Phil Jackson for President!

He brought the Bulls and Lakers together to win championships. It’s time to move on to the more challenging job of running this country as smoothly as a triangle offense. Read in our exclusive interview how he’ll do it.

Illustration By Conrad Garcia

It may seem like an inappropriate notion, bad timing, maybe even blasphemy for a Sacramentan in the middle of the Kings-Lakers playoff series. But it was my one opportunity to truly alter the path of my country. I wanted to talk Phil Jackson into running for president of the United States in 2004.

I knew that such a mission could make me the most hated man in Sacramento, right up there with Shaq. Maybe even worse, because Shaq is the known enemy. To many, I’d be like Judas, a turncoat selling out my support for the Kings and maybe even messing with the fan’s mojo, simply for political reasons.

But you’ve been reading the papers. You know that our country is in bad shape, run by narrow corporate interests, waiting for terrorist attacks that our leaders call “inevitable,” our civil liberties being steadily eroded, hopelessly out of synch with the rest of the world on everything from global warming to capital punishment, a swaggering empire guided by what Jackson and his fellow Buddhists call “reflex thinking.”

And nowhere on the horizon do we see a potential presidential candidate who possesses all the attributes that someone would need to seize power and begin making fundamental changes: charisma, individualism, intelligence, awareness, compassion, gravitas, proven leadership abilities, poise under pressure, and the confidence to hold to your core convictions no matter what.

But Phil Jackson possesses all those qualities.

Think about it. The guy has one NBA championship ring for each finger. He’s someone who was able to merge such disparate personalities as Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen into a cohesive group that was arguably the greatest team in basketball history. And then to start over and do it again with the Lakers by bringing Kobe and Shaq together. We’re talking leadership abilities maybe without equal in this country.

So nobody is going to accuse Jackson of lacking toughness or the ability to do what it takes to win. Yet his real value comes from how different he is from your average American political leader today. He’s the consummate political outsider with great name recognition and money to burn, sort of a Ross Perot without the floppy ears and annoying twang.

In an era where superheated rhetoric divides the world along religious and class lines, Jackson is the antidote to the fundamentalist Christians who now run things. He’s a Zen Buddhist who meditates every day, striving to quiet his mind and achieve a spiritual balance. Such ideals are perhaps essential to changing the terms of our national political debate, and to moving toward a more egalitarian and sustainable world, one in which people stop wanting to fly airplanes into our buildings.

As to his politics, Jackson is progressive-minded but tough to paint as a big “L” liberal. He is a close friend and political ally of Bill Bradley, who lost the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000 because he was perceived as a policy wonk, but who would make a great running mate for Jackson, bringing strong senatorial experience to the ticket.

Even some of Jackson’s biggest liabilities could prove to be strengths in a presidential run. Who else but a strong-minded SOB could thumb his nose at modern campaign norms and run a short, focused, third-party campaign that set its own agenda and stuck to issues that the Republicrats aren’t even addressing.

Hell, with the right supporters laying the groundwork for him, Jackson could go right from the 2003-04 basketball season when his contract with the Lakers ends (coincidence?) straight to the campaign trail for a five-month, European-style run for office.

Sure, it would be a long shot, but so was coming back from a 24-point deficit to win Game 4 against the Kings. And for even that outside chance of shaking things up in this country, I was willing to risk being tarred and feathered by my fellow Kings fans. My editor had somehow managed to arrange an hour-long interview with Jackson in his hotel room just before Game 5 on Tuesday, and I wanted to make the most of the opportunity.

Photographer Larry Dalton and I arrived at the hotel just before our 12:15 appointment. I’d done my research, had my questions, and even did a little yoga breathing first to prepare for what I’d heard might be a difficult interview.

Right away, there was a problem. Unshaven and clad in a Lakers sweatsuit, Jackson wouldn’t consent to be photographed. We pleaded and cajoled, but he was resolute. No pictures. So Larry left and I was on my own. Then, early in the interview, when I slipped in my “So, would you ever consider running for president?” question, it was met with a decisive “no.”

