Mike W's Reviews > Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior

Sacred Hoops by Phil Jackson
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"Sacred Hoops" is an engrossing account of Phil Jackson's career as a basketball player and a coach with special focus the evolution of his thinking that led to unparallelled success with the Chicago Bulls and later with the Los Angeles Lakers.

I despised the Bulls when I was younger. I couldn't forgive them for displacing the Lakers as the dominant team in the NBA. But then, Kareem had retired, and the other Laker stars were aging, so decline was inevitable. Meanwhile, the Bulls were a truly awesome team through the 1990's, partly because of Michael Jordan's tremendous gifts as an athlete and competitor, but also because of Jackson's wisdom as a coach in tutoring Jordan, Scottie Pippen and the rest of the Bulls to think as a team rather than a collection of individuals.

Jackson would be easy to parody with all his trendy Zen and native American mysticism, if only he hadn't been the most successful coach in NBA history. Some might argue that anyone could win with Jordan, Shaq or Kobe on their teams. Indeed, this criticism is mentioned in the forward by Senator Bill Bradley: "Anybody can coach a team led by Michael Jordan to the World Championship." But each of those players went through long stretches in their careers without winning NBA championships. They were performing admirably as individuals, but their teams were not functioning harmoniously together a wholes.

So how was Jackson so successful? Having great players was certainly part of it, but so was a philosophical outlook. Jackson tells us that his dream was "not just to win championships, but to do it in a way that wove together my two greatest passions: basketball and spiritual exploration." This is not the usual talk from a coach. One thinks of the contrast with Raider owner (and former coach) Al Davis, whose motto is "Just Win, Baby."

Jackson culls his philosophical maxims from Eastern thought, especially Zen Buddhism, and also from his own Pentacostal Christian upbringing. Above all he emphasizes what Buddhists call "mindfulness", an idea he summarizes thusly: "In basketball--as in life--true joy comes from being present in every moment, not just when things are going your way." This is an important insight, and seems to have been an important part of his teams' success. The ability to free one's mind from clutter, to cease worrying about what happened before or what might happen in the future, and instead to focus attentively on what one is doing now is crucial to success. Any fan can see this intense focus on the faces of Jordan or Kobe as they plat. And not just in the playoffs, but in every game.

Jackson doesn't mention the great American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, but the two have similar ideas. When Emerson wrote, "In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, -- no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, -- my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, -- all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and parcel of God," he is describing an experience very similar to the mindfulness Jackson describes. And when Emerson the Preacher implores us to "Pray without ceasing" he sounds like Jackson, the Preacher's son, describing all of life as a "spiritual quest."

Jackson is not an academic philosopher, and that shows in his writing. For academic philosophers now mainly devote themselves in the US to idle debate about syntax, or in Europe toward metaphysical obfuscation. What's clear is that most of them have less to say about the meaning of life than Al Davis, who at least has a clear idea of how life should be lived. So Jackson has more to offer than most academics. He reminds us that real philosophy is not idle speculation, clever sophistry or pale ratiocination--it is essential to living a full and successful life. Philosophy is a necessity, not a luxury. And even those who despise philosophy, are really prisoners of some philosopher's ideas, without realizing it--perhaps the religious Thomas Aquinas, or the atheist Hobbes.

So anyone who enjoys basketball, and who marveled at the success of Jackson's Bulls in the 1990's and Lakers in more recent years, would do well to read this book. It is full of insights about basketball and about life.
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January 14, 2012 – Shelved
January 14, 2012 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-3 of 3 (3 new)

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message 1: by Jeremy (new)

Jeremy K Why aren't you a professional writer?

Mike W We'll see when I finish my PhD. I'd like to write a book on the history of economic thought, and another on current economic issues. But someone has to want to publish it.

Thanks for the compliment, though. Coming from you, it's a very flattering. You have a lot of talent as a writer yourself.

message 3: by Onedarkhorse (new)

Onedarkhorse Very well written and enjoyable review. I just happened to stumble on this while researching a off hand comment by Jude Law from the movie "I heart Huckabees", which btw is a great movie. Take care.

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