I recently had the chance to catch up with him and chat about Phil Jackson and the craft of writing a biography.
Dig in to this holiday Banter treat. Then go pick up the book.
It’s a good one.
AB: This is your sixth book and second biography—the first was on Peggy Lee. What was it like writing another biography?
PR: It was terrific because the first one taught me that to be a biographer, you’ve got to be a very different kind of writer.
AB: Different from being a newspaper or magazine writer?
PR: To write a biography, you have to become something of a different animal. You have to become a PhD in your subject. When Peggy Lee died, and I was asked to write her bio, I said to the editor “Thank you, it’s flattering but maybe you should get someone who knows the music of the ‘30’s, ‘40’s, and ‘50’s.” But he said, “No, we want you to come in from the outside. We think you’re a good enough writer to come in and surround the subject.” And that’s the only good book I’d ever written. When I was approached to write a Phil Jackson biography, and figured I wasn’t going to get him to cooperate — he was writing his own book — it freed me to surround his life objectively.
AB: He’s got a library of books he’s written himself.
PR: If you go into Barnes and Nobles to the sports section there’s seven categories – baseball, football, basketball, hockey, golf, boxing and Phil Jackson. Maverick and Sacred Hoops are worth reading. Mine might be, too.
AB: Don’t be so modest. It is. What have you learned as a writer since the Peggy Lee book that allowed you to do the Phil Jackson story in a way you might not have previously?
PR: That you should never judge anyone, or their actions, or their legacy, before doing everything you can to try and see the events of their life through their own eyes, from their own perspective–but then use that perspective as only one of your lenses. Phil had left behind his books, and gave his approval for friends to talk to me. I’d interviewed him several times in the past and we were cool. I had every lens available to see the guy’s life objectively and thoroughly.
AB: What was the difference between writing a bio of a dead singer, whose career arc had already ended, and someone who’s still got a few chapters left to go in his career?
PR: Peggy’s role in history had been predetermined. She was the only white top 5 jazz singer of all time. With Phil, everybody had ideas about him, but nobody had out them all together for an objective portrait. Some think he’s overrated because he coached Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaq and Kobe. Then there are those who say, “No, the man is a genius.” Nobody had ever gone in and found the middle ground, the third space. The truth is never black or white. And freed of his subjective perspective, I was able to enter this gray Twilight Zone where I could assemble the pieces that led to assembling the puzzle of the most successful coach in the history of sports — if you go by numbers, anyway, which I do. As Earl Monroe says in the book “Sports is a strange animal, in that you can make all the money in the world, but if you haven’t won the championship, you don’t have the same respect.”
AB: At the same time, Jackson briefly played with a guy named Neal Walk who was comfortable with himself even if he didn’t win. If he lost, he was like, “Oh I’m the first place loser.” Wouldn’t you believe that Neal Walk was a guy who was happy even though he didn’t get a ring?
PR: Oh, God yes, absolutely. Neal Walk and Eddie Mast were his blood brothers on the Knicks, and neither put all their stakes into winning. Those were the people who were saying to “Phil, dude, cool out, it doesn’t matter if you win or lose the game. You’re a Buddhist. It’s the journey not the destination.” Phil seems to be possessed by an almost surreal degree of competition. He needed Walk and Mast as early role models to temper that mania.
AB: But he was able to combine the two.
PR: You got it. He managed to incorporate and meld all of those ingredients. Here’s the bottom line: He never stopped questioning what’s real and what counts in this very short lifetime. Native American Indian culture, Buddhism, Christianity, mysticism — he kept exploring and he kept questioning.
AB: And that’s authentic right? That’s not an act.
PR: Completely authentic. None of his former players that I spoke with said it was for show. Burning sage in the locker room, giving his players books. Every one of them was affected. Whether it was 10% or 90% they were affected.
AB: I thought it was interesting that for some of them, the gesture was enough, it didn’t even matter if the book spoke to them or not. It was the act of him being thoughtful in that way that did have a certain meaning for them.
