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Sunday, December 17, 2006

You Better Have Some Zen

The epiphanies are special for Tex Winter. And that’s not just because he’ll be 85 in February.
He’s always looked harder at the game, always pushed himself to see more. Anyone who’s ever spent any time at a basketball game knows what a challenge that is.
It’s a four-act opera played at hyperspeed.
Yet Winter tries to take it all in, filling his notebooks with the 50-caliber observations that challenge convention, challenge his associates, challenge everything about the game.
The epiphany came somewhere during the Lakers’ recent double-overtime win over Houston, at the crest of a maddening week.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in all my life,” Winter said. “It’s got me wondering about the game of basketball. What’s happening to it?”
The Lakers have a 27 point lead in the fourth quarter in Houston, then watch the Rockets furiously whittle it down to 2 and still the Lakers wind up winning on a series of missed Rockets free throws and a no-call (yes, Winter said it looked to him like Kwame Brown goal-tended on that late shot attempt).
Then, the Lakes are down by 21 in a rematch with the Rockets at home in Staples Center and somehow end up winning in double-overtime.
“Unbelievable,” Winter said.
So is the epiphany.
Which came at the tail end of all the fury.
That’s when Winter saw the truth that had been sitting under his own nose for years now.
“In this coaching business, you have to be a Zen master,” he realized.
It’s not that Winter, who was hired years ago in Chicago to be the “coach’s coach,” didn’t believe in Phil Jackson and his quirky ways.
In fact, when Jackson moved the Bulls into heavy meditation sessions during his Chicago days, Winter was right there with them, sitting cross-legged on the floor
“Oh, yeah, with the Bulls we ALL did a lot of meditating. I liked it. It helped me deal with things that were going on in my life,” Winter said. “We don’t do that as much as we used to.”
That’s partly because psychologist/meditation guide George Mumford hasn’t been used regularly by the team since 2002, the last year the Lakers won a championship. That’s apparently because management/ownership did not want to bring Mumford back.
The Lakers still meditate occasionally, and Kwame Brown recently told a reporter he thought it was helping him.
The epiphany to Winter, however, regarded coaching. He suddenly realized that Jackson’s Zen approach to the game has almost become essential for coaching success.
The game has become that crazy.
And Jackson’s Zen is that strong.
Don’t be surprised if the revised edition of Winter’s classic book, The Triple Post Offense, (http://www.amazon.com/Triple-Post-Offense-Book-Winter/) doesn’t soon include a new chapter, Zen And The Art Of Team Maintenance.
“It’s gotten to the point in this coaching business, things are so crazy, that you have to be a Zen master,” Winter said.
The coach’s coach suggested that Jackson has done things well for years, yet he’s moved it to a new level and gotten substantially better as a coach later in his career.
“The way he handles a team is really something,” Winter explained. “He can sit there in the midst of chaos, see things happening and then calmly do something to change the course of events.
“He really is a Zen master with these players. You’ve got to be a great psychologist, you’ve got to be that because of the game’s speed and complexity and the pressure on the players.”
That became apparent during the double-overtime with Houston.
“We were really out of the ball game,” Winter said. “A lot of teams would have folded their tent.”
Houston center Yao Ming was killing the Lakers inside with eight blocked shots. And when Ming rested veteran backup Dikembe Mutombo blocked another three and punctuated each with the trademark wag of his finger. Unable to attack the basket effectively, the Lakers were dying.
Then Jackson started running screen and rolls with whomever Ming was guarding. Ming was forced to step out and defend, which moved him away from the basket.
The Houston center was reluctant to do that, which produced some open looks and helped convince him to step out more.
“We had to get him out from under that basket. He was destroying us,” Winter said.
Yet this is not the story of a simple in-game adjustment.
It’s about Jackson’s entire approach, which has been developing for years.
“He pulls some strange things out of the hat,” Winter admitted.
Jackson’s approach, however, resonates with the one public that really matters — his players. “It’s just his mannerisms, his conduct, the way he handles the team. Over the years, his teams have just responded to him more and more,” Winter said.
Long known for eschewing timeouts, Jackson has still somehow managed to become the master of managing them, making the most of a 20 or a full. “He stays calm, but he’s very firm and hard with his players. He gets in their faces at times,” Winter explained.
This face work is always done for effect and seldom is it the result of unrestrained anger or frustration.
Part of that comes from the way Jackson spends most of the timeout conferring with his assistants, then steps back with the team and delivers strong, clear messages for everyone.
“They seem to accept everything he says,” Winter added.
Even, as in the turbulence of the recent week, when Jackson offered particularly pointed remarks and criticism.
Jackson delivers his message without demeaning his players, Winter said. “The important thing is that he doesn’t destroy their confidence. So many coaches do that. It’s his demeanor, the way he handles people, the way he communicates what he wants done. He does this in a very positive manner, even in very stressful situations. Like I say, you have to be a Zen master in today’s game.”

