A few months ago, when Steve Kerr was suffering through pain related to a spinal-fluid leak, he called on a friend from his Chicago Bulls days for help.
“I needed to gain the proper perspective to allow to me heal,” Kerr says.
Kerr’s call wasn’t to Phil Jackson, Scottie Pippen or Michael Jordan.
It was George Mumford.
You may not know Mumford, but he played a role in the Bulls’ success in the 1990s -- and in Kerr’s return to the court this season.
Here’s how Kerr describes it:
“When you have a lot of pain, there’s only so much you can do. But one of the things you can do is breathe through it and try to get in the right mindset of ‘This isn’t going to last forever.’ And accept it and live with it... that’s what we talked about; George is one of the people that I’ve leaned on during this time just to try to help me get through it.”
What Kerr’s talking about here -- and what Mumford specializes in -- is mindfulness training.
It’s a form of meditation that stresses the importance of staying in the moment. It's most closely associated with with Eastern religions. Phil Jackson, Kerr’s old boss, asked Mumford to work with his players in Chicago and Los Angeles on mindfulness training -- and he’s brought Mumford to New York as well.
Mumford meets with the Knicks regularly throughout the season. He talks to them as a group in the film room or in one-on-one sessions. Some Knicks have found the talks valuable.
“People’s minds can be anywhere during the game or practice, throughout the season,” Jerian Grant says. “He helps to get your mind right, gets your mind on different things and helps you relax... I’ve been up and down at times, my mind’s been racing coming from college to the NBA, so whenever we get those moments I try to take advantage.”
Grant’s assessment of the Mumford sessions is similar to that of his teammates. Robin Lopez, Arron Afflalo, Lance Thomas, Langston Galloway, Derrick Williams, Sasha Vujacic and Lou Amundson all say Mumford’s work has helped them stay in the moment.
“He’s there to remind us of the things we need to think about,” the rookie says. “How to stay focused while we’re practicing, while we’re playing. How to fight with your frustrations, things like that.”
There’s been plenty of frustration this season in New York. The Knicks are at the tail end of another year filled with losses and off-court drama. Patience with Jackson appears to be wearing thin among certain segments of the Knicks fan base (some of whom can probably use as a session with Mumford).
Those fans frustrated with Jackson may dismiss Mumford’s tutorials as another Zen Master tactic that may have worked in the past but is no longer effective.
Bill Wennington, however, doesn’t see it that way. The former Bulls center worked with Mumford in Chicago and found value in his words, particularly when Wennington was dealing with off-court family issues.
He thinks today’s players need someone like Mumford more than ever.
“There are so many more distractions today, especially with social media and everything that’s going on,” Wennington says. “The eras may be different, but the psychology, the mind, is the same. These guys can benefit from it.”
Kerr would probably agree. He remembers the role Mumford played while was away from the sideline, dealing with the pain. Now, of course, he’s back on his feet, coaching a Warriors team that has a chance to make history in the coming days.
“George helped me put my mind in the right place,” Kerr says.
The question now is: can Mumford do the same for the Knicks?