PR: Exactly. For a few it was both of those things. I’m thinking Craig Hodges, the three-point shooter who was showed up at the White House after the Bulls’ second championship and chastised George Bush and was blackballed from the game — until Phil Jackson brought him back to be the shooting coach of the Lakers. Hodges told me that the book Phil gave him—The Passive Warrior—changed his life. So yes, it was all authentic — and that’s why I actually wrote the book. I would never have written this book if I thought that Jackson was inauthentic in any way shape or form.
AB: You write about Jackson as a teacher, a searcher, and a survivor. How much of that resonates with you at this stage in your life?
PR: It felt as if it were time for me to write a biography of a guy who, in a weird sort of way, was paralleling my own life, at least in terms of trying to never lose curiosity about everything when you reach Act III of your life. In a way, as I wrote, I sort of thought that not talking to him almost didn’t matter, because the more I read his books and interviews over the last 40 years, and the more people I talked to, the more I recognized this innate need for searching, the more I seemed to understand him. Obviously, I’m not comparing myself to him in terms of career success, but I came to quickly sense that we shared a few psychological things in common, both on the ultra-competitive side and the intellectual-searching side. Which gave me the confidence to write the book authentically and truthfully.
AB: Would you have had to force this book had you written it 15 years ago?
PR: Absolutely. It would have been forced even five years ago, truth be told. But now, somehow, researching his life not only vibed with some of the exact questions I was asking myself, but I was finally mature enough to accept the validity, the intent, of some of his teachings and searchings and questions. That’s not to say I lost objectivity; just that, in a way I was finally receptive enough to learn from his philosophies — which only enhanced the book.
AB: Speaking of teaching, one of Jackson’s most important teachers was his coach with the Knicks, Red Holzman.
PR: Absolutely. Red taught Phil just about everything he ever learned about coaching, on the court and off. Phil couldn’t be on that first championship team because he had had back surgery that season, so he was Red’s defacto assistant coach—back then you couldn’t have an assistant coach. Red knew Phil had something going on, intellectually. In the locker room after games, after Red had given his post-game talk, he’d turn to Phil and say, “Did I do alright tonight?” Red knew.
AB: Now, you first covered Jackson when he was coaching Albany in the CBA.
PR: And before that, when I was a weed-smoking teenager and lover of sports, a rebel without a cause, fan of the Knicks, I just loved Phil Jackson. I loved the way he looked, I loved the way he tried so hard, I loved that he was clumsy, I loved that he was different. I’d read those same New York Post columns that I quote in the book. Everyone was so attracted to this guy who clearly didn’t fit the paradox. Fast forward to 1986 when he was coaching the Albany Patroons and I was working for the New York bureau of the Miami Herald. So we met for a column, and I could immediately sense that he was just a normal guy. Unlike any pro coach I’d ever covered. He was so normal, I became normal — not a writer, just a guy I was talking with. I wasn’t there as the sports writer trying to get something and he wasn’t there as the coach trying to give the right answers. It was like a couple of hours “Let’s talk about stuff.” I thought, “Wow, that’s really cool. I hope it works for him.”
AB: Was it that he was necessarily charming?
PR: Oh no, he wasn’t charming–I mean unless we’re all charming, unless you and I are being charming. He was being human and social and friendly.
AB: Did you ask him how come the Knicks hadn’t called on him after he’d won a CBA championship?
PR: Yes. He said, “I don’t know. I’m not political enough, I guess. I don’t say the right stuff, But hey, do you want a chocolate chip cookie?” He was getting ready to leave the CBA, and had no idea what he’d do next, which happened to be opening a health club in Montana. He was thinking of the law, or the ministry. Then, a few months later, the Bulls called. A few years after that he was the head coach. So I profiled him again, for the National Sports Daily, during his first season, and hung around Chicago for a couple of days, and wrote a piece whose gist was basically, “How bizarre! An actual person is a really good NBA coach. A real person you could have a conversation with about philosophy or the triangle or Bill Bradley or Wounded Knee was actually a good coach.” You could tell, just from the way Jordan and Pippen were listening to him.