GONNA NEED IT
Whatever Jackson’s special sauce, he’s going to have to spread it thickly over the coming weeks with Lamar Odom out with a strained knee.
“It’s gonna be tough without Odom,” Winter offered. “We’re not the same ball club without Lamar.”
Specifically, the Lakers will miss Odom’s rebounding the defensive board and powering out to start the fast break. That means less running and more use of the half-court offense.
Slowing down is going to put more pressure on the team to execute, more pressure on Kobe Bryant to produce.
“We’re still looking for early offensive opportunity,” Winter said. “If we don’t get good shots on the break, then we’ve gotta rely on our sets.”
That could be problematic, he said, because “our execution has not been good on our sets. Too many turnovers.”
Luke Walton’s role as the team’s organizer in the offense will have added importance. And like Odom, Walton can control the defensive rebound and power out to initiate the break. Walton just can’t do that as well and as fast as Odom, so the Lakers slow down.
Which begs the question, how long will Odom be out? “He’s on the training table all day long, every day,” Winter said. “They’re working on him. But it’s going to take some time.”

SMUSH

The double-overtime win emphasized another importance — defense in general and Smush Parker in particular.
“The defense did it for us,” Winter said. “Smush is really the guy who got us back in it with his steals and quickness.”
It was a turbulent night for the second-year guard.
“He got mad about a call in the first half,” Winter said. “Then Phil took him out of the ball game and he got really upset. When he came back in the game he was a man possessed.”
The turn of events points to the fact that, despite his critics, Parker plays a crucial role in the Lakers’ mix at guard.
Parker’s critics have seized on comments that he often pouts and have cited that as good reason for his benching. Parker, though, is an emotional player, feeds on that emotion and seems to be finding his way.
“With his speed, if he could just develop a consistent shot, he’d be really effective,” Winter said. “If he can just get confidence taking it to the basket and finishing….”

Roland Lazenby is the author of The Show, The Inside Story of the Spectacular Los Angeles Lakers in the Words of Those Who Lived It, published earlier this year by McGraw-Hill. Booklist called it “the best book about the NBA since The Jordan Rules.” http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0071430342/ref=cm_arms_pdp_dp/002-6872593-7623219

8 Comments:

Blogger The Angry Buddhist said...

Roland,

I just want to thank you for the work you do. I've been watching Lakers games for 30 plus years and I've been reading everything available that's written about them during that time and no one has provided the insight and sharp analysis you have. I'm eating this stuff up.

And a million thanks for providing such a regular conduit to what Tex Winters is thinking. I wish Tex had his own half hour pregame show on all Lakers broadcasts and shared with the public all the gold he shares with you. Maybe then L.A. fans would appreciate what a treasure we have in Tex.

Any of us who knew and loved Chick Hearn should recognize what a kindred spirit he has in Tex. Both of them from the same era that produced some of the finest basketball men in the history of the game.

Most of us will never accomplish over the course of our lives what Tex has done in his chosen field. But maybe if we're lucky enough we'll be as sharp and vital in our 80s as Tex is.

Thanks again, Roland, for bringing the joy of Tex to we Lakers fans. Please pass along my sincerest appreciation to him, and let him know that every game I bellow "Run the offense!" from Section 206 I'm thinking of him.

Have a great holiday!

The Angry Buddhist
One Happy Lakers Fan this season

5:29 PM  
Blogger roland lazenby said...

Angry,
I emailed your comments to Tex. Thanks so much for the kind words.
Tex and Chick, that's a great parallel you point out. Both blessed with tremendous longevity, which means they've provided Lakers fans with a long view of the game. Add that to the team's tradition, and you have something great.

Great observations.

Peace. And happy holidays.

Roland

8:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Roland;
first of all awesome article.


Bryant hopes to disprove that. "You tip your hat and say, 'See you next time,'" he said. "I don't think he has a conscience. I really don't. He was chucking out there. He took some horrible shots and he made some big ones. I don't get a chance to play him much. I'll be ready next time."
-- Kobe on Gilbert Arenas dropping 60 on him.
this is from Bucher's article (Espn daily dime 18.12.2006)
He was chucking?Bad shot selections?Awful shots?
Were this comments necessary?
I must admit I lost respect for kobe after the comments he made. I don't care if he is alpha male or whatever it is .Recently arenas called him the best player in the game.
Why is he acting like a big sore loser now?He is making hard for us 'his fans' to root for him.
Again I want to say you are my favourite writer.
thanks

8:08 AM  
Blogger roland lazenby said...

Kobe's always been chippy that way. Not the most appealing part of his personality. I am writing an article on the subject of his big games, and this is part of the equation.

Excellent observations.

Roland

8:28 AM  
Anonymous RG Gaznabi said...