Things weren’t looking good, but Jackson was warm and open—far more so than I’d anticipated—so we just talked about life and politics, and eventually, I found the answer and the hope that I was looking for. Well, perhaps I should just let you hear it for yourself:

Do you find it hard in these times to keep basketball in perspective and remember that it’s just a game?
Well, yeah, this is the most difficult time because there’s so much drama, so much civic interest, a lot of money involved in it, a lot emotionally invested in the outcome.

What about in general during basketball season, is it hard to think about world events?
Now, having been here for a number of years, a regular season takes on a business-like approach, where you’re a professional, you know what it takes to do the job. You try not to let it affect your personal life. I’ve got to sometimes stimulate the team, sometimes stimulate myself to keep the interest during the season because it can wane. It’s a six-month-long season with 82 games, and it’s a long period of time. The team has in the past known that excitement of the playoffs and lives off it and enjoys that energy, and the energy becomes addictive.

How do you feel politically about how our country is handling itself since September 11? Do you think Bill Bradley would have handled it differently?
Well, Bill Bradley has real-world knowledge, international knowledge. He’s got a relationship with many of those people, not only in Indonesia, the Far East, and the Arab world, but also European leaders, which George Bush didn’t have. But I think the president handled it very well because he made the country secure and aware of the security it needed, and he’s kept security a priority.

I like what you’ve said in past interviews about the concept of “reflex thinking,” which our country seems to be doing a lot of in the last 6 months. We’ve used old models and old ways to explain the threats. Do you agree, and is that something people understand?
We don’t have any other recourse but to understand that. We have a lot of visuals, because Hollywood likes to do good and bad and evil and good, and we’ve always made that a kind of parameter in which we live our lives. It’s always a paradox in which to tell our story even though life is not like that. People are not good and bad. We use drama to drum up emotion that generates our lives. People are shades of black and white and all colors in between, but the accumulation of karma that goes down—people in this country that have been users for 200 years—is something that we have to think about.

Do we need someone who understands these shades of gray more?
I think we decidedly need people with that worldview more in this country. There’s a generation coming up that understands that and knows the world intimately, and knows the feeling of not being ungracious people of the world. Like my generation. Until the Vietnam War, we were always the savior or the place that everybody looked at for leadership in the world and for business ideas and for good.

Would you ever consider running for president?
No. I think politics is a wonderful avenue, but it’s usually a reflexive thing itself, and that’s very difficult. I think changes can be made in other spaces in our country as quickly, but we need a generation of public servants—people who go into politics because it’s a service to the country, not a second career.

But if it’s a system that’s corrupt and corrupting, does it even allow that dynamic to flourish? Or do you need some single charismatic leader who helps us make that transition, who’s going to talk about things in fundamentally different terms?
I think that we need both. We need people who are dedicated to the service, and I think that there’s an opportunity for that to happen. We’ve bred a generation or two of people who’ve looked at grabbing the brass ring as the ultimate goal of a career. That the more money you make the greater your life is and the more ease you’ll have.

In the process, money’s become the driving force, materialism’s becoming the driving force in society. Where people see public service as a way that is modeled in other countries that have bred and spawned politicians out of the group that have made differences, and I think we need to get back to that. There’s some people who did that, that were interested in doing that, that got lost in the system.

Obviously, as you say, the system can grind people up. But I do think that there’s an opportunity for us, especially now when not much of anything is clear-cut. There’s a challenge, and the challenge is the world order. The challenge is what is good for corporations may not be good for the world itself as a harmonic organism. And that’s basically what we have to think about, not the fact that eight corporate-loving countries make the world their apple, but that those eight countries can genuinely bring the rest of the world along with their financial profits in a way that solves the problem of haves and have-nots.

If you felt like you could accomplish more of that change, and you felt like based on your abilities and your position and your stature, you were able to accomplish some of that, would you feel at least a pull to run?
Yes, if I knew the mechanics, which is one of the reasons why I heartily endorsed Bill Bradley, because he knew the mechanics. He was the man who was my age, we had very many similar beliefs and still do, and he knows the mechanics of how to get things accomplished in a very muddled system.

The system is slow. It doesn’t move quickly, and it’s got a lot of self-interest and local political interest that use pork barreling as their own private funding. It’s weighed down our system, and once you understand that system, like LBJ understood it and moved into the presidency due to the assassination of Kennedy, many things happen. He knew the system and the country was ripe for a change and the Great War on Poverty happened at that time.