AB: One of the things that’s interesting to me, you alluded to it already, here’s this guy, he’s a seeker. He’s a curious guy and he’s interested in all these different kinds spiritual pursuits. But the other part of him enjoys throwing quips and keeping people — essentially the press–off balance, as if even that were a competition.
PR: I came to understand him as a man trying to reconcile those two pulls, the pull of the peaceful “mindfulness” and the pull of the competitor. I think he was smart enough to see that when he was questioning all of reality — spiritually, intellectually, philosophically — he also had to succeed in a corporate world, and the fact that he was able to reconcile the two to the degree that he could is what really intrigued me. I think he knows that there’s a third space where it can all work out. Ultimately, the he was able to incorporate that corporate trope, that philosophical trope, that spiritual trope, and communicate it all to his players. He coached hundreds and hundreds of players for many years and every one of them, with a few exceptions, would say “Phil looked at me as if I was an individual” — and that, for me, is the road map for success in life. My guess is that Phil would say he’s a teacher. Not a coach but a teacher.
AB: You didn’t talk to some of the superstar guys, though. Before we get to that, I want to know why you didn’t speak to Jackson’s children or the women in his life.
PR: I didn’t want to.
AB: Why is that?
PR: Because I’m not a writer first, I’m a human being first and I just don’t want to go places where I’m not invited. I wrote a book about Phil Jackson because it seemed like the right book to write and I got offered money for it. But I have rules. I don’t compromise humanity. There’s something in me that just doesn’t allow me to step from person into journalist. I just can’t do it. I’ve been told that it has hurt my career. Somebody once told me, “Oh man, you’re such a soft core journalist, can’t you be a hardcore journalist?” And I said, “No I can’t because I’m a person, period.” If I can make money writing books about Phil Jackson and the other people I’ve written books about, that’s really cool, but don’t ever ask me to stop being who I am. Phil Jackson doesn’t want me to find his first wife. I could have tracked her down but I wasn’t going to find her because whatever happened with Phil and his first wife is between them. Am I a biographer of Phil Jackson? Yup. Am I a biographer of Phil Jackson on my own rules? Yup. Does that mean my books aren’t going sell as many? Yup. Do I care? No.
AB: As a reader, do you like reading those biographies that are lured in that kind of person detail?
AB: So this is about knowing who you are as a writer?
PR: How old are you?
PR: Alright. I’m 60, so when you get to 60 you’ll realize what I mean. There comes a point later in life where you realize that exploiting somebody else’s life for your own advancement is not only stupid, it’s destructive. I have my agenda, the reader has their agenda, but in between, there is a space where you can tell the truth and when you do that, people are going to buy your books, people are going to give you advances to write your books, and you don’t have to break news or have sensational stuff. There’s a point where if you’re just telling somebody’s truth or maybe your own, it works. I really feel as if I surrounded Phil Jackson. I really feel as if I understood him and could show the readers why Phil Jackson could be both a Buddhist, spiritualist, off-the-wall guy and the most competitive insane asshole ever and therefore won 11 rings–the combined total Vince Lombard and Pat Riley. I feel as if I am the first guy to tell it right but I don’t think I compromised any of my inner ethical rules writing the book.
AB: How much of an obstacle was it that you didn’t talk to Jordan, Pippen, Shaq or Kobe?
PR: The two best stories I ever wrote for GQ were about Ray Carruth, who took out a hit on his pregnant girlfriend, the number one pick of the Carolina Panthers, and Jason Williams, the former Net who shotgunned his driver to death. Neither of them talked to me. What I was able to do was approach their stories without them and that’s the best way to approach any subject. To answer your question, at the top, I had an editor who didn’t care that Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippin wouldn’t talk to me. “This is your book,” he said. “I don’t care about what Scottie Pippin thought about him or John Paxton or Kobe, just tell me what the hell is going in Phil’s brain.”
AB: Stars don’t generally give the most insightful interviews, either.
