A Dinner of Onions

You may also know me as Eric Freeman. Check out more of my writing at The Baseline.

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One of Phil Jackson's most notable tactics as Zen Master is his yearly tradition of selecting books for each of his players to read. He considers the player's personality and needs, and makes a decision based on all available factors. It's one of the clearest reminders that he's a coach who respects and values his players as people, not just basketball players.

Most years, we hear a few of the selections through the grapevine. But last night, Phil's girlfriend and Lakers Executive VP of Business Operations Jeanie Buss put all of this year's picks on Twitter. Let us analyze some of the most notable choices and figure out what Phil sees in his team.

Player: Kobe Bryant
Book: Montana 1948 by Larry Watson
Synopsis: A small-town sheriff finds out that his brother has raped and murdered numerous Native-American women. He finds himself torn between his dual loyalties to family and the law.
Meaning: Wow, Phil doesn't screw around, eh? Forget for a minute the connections to Kobe's legal troubles and consider that the reader is meant to identify with the sheriff. The common perception of Kobe is that he's torn between his need to score and his desire to win as part of the larger team. Often, he appears to toggle between each pole, unable to find a happy medium. What Montana 1948 teaches us is that no matter which option you choose, you must live with the consequences and emotions of forgoing the other choice. It's about living in the gray area, something Kobe must embrace to realize his full potential as a teammate and star.

Player: Pau Gasol
Book: 2666 by Roberto Bolaño
Synopsis: A five-part, nearly 900-page novel following a disparate group of characters, with many plot threads, including serial murders and the possible end of the world, connected only by the most tenuous of threads.
Meaning: This choice is more about what it represents than the actual content of the novel. 2666 is notoriously difficult, a full-on experience that rewards patience, creative interpretation, and the reader putting as much as he can into reading. In short, Phil wants Pau to push himself, to put forth so much effort that he'll push his critical abilities to new heights. Just like on the court, he needs to stop being content and get the most out of his considerable natural talent.

Player: Ron Artest
Book: Sacred Hoops by Phil Jackson
Synopsis: A coaching legend details his philosophy of basketball as the ultimate in spiritual communication among teammates.
Meaning: This is one of the few choices Buss explained: apparently Phil likes to give new players an introduction to his approach to basketball. Sorry, but I don't buy it. The more likely explanation is that Phil knows Artest is borderline insane, tried to think of a suitable book, couldn't come up with anything, and just picked up one of the copies of Sacred Hoops he had around the house. The good news is that Ron-Ron is so sincere that he'll undoubtedly take every message in the book to heart. It's just unclear what it'll all mean to him.

Player: Shannon Brown
Book: Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama
Synopsis: Our president reflects on growing up as a mixed-race child in America.
Meaning: Yeah, Brown is light-skinned, but this isn't about race. Brown was an athletic dynamo of a star at Michigan State, was drafted by Cleveland in the hope that he could be a sidekick for LeBron, and seemed like a bust before he made it to LA. In other words, he grew up with one identity, found that it didn't entirely suit him, and now must adjust to a new life as a role player. Dreams from My Father can help him realize that his past identity doesn't need to be cast away, that it can constitute his adult self just as much as the new role he must take on.

Player: Luke Walton
Book: The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey
Synopsis: Four ecologically-conscious misfits rage against the machinery of pollution.
Meaning: As the son of Bill, Luke probably likes to get high in nature. But that's a passive activity, and sometimes complacent appreciation isn't enough. You must rise up and take what's needed for Mother Earth. (Note: Phil gave this book to Luc Longley during the Bulls years, with disastrous results.)

Player: Lamar Odom
Book: The Right Mistake by Walter Mosley
Synopsis: An ex-con gets out of prison after 27 years and becomes a fount of wisdom. He shares his story and advises others.
Meaning: The most inspired choice of all. Lamar has been through a lot in his life, and he's come out on the other side better for it. Phil knows this, and wants him to become an agent of change. Lamar has the power -- it's up to him to make the next step and reach out to others.

