Poetry in Motion: The Literature of Basketball, Weeks 1 and 2 – Mike and Phil and the Other Mike and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Pump up the tiny plastic bubble on your sneakers and unleash theme weaver John Tesh from his crypt: the National Basketball Association’s sixty-sixth season has begun.  With it begins a new recurring feature at Vol. 1 entitled Poetry in Motion, chronicling “the week that was” in hoops news through the slam-dunked lens of literature.

Connoisseurs know that b-ball coaching legend Phil Jackson credits Robert M. Pirsig’s 1974 bestseller Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance with offering him a lifetime of wisdom both on and off the court, even garnering him the nickname of “Zen Master”.  Record setting in his command of the Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls to a combined eleven league championships, Jackson was rumored to be returning to the Lakers this week after franchise management hastily fired coach Mike Brown just days into their new season, after the expensive, superstar-rich squad slumped into a sluggish 1-4 win-loss record.  Yet at the 11th hour, the Lakers opted to instead hire former Phoenix Suns and New York Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni, a seemingly solid dude who looks like he should be playing the neighbor mechanic on a ’70s sitcom.

From Maintenance, Pirsig seems to offers guidance to all three gentlemen.  For Phil: “You look at where you’re going and where you are and it never makes sense, but then you look back at where you’ve been and a pattern seems to emerge.”  For D’Antoni, whose start with the team will be delayed by recovery from knee surgery: “We want to make good time, but for us now this is measured with the emphasis on ‘good’ rather than on ‘time’…”  Pirsig even has sage advice for the departing Mike Brown: “Sometimes it’s a little better to travel than to arrive.”

Yet Jackson’s reading list doesn’t begin and end with Pirsig alone.  In fact, at the start of each season of coaching, Phil buys each player on his team a book to take with them on the first long road trip of the season, hoping it will expand their inquiries beyond the parquet floor.  His selections are often pretty fantastic: early in the 2009-2010 season, he gifted works as varied and interesting as Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang to Deadhead small forward Luke Walton, Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver to NBA labor union president and former Lakers point guard Derek Fisher, and most amazingly of all, Roberto Bolano’s obtuse, nine hundred and twelve page masterpiece 2666 to Barcelona native/power forward Pau Gasol.  Not surprising then that controversial halftime Hennessey drinker and crowd brawler Ron Artest – then starting his first season with the Lakers – received a professor-shill style copy of Jackson’s third book, 1995’s Sacred Hoops: Lessons from a Hardwood Warrior.  Was Jackson’s syllabus the first step in Artest legally changing his name to “Metta World Peace”?  Only Siddhartha knows for certain.

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