Are we in a similar period now?
I think we are in a similar period now. That’s why I think it’s a good opportunity for a rapid change and for quick movement. I’m a person that likes George Bush. I like his direct manner, his ability to give, his ability not to cover all bases but to understand that what he can do he’ll do best at, what he can’t do he’ll delegate. I think that’s very important, especially with the size and breadth of what our country is all about—there’s so many delegated responsibilities that have to be handed around.

However, I think many of his policies are alienating, and without the real meaning of knowing what alienation is, I think he’s been caught perhaps in archaic beliefs and in a belief system that perhaps is outdated. I’m not just talking about Christianity, but I’m also talking about narrow-mindedness, that feeling that our way is the best way, that kind of prejudice that we have as Americans. That capitalism is good with a capital G, and communism is bad, and anything in between rubs against them. I’m not so sure that capitalism is as good as what drives capitalism. And then I think that capitalism in itself is as much a problem as anything else.

But obviously making a transition from there really means changing the fundamentals of what we’re even talking about.
It does. It requires responsibility, it requires corporate responsibility, and we’re seeing that after the Enron incident. The government is going to have to step in and make corporations responsible for their taxes, the way they use write-offs, the gifting they get from the government itself, all those things have to be detailed. We’re looking at drug companies with their favored position due to their lobbying and our government has something that has to be eliminated.

We’re now in a position where many of our elderly are going to be a majority, or a high part of our population, especially the baby boomers moving into a group that’s going to start using medicine. We can’t have corporate and our government at the same level—what was good for General Motors was good for the world, was good for the country, was kind of the belief at that time.

We put our energy into industry that was behind these kinds of things. Now we have to put our energy behind something else. The energy is pointed at the competition, it’s pointed at innovation and technology and new ideas, but yet it’s got to be pointed at how do we bring Africa, Asia, South American people into education, into benefits that are going to increase the consciousness of our whole global population.

Those are big statements. Those are sweeping things to say. We’re looking at institutions that are cracking that have held the bondage of people, like the Catholic Church for example, that held people in a certain mentality for centuries. The outer shell’s starting to crack a little bit. We’re looking at institutions that are starting to fold because of their financial misdealings. We’re looking at governments that have to look over their own abilities to react to the safety of their citizens because of Colombia’s drug culture. All the former channels of power and ability to control the borders of the populations seem to be a sieve. It’s a good time for us to make a move.

Does Buddhism hold some of the keys to sustain a more egalitarian, sustainable world?
I’ve been watching Sri Lanka for a long time. Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country. I don’t think any religion is a cure-all for politics, or a cure-all of anything. But because of their passion and their belief in non-violence, it’s been hard watching this country be ravished by terrorists. It’s very encouraging that they’re finally getting themselves through a terrorist time, where they’ve had a continual amount of peace now. Here’s one country that maybe is on the creative edge of figuring out how to come to terms with, not racism so much as religious animosity or religious hatred that was spawned not outside the borders, but inside their own borders. And maybe that’s going to be a paradigm for us in the near future as to how do we get through these things.

Ireland hasn’t been able to shake it off for 30 years of my life, they still dip down into some violent measures even though they had to have a brokered peace over the last two years, and we are now seeing what looks like an Arab or a Mideast world versus Western world, an ideological contest that doesn’t have to become a contest if we are able to take appropriate measures.

Doesn’t having a born-again Christian as head of state now complicate that very conflict?
I think by its nature itself it shouldn’t. I think what we’ve gotten ourselves away from is the fact that fundamentalism in any religion is narrow and is devastating. It’s exclusive, it’s too rigid, and fundamentalism—Christian or Muslim—is going to create a warring or contesting site because there’s only “our way and no other way” type of attitude that’s carried on. So it becomes very important that if we have a Christian leader in that capacity, that he’s, say, a Jimmy Carter, without the naivete that Jimmy Carter had, who brought humanitarianism and brought a lot of ideas that are coming into fruition now.