Mr. Lazenby,

Great article once again. As you know, I consider you as an incredible writer who seem to blend sportswriting with just the right blend of philosophy, psychology and poetic elegance (I loved the statement..."It's a four act opera played at hyperspeed"...instant classic). Your work is a real joy for us, the readers.

When it comes to Tex Winter, I have always found him and his teacher/mentor/challenger role with Phil Jackson the most fascinating relationship in both from a purely basketball perspective and also from a spiritual/philosophical view. And I have always enjoyed reading the many articles/books/opinions that you wrote over the years about both these individuals (Tex & Phil).

And I do believe that Phil is one of the greatest coaches in the game but I also believe that it was his ability to learn and withstand getting challenged by Tex that really propelled him to where he is now.

Tex Winter really is the ultimate basketball purist and we all are blessed to have him in our generation. And of course thank you once again Mr. Lazenby for sharing your insightful dialogues with Tex Winter.

One message, if you will, that I have for Tex would be that after I read his book on The Triangle Offense (and also Phil's philosophical depiction of it in "Sacred Hoops") I have to say that the Triangle offense, which I myself ran in many summer league teams and amateur tournaments, is more than just a set of strategies for a basketball court. The Triangle to me represents a way of life, a way of non-resistence and flowing energy and a way of finding your very own flow among the chaos of the internal and the external world.

I have used this theme and philosophy of the Triangle with great success in both my life and my career as a peak performance/stress managemnet consultant. And I just want Tex Winter to know that his basketball strategies have gone way beyond just the basketball court and has touched my life in a very profound way.

Tex Winter is a Hall of Famer in my book.

And thank you for everything once again Mr. Lazenby.

~ RG Gaznabi

10:40 AM  
Anonymous D-Wil said...

Mr Lazenby-
Everyone else's comments say so much, so - thank you.

1:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice post, as usual (I'm a sometime lurker). This is one of the most thoughtful and interesting basketball blogs for Laker fans (I'm enough of a longtime fan to remember when they traded for Wilt).

A quick point, though: "Ming" is Yao's given name, like "Roland"; it's NOT his family name, like "Lazenby." That's why his jersey says "Yao" on the back, and that's why his father's name is Yao Zhi Yuan.

6:19 AM  
Blogger db said...

if phil is obi wan kenobi to his players than tex is yoda (interestingly, when he was in high school kobe's rap name was kobe wan kenobi. okay maybe it's not that interesting.) a note to add to tex's praise of phil on how zen he is despite the roller coaster ride of being an nba coach (exemplified by the two houston games this season), and how coaches need to find an emotional equilibrium. "a hand to guide me" is a new book by denzel washington that is a compilation of contributors on their influences and the lessons they learned. phil jackson contributes a short essay on how red holzman, his first coaching mentor before tex (red coached phil during his playing days with the knicks), taught phil the value of the "middle path" -- maintaining a calm instead of going to emotional extremes during games. an interesting read:

http://www.amazon.com/Hand-Guide-Me-Denzel-Washington/dp/0696230496

on an unrelated topic... now that wade and kobe will go at it on xmas in miami:
roland, what are your thoughts on kobe vs. dwayne wade?
in their recent sportman of the year article sports illustrated quoted (a no doubt subjective) stan van gundy who places dwayne above kobe because he carried a team to a ring while being the main man while shaq was the sidekick, as opposed to kobe. but in kobe's defense, do many people really doubt he has the talent and ability to do the same thing wade did given the same circumstances as wade? as i'm sure you remember, kobe was dominating playoff games while shaq was still in his prime. exhibit a: kobe dropping 45 and 10 on san antonio during the 2001 playoffs (after that game shaq called kobe "the best player in the world... but i'm the most dominant."). kobe was 22 years old at the time. there are other examples, like kobe dominating overtime in the crucial game 4 of the 2000 finals after shaq fouled out. in the end comparing kobe to wade is futile because there really is no way to say one is clearly better than the other, they're both great. but the logic that says that wade is better because he won with shaq at past his prime while kobe didn't does not follow because kobe never got the chance to do what wade did -- shaq was gone before we could find out.

the sad thing for kobe is that had shaq not been traded he would have gotten the chance to do exactly what wade did but in l.a. if you believe shaq's book "shaq talks back" (written circa 2000/2001) the big fella writes how he is willing to step back when he gets older and let kobe be the man. how he wants kobe to better than jordan. but we all know what happened.

what's done is done, but kobe still has a chance to win a ring without shaq. if that happens will people say "kobe is better than wade because he won without shaq"? that logic is just as absurd as the "wade won as the main guy while playing with shaq therefore he's better than kobe" argument because comparing players that are in different circumstances ignores the possibility that one could do the same thing as the other had he played under identical curcumstances.

thoughts?

7:21 PM  

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