pieces" by Walter Mosley.
*
Shannon Brown: "Dreams from My Father" by Barack Obama.
*
Kobe Bryant: "Montana 1948" by Larry Watson.
*
Derek Fisher: "Soul on Ice" by Eldridge Cleaver.
*
Josh Powell: "The Souls of Black Folk" by W.E.B. Du Bois.
*
Jordan Farmar: "Makes Me Wanna Holler" by Nathan McCall.
*
DJ Mbenga: "Monster: The Autobiography of an LA Gang Member" by Sanyika Shakur.
*
Adam Morrison: "Che: A Graphic Biography" by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon.
*
Lamar Odom: "The Right Mistake" by Walter Mosley.

(Note: Kobe Bryant says he never reads Jackson's suggestions)

Auerbach's gripe and the grudging applause from other coaches is understandable on some fundamental level, I guess. A coach is as good as his talent. And Jackson always had more talent than most. He's also tweaked egos, challenged convention and won more mind games with players than he lost by a long shot.

Picking his spots? Most of the coaches who found fault with Jackson would've done the same given the opportunity.

Show me a race car driver who opts to prove his greatness by choosing the slow car in the field and I'll show you a guy choking on exhaust fumes as he gets lapped.

It's more accurate to say that the opportunities picked Jackson, rather than the other way around. Who couldn't win with Michael Jordan? Try Doug Collins. Who couldn't win with Shaq and Kobe? Ask Del Harris.

THE MAN IN THE PANAMA HAT

Teams weren't lining up to hire Jackson early in his career after he retired as a player (He won two titles with the Knicks as a gritty, long-armed defender who played hard and smart). The book he wrote in 1975 -- Maverick -- in which he revealed his experimentation with LSD, probably didn't help.

That counter-culture image followed Jackson to his first NBA interview. For the occasion, he wore a Panama hat with a macaw feather. Chicago was looking for an assistant to head coach Stan Albeck. He was, to put it mildly, a casual job seeker.

When Sports Illustrated NBA reporter Jack McCallum wrote about Jackson after the coach's first NBA title with the Bulls, he related how Jackson felt the need to tell Albeck about the legend and meaning of the feather in his hat.

"His eyes glazed over very early in the interview," Jackson told SI.

And, no, he didn't get a second interview.

When his detractors sniff that Jackson never paid his dues, it's a matter of definition. He coached in Puerto Rico during the summers. After his rejection in Chicago, he returned to Albany of the Continental Basketball Association where he won a title while trading in a short commute to live with his family in a holistic community near Woodstock.

It's not too difficult to get the reputation for being "different" in a clubhouse or locker room. If you can knock off a crossword puzzle or two, you're typecast as cerebral. If the puzzle is the New York Times and it's Saturday, you're viewed as a possible consultant for the next Shuttle launch.

(Former Cleveland Indians pitcher Charles Nagy once told me how he got chosen to be the team representative in the player's association. "I made the mistake of wearing glasses to the ball park one day," Nagy said. "They thought I looked smart." He was half kidding. I think.)

Jackson wasn't just a bookworm as a player and coach. He wasn't just curious. In the NBA mindset, his interest in Eastern philosophies pretty much made him a meditating lama compared to those around him. A coach who considers author Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance a spiritual manual is going to be met with a full eye roll if he tries to apply any of that to life in the NBA.

"LIKE LUBRICATING OIL"

When Jackson got a second call to interview in Chicago a few seasons after he failed to land the assistant job, GM Jerry Krause told him to lose the Panama hat. He fit the mold better. He got hired as Collins' assistant and took over when the Bulls felt a coaching change was necessary.

Collins believed Jackson campaigned for the job behind his back, even pretending to embrace Tex Winters' triple post "triangle" offense. Maybe he did. But it would've made no sense for Jackson to simply espouse the triangle to get the job. The greatest player in the world, Jordan, didn't especially care for it.

Through gaining trust in Jackson, Jordan came to trust the triangle. Jackson's offense was Winters' offense. His defense was assistant John Bach's defense. But the team? The team was always his in Chicago. It was no different in either of his tours of L.A. though Kobe Bryant put that to the test.

At the time of the Sports Illustrated profile of Jackson, the coach's wife, June, said, "Phil's like lubricating oil. He keeps everything moving."

Not the highest coaching praise perhaps but surely the most accurate.

LIVING IN THE MOMENT

It's well chronicled that Jackson won with Hall of Fame talent like Jordan, Pippen, Shaq and Kobe. (And an All-Star in Pau Gasol).

In winning 11 titles, Jackson massaged egos big and bigger. He reached the straightest of arrows and the oddballs alike (C'mon down, Ron Artest).