We weren’t ready for Jimmy Carter in the late ’70s. The world wasn’t ready for that kind of leader. His compassion, his humanitarism, was met with some scoffing, and obviously the Iran takeover really changed the ability for us to make it move. And my generation, who at that time was very supportive of this, became skeptics themselves. And I think that at that particular time, if they were like I was, they saw that politics was a ruse, and that people could be deceived so easily by political machinery and gamesmanship.

Have you always been a political idealist? I understand that in ‘64 you supported Barry Goldwater, correct?
Yeah, in college I was a very conservative kid brought up in a family that was very conservative. By the time I was out of college I was a liberal. At that particular time, I saw a lot of things happen, between Vietnam and Civil Rights and the war on poverty. It made us believe that politics could perhaps make changes and we could bring a change about in our system.

The Vietnam War was not stopped, but it certainly was curtailed by the protesting. Educational, financial, and a lot of other aid was extended and even though we are hopeful of better racial relationships than we got immediately, we saw immediate progress in a financial aspect of a lot of people in this country that hadn’t had a chance. Even though perhaps affirmative action was not the fairest way to go about it, it still brought lots of change that was important.

But it’s slow. It’s a slow process. The mindset of a people has to be moved by events, and events are things that make changes. The September 11 event made a change. It’ll be a shift in our mentality in this country that could bring about an attitude of changes. People have an opportunity to go back and get traditional, get righteous, and get angry, and get in a position where we are going to be seeking revenge or we can move forward and say “What’s the matter with this picture and how do we remedy it?”

But doesn’t it take a charismatic leader to lead a country in that direction? I look to the Left and see nobody who’s very charismatic.
I don’t think there’s anyone that’s going to come out of the Left. I think it’s going to be a centrist, somebody in the center who’s going to be able to hold the economic foundations yet still be liberal, perhaps socially.

That’s why I keep coming back to you.
I think that’s a wonderful thing. When a person reaches a certain point in life where they know what they’re good at, what their insight is, that’s one thing. What their challenge is, what their capabilities are, moving into another work world, I think it’s really difficult to see it happen, to see it work that way.

Is basketball really that different from politics?
No. You’re dealing with a larger courtroom, you’re dealing with a … it’s still a team, it’s still a collective thought, it’s still being able to influence people. It’s a salesmanship of a sort. You get people to believe that whatever system or whatever systems of ideas you have are workable.

Do you feel you need more of a one-on-one to convey that?
I don’t think so. I think people can be persuaded in groups. I felt that perhaps Bill Bradley’s difficult challenge was that he couldn’t convey that to large groups of people. He conveyed that to groups of 100 to 200, perhaps not to groups of 1,000 to 2,000. And maybe that was a place where people wanted to see an enthusiastic large crowd nodding their heads, shedding a tear, raising their fist, and clapping their hands.

But I think that in my set of beliefs, there’s just what’s in front of you and that’s basically what you try to deal with, and when you start to look at politics and it becomes such a giant picture. And there’s that Peter Principle, of a person overstepping the capabilities of their life, the capabilities that they’re able to deal with, that run the chance of maybe making a mess out of things. And that’s basically what I would be immediately afraid of if I ever stepped into politics.

What if you ran with Bill Bradley as a ticket? You would offset some of each others negative, such as the fact Bradley was perceived as sort of a dull policy wonk.
I think I would like to be part of a team. I mean, I can believe that there’s a group of people who I could back that had perception and vision that was close to mine, yet I think that this next election perhaps may not be the time, but it’s going to be close to the time, when we start making that move. There’s got to be a rallying force of people that get an idea and then move on that idea and that idea has to be something that brings that shift that we talked about into a movement or an idea of people who are willing to support it not only by their conversation, but also financially.

And with your contract with Lakers ending just before the next presidential election, you’d be in a position to get involved if that moment arrived, right?
Yeah, I know and I’m trying to talk Bill Bradley into running again, because he has the knowledge of the machinery.

