You Better Have Some Zen
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.”
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