Phil Jackson was known as the Zen Master because he incorporated meditation and mental focus in his coaching techniques.
The former Chicago Bulls head coach practiced Zen Buddhism and taught his players to maximize the power of their minds to produce better results. Safe to say, it worked. The Bulls won six NBA titles during the 90s.
Even the great Michael Jordan acknowledged how Phil’s unconventional style personally helped him. Speaking to ESPN in 2008, MJ said:
“It helps so much having Phil as our coach. He goes around and burns sage in front of our lockers, and when we’re playing bad in practice, he’ll beat on a war drum to wake us up. You laugh, but that stuff is a part of him. He believes it, the Zen, the poise. It comes from his meditating, gaining the ability to stay in touch with your body and your inner self, calming yourself when tension is all around.”
What Michael Jordan learned from the Zen Master
“That is something I’ve learned from Phil,” Jordan added. “Calming the body. No matter how much pressure there is in a game, I think to myself: It’s still just a game. I don’t meditate, but I know what he’s getting at. He’s teaching about peacefulness and living in the moment but not losing the aggressive attitude. Not being reckless, but strategic.”
“What I do is I challenge myself in big games. I try to find a quiet center within me because there’s so much hype out there and I don’t want to fall into it. I don’t want to rush. I’ll start off rebounding or getting everybody else involved until I get an easy shot, a layup, or a free throw or something, then boom, I’m off and running. I will have controlled my emotions and not gotten overhyped or lost my focus. These are things Phil has taught me.”
Then Jordan made a revelation about the 1997 NBA Finals and how that type of approach helped him during the infamous Flu Game.
“And I’ll tell you, it all works, in big games more so than anything. It works when I’m sick, like in the Finals against Utah last year. I try not to focus on the sickness, just on being part of the situation. I am in this situation. I have a game within a game. I will not expend great energy until I can find out where I fit in the scheme. That is a game in itself. It keeps me sharp.”
The Flu Game
On June 11th, 1997, the Chicago Bulls played Game 5 of the NBA Finals in Utah, with the series tied at 2-2. Jordan played that game with flu-like symptoms due to a suspected case of food poisoning.
A day before Game 5, MJ battled a stomach virus and hardly had enough strength to sit up on his hotel bed. But with possibly the championship on the line, Jordan played despite Chicago’s medical staff saying there was no way he could play.
Early on, Jordan looked visibly ill as the Jazz took an early 16-point lead in the first quarter. But despite not being 100%, Jordan scored 17 points in the second quarter and then added another 15 during the final frame, including the three-pointer that gave the Bulls an 88-85 lead with 25 seconds left to play in the game. With the outcome already decided and still a few seconds left in the game, MJ famously almost collapsed in Scottie Pippen’s arms, creating the iconic scene from what is now called The Flu Game.
Michael Jordan scored 38 points in the game while playing 44 minutes despite being sick. The Flu Game stands as one of Jordan’s best performances ever. Jordan would later say it was probably the most challenging thing he’s ever done. And now we know he couldn’t have done it without the Zen Master’s help