Jordan and Bryant, two of the strongest personalities in the game, came to embrace Jackson's ways. All that living in the moment stuff that so many of Jackson's peers thought was bunk? Jordan epitomized it, recognizing how his energy had to fit in the flow and not necessarily steer the action.

Bryant was slower to come around. He may not yet "get" Jackson the way Jordan did. There's no debate, though, that Bryant has become a walking advertisement for what Jackson has always considered his mission when it comes to dealing with players: "to strengthen the muscle of their mind."

Bryant is lobbying for Jackson to return. So is Lakers' guard Derek Fisher who recently told ESPN.com that he can't believe Lakers ownership is even floating the idea of a paycut for Jackson after consecutive titles.

"In terms of my feelings about him: He's remarkable," Fisher said. "It's sad to me when you think about what he's accomplished in his career, that he still always has to deal with these type of scenarios where there's a question of whether or not he's the best person for the job, or he's not really coaching because of the players that he's had.

"He's just a remarkable human being in terms of his approach to managing and coaching the team. I think not even just the Lakers, but the NBA as a whole, would lose a big part of what this game has been about the last 20 years if he's not back. If he's not back, it changes the whole landscape."

Jackson will turn 65 in September. He fought kidney stones and a bad hip last season. He walks like the Tin Man left to rust in a monsoon.

Eleven titles as a coach. Two as a player. How can that be an unlucky number when it's also been his yellowbrick road?

Take Advantage of Amazon's Early Black Friday Deals on Tech, Kitchen Appliances, and More

Amazon
Amazon

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Instant Pot/Amazon

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From Ear to Eternity: When Mike Tyson Bit Evander Holyfield

Evander Holyfield (L) and Mike Tyson (R) compete in their rematch in Las Vegas on June 28, 1997. The bout would make sports history.
Evander Holyfield (L) and Mike Tyson (R) compete in their rematch in Las Vegas on June 28, 1997. The bout would make sports history.
Focus On Sport/Getty Images

As the 16,000 spectators began filing out of the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, following a night of fights on June 28, 1997, MGM employee Mitch Libonati noticed something strange on the floor of the boxing ring. He later described it as being roughly the size of a fingernail, with the texture of a piece of hot dog or sausage.

It was no concession stand remnant. It was a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear.

Wrapping the morsel of flesh in a latex glove, Libonati hurried backstage, where Holyfield was conferring with officials and doctors after his opponent, Mike Tyson, had been disqualified for biting him on the left ear. In all the commotion, Libonati wasn't allowed inside the room. But Michael Grant, one of Holyfield’s training partners, accepted the ear fragment on Holyfield’s behalf.

Libonati’s discovery was the climax to one of boxing’s most controversial and bizarre evenings, one in which "Iron" Mike Tyson—the most famous fighter of his era—meted out a savage reprimand for what he perceived was dirty fighting on the part of Holyfield. The ear-biting far exceeded the brutal underpinnings of boxing and added to Tyson's reputation as a frenzied combatant both in and out of the ring.

 

Mike Tyson’s collision with Evander Holyfield had started when the two were just teenagers. On the amateur circuit, they had sparred together—not quite knowing the heights each would achieve, but understanding the other would be a formidable obstacle if they were to ever meet as professionals.

Evander Holyfield (L) had success against Mike Tyson (R) early on.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

Tyson was a prodigy, having won the heavyweight championship of the world in 1986 at the age of 19 and dominating the division up until an upset loss to James “Buster” Douglas in Tokyo, Japan, in 1990. Holyfield was the lighter fighter at cruiserweight (190 pounds), moving up to the heavyweight division in 1988 and gaining respect for his trilogy with Riddick Bowe.

Long before that fateful night in 1997, Tyson's personal life had started to overshadow his accomplishments inside the ring: An allegedly abusive marriage to actress Robin Givens darkened his image in the media and ended in a very public divorce after just one year. In 1992, a rape conviction sidelined the fighter for more than three years while he served out his prison sentence.

When Tyson returned to the ring, he rattled off a string of wins against fighters not quite at his level, including Peter McNeeley, Buster Mathis Jr., Frank Bruno, and Bruce Seldon. Holyfield had stepped away from competition in 1994, but as Tyson knocked off inferior opponents, talk of a bout with Holyfield intensified. Finally, the two met in Las Vegas on November 9, 1996, with Tyson a 17-1 favorite over the semi-retired Holyfield.

Holyfield would prove his doubters wrong. Through 11 rounds of action, he outmaneuvered and outclassed Tyson by negating his opponent's power with movement and volume. Holyfield also landed headbutts that were declared unintentional, but to Tyson seemed deliberate. Before the fight could see a 12th round, Holyfield knocked Tyson down and earned a technical knockout victory.

