Phil Jackson, the coach of the championship winning Los Angeles Lakers, epitomizes the American Indian qualities of leadership, so much so that in 2003, the American Indian College Fund honored Jackson at its annual gala. Jackson was coaching for the Chicago Bulls at the time, so his good friend and colleague Bill Bradley accepted the award on his behalf.
Jackson and Bradley have been involved with American Indian people for quite some time. More than 25 years ago Jackson and Bradley were conducting a basketball clinic on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. As a result of their relationships with American Indians and careful observation, Jackson and Bradley have been able to incorporate the leadership philosophies they learned there into their professional and personal lives.
Both have written about Indian people and a way of life that is different from mainstream society. Jackson’s book “Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior” weaves in principles of Lakota leadership, lessons learned about the sacred hoop, and intimate details of Lakota spiritual philosophy combined with tenets of Zen Buddhism to show how individuals can selflessly grow to achieve and become better adjusted people to increase their potential and the potential of those around them.
Jackson and Bradley have been able to incorporate the leadership philosophies they learned there into their professional and personal lives.
Jackson used that knowledge to engage professional basketball players Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman and Kobe Bryant on a level that allowed them to shed their superstar status and perform in a sacred manner within the circle of life. The book’s title refers to the Lakota philosophy of life and living in a sacred circle.
While at Pine Ridge, Jackson also experienced the Lakota tradition of a giveaway, which is meant to honor others, particularly relatives. In Lakota culture, despite extreme poverty, the poorest people give gifts, and did so with Jackson, who had come to be seen as one of them, to honor him.
The beauty of interacting with another culture rather than subordinating it to one’s world view includes being open to developing a heightened awareness about not just the present and the standards we live by in our current lives, but judging our cultural pasts and their standards. Jackson demonstrated his mastery of this concept in his book when he stated, “Being aware is more important than being smart.”
Bradley explores and displays the concept of awareness about our nation’s past in his book “Time Present, Time Past,” saying “I know that an American living now is not responsible for wrongs committed more than one hundred years ago, but the nation itself is responsible. When governments commit crimes, they must make amends to those who are the victims of crimes. If they fail to do so, they live with guilt. Confronting the dark pages of our history is essential to getting beyond them. Americans cannot naively espouse ideals that our own historic actions refute. Failure to come to terms with having broken treaties and destroyed hundreds of thousands of people undermines our moral authority. How liberating it would be to escape the hypocrisy and become a society that lives by its professed ideals.”
As a result of his work at Pine Ridge, Jackson was honored by being given a Lakota name: Wanbli Luzahan, which means Swift Eagle.
When one applies a heightened consciousness and awareness to life by also applying high standards to one’s own life, success is inevitable. Jackson is living proof of that success as the greatest NBA coach ever. During his 10th championship run, he donned a cap created for him by his friends and agents, the father-son team Todd and Brian Musburger, emblazoned with Roman numeral X to represent his 10th NBA championship.
The hat instantly became popular among fans. Remembering the giving way of the Lakota that he learned at Pine Ridge, Jackson decided to produce the hats for sale to the public and donate the proceeds to the American Indian College Fund to help tribal colleges and Native students. You can purchase the hat on the fund’s Web site.
This is not the first time that Jackson has demonstrated the Lakota way to help Native people in his professional career. During one NBA playoff season, Jackson wore a different tie to each game. He then arranged for his ties to be auctioned and donated the proceeds to the American Indian College Fund to support scholarships for American Indian students.
Jackson not only understands the Lakota phrase Mitaku Oyasin – we are all related – he embodies it, while demonstrating his awareness of past wrongs, as Bradley says, and living by his professed ideals. Since his days at Pine Ridge, Jackson has continued to support the American Indian College Fund and the tribal colleges and universities. He knows the value of an education and how supporting Indian education will make a difference in Indian people’s lives, impacting not just Indian country, but all of America.
Jackson is not only the greatest NBA coach ever, he is Swift Eagle: an honorable and generous man whom all of the world can look up to. Mila piya yelo – thank you, Phil Jackson – for walking in the Lakota way and helping to educate our people.
Richard B. Williams is the president and CEO of the American Indian College Fund, the nation’s largest provider of private scholarships for American Indian students seeking to better their lives and communities through a college education at the nation’s 33 accredited tribal colleges and universities.