Has he ever suggested you running with him?
We’ve never talked about it in those terms. We’ve talked about being part of a team and being on the team and trying again. I was very fortunate to work on his campaign. I went to the AFL-CIO union meeting down in Florida and watched the process of those 32 unions getting together. Bill and I sat in one day with eight to 10 of those leaders—steelworkers, educators, auto workers, all these people, all the way through the day. You realize that the Democratic Party is supposedly the party of the workers, right? At the end, they came and said “We’re going to support Al Gore. We supported this administration, it’s been good to us.” And I saw this edge that Bill had to try and form to try and convince them how he could help them economically. Some of them were against NAFTA. Some were fighting against the import of steel into this country. They all had their individual interests, and politics in this country is about who’s lining whose pockets or who’s helping someone line someone’s pocket, and people have to move beyond that. We have to find something that moves us beyond that.

Then perhaps independent campaigns like Ross Perot’s are the only way to create real change?
I think a populist party campaign is maybe the thing that can sweep it. But there are so many institutions that are sitting there waiting to drop the ball on the thing. Ross Perot may have had the best chance ever of anyone in my history. George Wallace was back there, McGovern.

I’ve been against the two-party system for the last 15 to 20 years, and it is time to think about a third party. But it’s also an impossibility, because every time you write your taxes out and check the box for parties getting a dollar, you’re giving $50-$75 million to the party campaign, so you can’t run a campaign without being in one of the two parties. It’s an uphill battle and we desperately need more choices than we have. Our children know that, the adults need to know that.

But does it take someone like a Phil Jackson to create that, someone high profile, independent, charismatic?
Yes. I was thinking about Bono [lead singer of U2] just now when we were talking about a populist guy. You know, he’s over in Africa right now with [Treasury Secretary Paul] O’Neill talking about the economics of Africa, and I was thinking that this is someone who can make a difference. He’s got enough scope outside his own popularity where he could make a difference. But he’s not American, he’s an Irishman.

But it would seem that you’re an even better figure because you have proven leadership abilities.
There’s something to be said about leadership, but you have to build a following, and a following is a lot different than having a basketball team. It takes courage to step out and start something that is very small and needs to be grown.

And you might have a hard time with the Sacramento vote. How do you feel about being so criticized up here?
[Laughs] It’s the playfulness that I love about sports. There’s a serious nature we attach to sports that I think it’s so much fun, it gets our civic rivalry going. But I really enjoy coming up here to Sacramento and walking the neighborhoods around the hotel. I mean, I had a guy call me up at 7 in the morning last Monday and rang a cowbell in the telephone, and I said that’s very clever and hung up. But most people are friendly and get a real chuckle out of it.

What is the main difference between leading a team and leading a nation?
In politics, you are trying to sway people’s minds and help them believe in something that you think is important for them to move towards. And in doing so, they have to sacrifice something. The union doesn’t get a favor, the corporation doesn’t get a tax break, there’s always someone who has to give up something for someone else.

In sports, you’re striving for something that is an attainable goal. In politics, your goal is what? Peace, elimination of hunger and disease, protecting your citizens? Wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing if people passionately believed in something that was beneficial for others?

If you thought that was possible, would you run?
Yes, I probably would, because I was brought up to believe in righteousness of causes and in doing good works.


So it may not have been the strongest commitment to run, but it’s too early for that anyway. The major political parties and mainstream media in this country would destroy him before he ever got out of the starting gate if he started publicly talking about running for president now.

Men like Phil Jackson can only suffer fools for so long, so there’s no way that he could spend two years glad-handing on the presidential campaign trail, as George W. Bush did. Eventually, Jackson would bristle at the process or say something too candidly and lose his momentum, and then the ship is sunk.

He would need to fast break and stop-and-pop his way into office, starting strong and piling it on like Shaq, Kobe and the boys when they’re at their best: astounding the crowd with gravity-defying acrobatics and monster dunks, pounding the ball home on the inside like an unstoppable force of nature, playing defense with offense in mind, and hitting from the three-point line with an accuracy that demoralizes the opposition.

Jackson didn’t commit, and he’s probably wary about pursuing a soul-sapping endeavor like running for leader of the free world. But I saw that twinkle in his eye when he began warming up to the concept. He’s thinking about it, maybe now more than ever. In the parlance of sports psychology, I got into his head.

And once the Kings end the Lakers season this weekend, Jackson will have plenty of time to ponder what could be.