Sioux Award Recipient

Phil Jackson, '67, HON '08

 

He’s been called the greatest NBA coach of all time, and with a league-record 11 championships (13 if you count his time as a player), it’s hard to dispute that claim. But when he’s referred to as the “Zen Master,” Phil Jackson,’67, HON ’08, pushes back. “There is no Zen Master,” Phil says. “There is just Zen.” 
He got the often-cited nickname and gained media attention for his holistic approach to coaching that was influenced by meditation, Eastern philosophy, and Native American spiritual practices. His approach has its roots at the University of North Dakota.
Phil first came to UND after being recruited by then-basketball coach Bill Fitch, who also moved on to a career in NBA coaching. Phil earned consecutive All-American honors at UND for his performance on the hardwood. A left-handed hook shot helped him to average nearly 27.5 points per game during his senior year. His athleticism spanned two sports, and he was a standout Major League Baseball draft prospect for UND’s baseball team.
“I made a right decision in choosing the University of North Dakota because it gave me an opportunity to grow into my physique,” Phil said. “I went to college at 6’6,” grew 2 inches in college, and I grew into my frame. In those days, freshmen were ineligible to play, so I had a year to further develop myself.”
Growing up in a fundamentalist Christian home, where the Bible was the first and foremost text in the house, Phil always assumed he would follow in his father’s footsteps and become a minister. But a freshman biology lesson on Darwinism set Phil on what he calls a seeker’s path.
“I floundered coming to college my freshman year,” Phil said. “Discussing evolution and the prospects of a different thought process than what I grew up with was somewhat disturbing.”
And so he poured himself into his education.
“My major of philosophy and religion covered the bases of interest to me, and I added some accounting, business, and law into that,” Phil said. “It opened the door to thinking of other things in my solid background of Christian belief, which was a strong influence in my life.”
Even after graduation in 1967, at which time he was drafted to the New York Knicks, he came back to UND for three summers of graduate school, immersing himself in psychology classes to further his education. “The University provided a base and it provided a safe ground for discussion of thought,” Phil said. “I was fortunate to have many classes that were small, individual, and quite personal where discussion was permitted. Many of the classes put me in contact with people who were also pursuing deeper thought on a personal level.”
During those summers, Phil started to build the foundation of his coaching philosophy – an approach that created one of the most successful professional basketball coaches of all time. Every year of his 20-year coaching career (nine years with the Chicago Bulls and 11 years with the LA Lakers), his teams made the NBA playoffs, winning 11 championship titles. He had a winning record every year as a head coach, and still holds the highest win percentage of any Hall of Fame coach. Along with his NBA-record 11 championships, he is the only coach to win at least 10 championships in any of North America's major professional sports.
In 1996, Phil won the NBA Coach of the Year Award. That year, as part of the NBA’s 50th anniversary, he was named one of the 10 greatest coaches of all time. In 2002 and 2010 the United States Sports Academy awarded him the Amos Alonzo Stagg Coaching Award and he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.
Phil credits some of his success to his education on transformational psychology – what he calls being a manager of personalities. “The basis for successful living involved this idea of personal transformation,” Phil said. “Well-being, higher thought, higher purpose, and the idea that you’re working together toward something that’s ‘greater than’ fit in very well with the idea of playing on teams and being part of a team.”
He’s coached a wide range of personalities, including Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, and Dennis Rodman. “The extreme pressures directed by media and fans create special bonds. They cook you, like being baked in an oven. They solidify the special relationships – you’re looking out for the best interests of your players, and they of you,” Phil said. 
Phil was last on UND’s campus in 2008, when he received an Honorary Degree. He keeps tabs on the University, and has a particular interest in the College of Arts & Sciences interdisciplinary Online Atlas Project, which analyzes data from the state to create maps designed to show demographic, economic, and social changes to North Dakota over time. “I thought it was a combination of things that could bring focus to the identity of the state and highlight some of the beauty,” Phil said.
Phil retired from coaching in 2011 and joined the New York Knicks as an executive in March 2014, where he was president until 2017. These days he spends his time gardening, speaking, and writing. “Writing is an ongoing process for me,” Phil said. He has authored 9 books about his teams and his basketball strategies. The most recent, “Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success,” was published in 2013. 
He remains interested in supporting education for Native American populations – another venture that got its start at UND, when he participated in the Upward Bound program. “I’m really beholden to many of the Lakota people who’ve sat in sweat lodges and held prayers for the variety of endeavors I’ve done,” he said.
Phil was presented the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award, bestowed upon prominent North Dakotans, in 1992. His portrait and plaque hang in the state Capitol in Bismarck with other past Rough Rider Award winners, such as one-time baseball home run king Roger Maris, band leader Lawrence Welk, singer Peggy Lee and UND's eighth president Tom Clifford.
He has five children and eight grandchildren, who he says come first in the order of things. He still meditates daily. ///                                     
— By Alyssa Konickson