I really enjoyed this between-quarters interview, and not only because Pop’s hug for Sager (who has been away from the game for a long time being treated for cancer) is heartwarming. No, I was especially taken with Pop’s explanation for pulling his whole first unit out of the game early on: “They were playing like crap, so we put in different guys. You’d have done the same thing.”
Let’s look at that again: “They were playing like crap, so we put in different guys. You’d have done the same thing.” Maybe this is it — maybe this is what coaching at the very highest level amounts to, when you strip away all the typical rhetoric. Another coach would have said, “Yeah, the back-to-back may have had an effect on our energy levels” or “I just felt we needed a change of pace” or “We had some matchup problems that I wanted to address.” But Pop: “Nah, they were playing like crap, so we put in different guys.”
Coaching reduced to its purest and simplest: you put some guys out there; if they play like crap, you take them out and put in different guys. Iterate. Over time, the guys who play like crap move to the end of the bench, and eventually off the team; meanwhile, the guys who don’t play like crap get more and more minutes.
Phil Jackson has long been called the Zen Master, but that’s because he talks a Zen game. Pop seems really to be living it. And like all the true masters, Pop is making sure Sager knows, and we know, that there’s no mystery to this, that the aura of expertise is essentially a ruse coaches deploy to celebrate and elevate themselves — to increase their market value. Pop, with his long career and five championships, is beyond all that. If we just could strip away all the obfuscation and see the task as clearly and simply as Pop does, if we truly practice shoshin, then his words would indeed be true: “You’d have done the same thing.”