Player: Derek Fisher
Book: Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver
Synopsis: A collection of political essays by a then-incarcerated leader of the Black Panther Party.
Meaning: Fisher is basically the definition of a veteran, a dependable, serious soul on which the rest of the team can rely. But he's also safe, so maybe it's time to inject a little fire into his system.

Player: Adam Morrison
Book: Che: A Graphic Biography by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon
Synopsis: The life of the revolutionary Che Guevara in comic book form.
Meaning: Look, Phil, we all know AmMo has no future with the Lakers, but that doesn't mean you have to slap him in the face. Morrison is a noted fan of Guevara, so it's clear his coach put little thought into this choice. And if you're going with a Che-related work, why not pick something with a little more heft, like the 800-page Jon Lee Anderson bio, or even the Criterion Collection version of Soderbergh's four-hour biopic? You might as well have given him Con Air for its heartfelt portrayal of a man struggling with diabetes.

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At 1/22/2010 4:26 PM, Blogger Kellen said...

A startling number of these look like they came from the Rage Against the Machine "Evil Empire" reading list. Doesn't LA know that it is the Evil Empire?

Seriously though, surprising blatant leftist bent.

Kind of awesome.

At 1/22/2010 5:43 PM, Blogger Stephen said...

This article is some kind of awesome. I added a couple of books to my reading list. Thanks, Phil and (Free) Darko!

At 1/22/2010 6:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a great list. The inclusion of Bolano's 2666 is reason enough for me to appreciate Jackson, but the rest of the list shows he's not just a flavor-of-the-month kind of guy.

I'm kind of surprised at what Artest got. For some reason, I was expecting him to read Stephen Wright's Going Native.

At 1/22/2010 6:53 PM, Blogger Evan said...

Just a FYI, the book the little girl is reading in the last photo is "A Good Day" by Kevin Henkes. Really great artwork and a nice (very short) story. I love reading that to my kid.

At 1/23/2010 5:22 PM, Blogger Dylan said...

The only thing that would make this book assignment better would be if Phil read them to reach of his players as a bedtime story.

At 1/23/2010 11:08 PM, Blogger El Presidente said...

Interesting list, esp. 2666.

Off-topic: someone should ask Shaq to shoot underhanded free-throws in the ASG. I bet he shoots better than the 6-15 he shot tonight.

At 1/23/2010 11:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love this kind of stuff. I always want to hear about what coaches and players care about besides basketball.

At 1/24/2010 11:13 AM, Blogger Coach Sean said...

2666 seems perfect for Pau and the fact that Phil choose that for Gasol really solidifies 'Zen Master' for me!

At 1/24/2010 7:32 PM, Blogger Mouth said...

I'll also give props for 2666, as Coach Jackson's selection and as a work of art. I'm jealous that Pau Gasol gets to read it in Spanish, as my fluency is far from good enough to appreciate Bolaño in his native dialect.

My suggestion for the "Zen master": Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, through which he could learn the perils, despite well-intended application of personal genius, of trying to mold others for his own purposes.
Is post-Pistons' Dennis Rodman Coach Jackson's accidental spawn, something grotesque that results from imposing one's will in an effort to bestow the spark of life unto a man better left to wither while watching Karl Malone from the bench, in a natural hair color and men's clothes?

At 1/25/2010 12:21 AM, Blogger Mike said...

Love that Phil Jackson included "The Monkey Wrench Gang". It's a rollicking good read. I already had mucho respect for the man, but that respect has now increased four-fold.

At 1/25/2010 4:22 AM, Blogger OR said...

I thought your analysis of what Jackson wanted from these books was great. Thanks for the report!

At 1/25/2010 11:47 AM, Blogger Deckfight said...

has he ever suggested "basketball diaries" to someone?

seriously 2666? that book is like carrying around a tombstone. will give gasol back problems. i only read the 1st section, the elusive search for the literary master. maybe Jackson is saying: 'you think you have found the meaning, but you have so many more miles to go'

i bet walton & AmMo (ha!) are best buds.

At 5/17/2013 4:11 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks, I will give it a try to your articles one Baseline. People at Sportsbook community really like your writing.

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