Coach Phil becomes Dr. Phil
His was a body that seemed designed by a rancorous committee: hard-boned, lean and gangly, an "Ichabod Crane body," in the words of one sports writer.
He wore a 43-inch sleeve (imagine him and Michael Phelps in a slapping contest), reached the dial to change radio stations from the back seat of a car without leaning forward, and terrorized basketball teammates and opponents alike with his flailing elbows.
And with his mind.
"It was not unusual to see him slumped across three chairs, reading," said Gordon Henry, a retired UND vice president who in the early 1960s was a resident assistant at Walsh Hall, the dormitory that tried to house the sprawling Phil Jackson and other UND athletes.
Coach Phil becomes Dr. Phil today, as the man who coaxed, cajoled and counseled Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant returns to UND to receive an honorary degree. Later, the Hall of Fame coach will answer questions submitted by the public at a "Great Conversation" event.
Even as a teenager finding his way on campus, Jackson "thought at a different level than other people," Henry said. "He was a good thinker, a very committed person."
Many former teammates and longtime friends will be on hand to salute Jackson, said Ron Bergh, former football coach at Grand Forks Central -- and a member of the Central basketball team that Jackson's Williston Coyotes defeated for the state championship in 1963.
"He stole the ball from me at center court -- and it looked to me like he was eight feet away when he took it," Bergh said, still laughing. "Then, he took three strides and stuffed it, his elbow all the way into the hoop."
Bergh went on to UND, played baseball and softball with Jackson and still keeps in touch.
"On a friendship level, he's very personable and sincere, and we appreciate that," he said.
Recruited in 1963 by legendary UND coach Bill Fitch, who also went on to coach in the NBA, Jackson and his unorthodox left hook and talented teammates turned Sioux basketball into athletic theater and filled the fieldhouse with appreciative fans. He went on to play professionally with the New York Knicks and to coach, winning six championship rings with the Chicago Bulls and three with the Lakers.
But fascination with the lanky boy from Williston isn't only because of the fact that he came awkward from the prairie and achieved greatness on great stages. Part of the awe he inspires comes from the way he thought his way to the top, examining basketball and life through a blend of Eastern mysticism, Western philosophy and lessons absorbed from his Pentacostal preacher parents.
"My team is my parish. That's who I am here to nurture," Jackson said in a recent Esquire profile, recalling that as a youth he was brought before the congregation in his father's church so his life could be formally dedicated to serving God.
Has any other NBA coach told his players about the sacred white buffalo? Burned sage to halt a losing streak?
His keen perception of the game dates to high school in Williston, when as a sophomore he made the varsity but had plenty of time to observe from the bench. "Up until then, I'd been mystified by the complex movements of the offense and the defense," he wrote much later. "But as the season progressed, I began to recognize the logic behind every cut, every screen, every defensive adjustment."
Fitch showed up in the locker room after the 1963 state championship game and offered to drive him to a celebration at the Bronze Boot.
Jackson was impressed by Fitch's low-key pitch -- and by his integrity. "There'd be no illegal handouts or payment for phony jobs," a standard "that turned out to be quite a contrast to some of the other coaches' recruiting tactics," Jackson said, recalling the conversation in the car.
A coaching lesson
In his final year at UND, the future coach got another lesson from Fitch, a lesson that may well have shaped future relationships with superstars Jordan, Bryant and Shaquille O'Neil.
Jackson missed midnight curfew after a game in Chicago -- he was out with "a former cheerleader," he later wrote, and a snowstorm kept him from making the hotel on time. His coach was waiting for him.
"Fitch said that I had abdicated my responsibilities, and until I proved myself to be a true leader of this raw group of players, I was no longer team captain. I was embarrassed and angry, and I played with increased intensity for the rest of the season."
Charley Rosen, a former sportswriter and assistant coach under Jackson at Albany, N.Y., in the Continental Basketball Association, co-authored a book with him, "Maverick: More Than A Game," in which he tried to explain the man.
"Part of Phil's method is always to set goals that are higher than the ones required by the situation at hand," he wrote, "so that anybody traveling along with him can sense a greater journey beyond the immediate concerns of winning ball games."
Rosen first met Jackson at a 1973 party at Jackson's New York City loft. He wrote about the "hippie pad" for Sport magazine. "There's a hammock suspended from the ceiling of the living room, a dart board with Spiro Agnew's face serving as the target, and on the far wall a photograph taken by Phil of a Colorado mountain."
Jackson had started only 20 or so games for the Knicks, but basketball fans everywhere recognized him for "his bed-spring hair," the rebellious mustache and the fearless drive of that angular body ("Action Jackson," they called him) -- and for the Zen pronouncements that already marked him as different from your average pro ballplayer.
"Sometimes, I feel like an amoeba on a slide," Jackson told Rosen. "But I just try to ignore all these extraneous things as best I can; they're all so totally absurd."
Home to the land
In the off-season, Jackson liked to escape to Montana, where he was born and spent his early years before his father took a call to Williston.
"I always felt if I didn't get those three or four months in Montana to camp, to be on the land, to actually live on the ground and be connected with the ground, then I wasn't really connecting myself with my roots, with that pioneer spirit that is so deeply a part of me," he said in the Esquire profile.
Even his famous penchant for a fine cigar finds literary justification -- in books Jackson may have discovered while draped over those chairs in Walsh Hall.
"In 'The Hobbit,' the Grand Wizard can blow smoke rings in all different colors," a bemused Jackson told Rosen in 1973. "He just sits there and blows them to the ceiling. I can only aspire to that."