 

While it was an undoubtedly disappointing moment for Tyson, an upset in boxing virtually guarantees a lucrative rematch deal. Both men agreed to meet a second time, with Holyfield earning $35 million and Tyson getting $30 million. Tyson’s camp, however, insisted that the referee from the first bout, Mitch Halpern, not be booked for the second, because Tyson felt he failed to call the illegal headbutts. The Nevada State Athletic Commission didn’t want to be seen capitulating to Tyson’s demands, but Halpern stepped aside voluntarily. So referee Mills Lane took his place.

Evander Holyfield (L) and Mike Tyson (R) first met as amateurs.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

Before a huge crowd full of A-list celebrities like Sylvester Stallone and a then-record 1.99 million households that had purchased the event on pay-per-view, Tyson and Holyfield met for a second time at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on June 28, 1997. While Holyfield took the first round, Tyson appeared fit and adaptive, and came out blazing in round two. Then, just as Tyson had feared, Holyfield’s headbutt struck him again.

The clash of heads opened a cut over Tyson’s right eye, which threatened to obscure his vision as the fight went on. It also opened a reservoir of frustration in the fighter that would manifest in a spectacularly violent way.

Coming out for the third round, Tyson had forgotten his mouthpiece and had to go back and retrieve it—a foreshadowing of things to come. His aggression was working against Holyfield, but with 40 seconds left in the round, the two clinched up. Tyson moved his mouth so it was near Holyfield’s right ear. With his mouthpiece still in place, he clamped down on the ear, ripped the top off, and spat it along with his mouthguard onto the canvas.

Holyfield jumped up in the air in shock and pain. Referee Mills Lane was initially confused by what had happened until Holyfield’s trainers, Don Turner and Tommy Brooks, yelled out what Tyson had done. Lane called for a doctor then told Marc Ratner, the executive director of the athletic commission, that he was going to end the fight. Ratner asked if he was sure. Seeing Holyfield was bleeding from his ear but otherwise ready to fight, Lane waved the two men back into competition.

Incredibly, Tyson bit Holyfield a second time, this time on the left ear, before the round ended. This time, Lane was aware of what was happening and had seen enough. Before the start of the fourth round, he disqualified Tyson.

 

That was far from the end of it. Realizing he had lost the fight, Tyson grew incensed, shoving Holyfield from behind and pawing at the security guards who had stormed the ring in an attempt to restore order.

After the bout, Tyson didn’t appear to be overly contrite. He explained that he was frustrated at Holyfield headbutting him without being penalized, and said he had lost control.

An emotional Mike Tyson reacts to his disqualification loss to Evander Holyfield.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

“Listen,” Tyson said. “Holyfield is not the tough warrior everyone says he is. He got a nick on his ear and he quit.”

Tyson believed his retaliation was justified. “This is my career," he said. "I’ve got children to raise and this guy keeps butting me, trying to cut me and get me stopped on cuts. I’ve got to retaliate. What else could I do? He didn’t want to fight. I’m ready to fight right now. Regardless of what I did, he’s been butting me for two fights. I got one eye. He’s not impaired. He’s got ears. I’ve got to go home and my kids will be scared of me. Look at me, look at me, look at me!”

Two days later, Tyson issued a tempered apology in an effort to minimize the consequences, but it was too late. In addition to losing his boxing license in the state of Nevada, Tyson was fined 10 percent of his purse, or $3 million, which was thought to be the largest fine in sports at the time.

 

Tyson could never entirely shake the stigma of his actions. When a lucrative bout with Lennox Lewis was being planned in 2002, the fight ultimately ended up taking place in Memphis, Tennessee; Nevada refused to restore Tyson's license following a press conference brawl between the two men.

Tyson ultimately continued competing through 2005, when he lost his last bout to Kevin McBride. Holyfield retired in 2011. Earlier this year, the 54-year-old Tyson expressed a desire to return to the ring. The fighter once known as "The Baddest Man on the Planet" is scheduled to fight Roy Jones Jr. on November 28, 2020. Yet Holyfield, now 57 years old, remains a possible future opponent.

The two have occasionally interacted in public in interviews, with Tyson expressing remorse and Holyfield admitting he briefly thought about biting Tyson on his face right back. The pair even filmed a spot for Foot Locker in which Tyson “gave” Holyfield the missing piece of his ear.

In reality, Holyfield never did get his ear back. After Mitch Libonati handed it over to Michael Grant, the piece somehow fell out of the latex glove while being transported to the hospital.

Many fighters talk about leaving a little piece of themselves in the ring. It’s usually metaphorical. For Evander Holyfield, it was simply the truth.