PR: You’re exactly right. In this case, none of the superstars would have told me anything about Phil that they hadn’t already told a hundred other writers. The last guys on the bench are often more valuable for a writer. They’re all looking at their coach to see what they could learn from the guy — about the game, about what it is to be successful. They take notes in their head. I could go on and list the number of people who have been his 11th and 12th player who have gone on to tremendous success as athletes, as athletic directors, as high school coaches, as really enlightened individuals. Unlike Michael Jordan, who is clearly the unhappiness man on Earth. Do you think we’ll ever be able to talk about how happy Kobe Bryant is? I don’t think so. But talking to those who had seen him through a truly authentic lens—and that includes Diane Mast and his old friend Charley Rosen—I think I was able to get to why he was the most successful coach ever. Anybody who is truly a success is a guy who inspires people to follow him and I think every guy Phil ever coached was willing to follow him. They wanted to follow him out of the foxhole because he treated them as equals.
AB: There’s a great story you tell about Jud Buechler. Jackson asked him how his wife was doing and Buechler was blown away because no coach had ever asked him anything personal about himself. It seems like such a common gesture. It made me think how impersonal and screwed up the world of professional sports is.
PR: If you get a new job at Wall Street at Morgan Stanley, does somebody sit you down and ask you if your wife is happy that she’s moved from Indiana to Manhattan and Westchester, and how’s the school district? Phil did, and he didn’t do it because that’s what you’re supposed to do — because clearly that’s not what you’re supposed to do. He did it because clearly that’s who he was. That’s the point of the book. Phil was a guy who was guided by what you and I are guided by, which is that we’re all part of the same social fabric. If Jud Buechler becomes the 12th man on a team that includes Scottie and Michael , Phil wanted him to know not only that it’s important that he knows his role on the team, but to know that I consider him an equal as a person. That’s a gift, a gift that most people in charge of corporate entities never consider bringing into the equation. I’m not sure that’s why he won 11 rings, but I can’t think it wasn’t part of it.
AB: How did Jackson grow in his second go around with the Lakers?
PR: I’d like to think the time off made him examine how he fucked it up the first time around. He had great players and everything fell apart. He understood when he came back that teaching is a two-way street, and I think Kobe was finally willing to listen to someone who could teach him. He’d grown up, too.
AB: And Shaq was gone.
PR: I don’t think its coincidental that once you lose Shaq, you’ve got to completely reconstruct the entire paradigm. The second generation of Lakers he took over wasn’t as stable as his first go-round but he had Kobe. He needed Kobe to be the guy to hold the shit together. Phil went back in after writing a book that ripped Kobe as uncoachable. But when the two of them came back together, and then produced more championships, that was an example of both of them learning and both of them growing up. The two of them had an understanding and got to a place and that to me is what is great about Phil Jackson. He’s still willing to learn.
AB: I love the thing from the Lakota Indians, where one of the guys said, “Phil saw that for us, spirituality is everything in life — that spirituality is everyday life.” That sort of spoke to me about what Jackson seems to be about.
PR: The difference between Vince Lombardi and Phil Jackson is that Lombardi would wake up every morning thinking, “How do I game plan to win next week?” Jackson wakes up and asks, “How can I understand why I’m here?” Weirdly enough, the guy who asks “Why am I here?” every day winds up statistically a greater winner than Lombardi, Joe McCarthy, Red Auerbach or any of them.
AB: That’s funny.
PR: This guy whose entire life who has been built around non numbers, about how you cannot quantify success, happiness, whatever, ends up statistically winning more championships than anyone in professional sports history in the United States of America. At that point you say to yourself, “Why is it that a guy who can’t even show up on the radar of all the barometers and quantifiers of coaching success in American sports, how is it that a coach who doesn’t need any of those things turned out to beat everyone at the one statistic we worship? Is it a coincidence that Phil’s thinking outside of the box and treating his players as people as opposed to product resulted in him winning the marathon? Is that coincidence? That’s why I wrote the book. The guy never stops thinking. He simply doesn’t close his mind to anything.
Go here to order Phil Jackson: Lord of the Rings.
[Photo Credit: N.Y. Times, Albany Times Union, L.A. Times, SI, ESPN. Drawing by Michael Pitts]