It happens at least once every time I turn on the television and watch the Los Angeles Lakers play basketball. Their opponents may be younger, with a ragged, raw, desperate energy. Fans may be ringing cowbells, waving plastic wands, and booing, while the Lakers pass the ball fluidly among themselves. Amidst the movement, calm descends. The ball bounces, shuttles, and moves, and then—quicker than sight—Shaquille O’Neal or Kobe Bryant will leap and plunge it into the basket.
The trademark harmony of this championship team—and the stillness at its center as it moves down the court—is usually credited to Phil Jackson, the Montana-born Zen meditator who coached the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships before moving to the Lakers in 1999 and winning three more. Both teams presented Jackson with a specific coaching challenge: how to make highly paid and media-mobbed superstars (like Michael Jordan of the Bulls, and Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant of the Lakers) part of a collaborative, well-functioning whole. For the past decade, Jackson has been aided in this venture by Vipassana teacher George Mumford, an African American sports psychologist whose practice is emotionally informed by his own recovery from drug addiction.
Jackson first hired Mumford in 1993 to teach meditation—initially packaged as “stress reduction”—to the Chicago Bulls. His role has gradually expanded, and he now spends ninety days a year with the Lakers—about one week a month. In a 1997 interview, Jackson described Mumford’s contribution this way: “There will be a meditation, then he’ll do a little bit of a talk, and then the coaching staff and I disappear. It’s more of a group experience, where they do this quiet thing together, and then talk about the team as a community and bringing out the best in each other. The funny thing is, invariably we go on a five-game winning streak whenever we see George.”
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