The Lakers have an opportunity to prove, on Thursday, that they are the best team in the world. They are favored to do so. And if you listen to the coaching staff, they will be uniquely prepared to do so thanks to the team's carefully cultivated meditation habits.
The Laker coaching staff is focused on relaxing the players, even though one of the most consistent critiques of the team has been their occasional non-chalance. There is barely ever even the slightest shred of desperation about how they carry themselves. Not much in the way of screaming coaches or players flying off the handle. Bobby Knight is not about to walk through that door. When they lose, fans find it frustrating how the team never seems to get a quick pulse.
Phil Jackson often refuses to call a timeout, instead just sitting there, watching, drawing one of the largest coaching paychecks in the known universe apparently merely to spectate and exude calm. (And when he does call timeout, he typically passes much of it merely chatting with assistant coaches, before either speaking, or not, to the players only for five or ten seconds after the buzzer has already called the players back to the court.)
Anyone who has ever seen a sports movie knows that getting mentally prepared for a monumental challenge -- like a Game 7 -- means screaming, hooting, hollering and generally getting oneself warlike and adrenalized.
And that's exactly what the Laker coaching staff will not be doing the day of Game 7.
Instead, by careful design, before shootaround the team will assemble in the comfortable chairs in the film room at their practice facility in El Segundo. Phil Jackson will say a few words, and then the lights will be turned off, and everyone will have instructions to pay attention to nothing but the in and out of their breathing. For five to ten minutes they'll sit in the dark, and nobody will say anything. They do not chant. "Breathing in silence" is the goal. Afterwards, they will watch film.
It's mandatory to be in the room, but this is not a graded exercise. "It's not a requirement. We don't go around and check," says assistant coach Jim Cleamons. "They could very well be asleep."
But for some of the Lakers, this meditation practice has become momentous. Derek Fisher says he gets a lot out of it. Lamar Odom re-creates aspects of it in his mind as he walks to the free throw line. Pau Gasol, according to Cleamons, is enthusiastic. During many timeouts, instead of talking to the team, Jackson will instruct them to reenact the meditation session by sitting together on the sideline to "share a breath."
When things happen that might be stressful -- a trip to the free throw line, the other team making a run, a hard foul -- the Lakers are all likely to very consciously take a breath or two to get centered. And setting that mood starts on game day mornings in the film room.
How important is it? Would the team fall apart if they skipped the meditation session? Assistant coach Chuck Person -- who says he never meditated before he worked for the Lakers, but meditates every day now -- fielded that question: "Oh," he says, a little startled. "We're not going to skip it."
"Just quiet meditation," explains Cleamons, "in order for them to understand the business at hand for that evening. If we're going through some turbulent times, to help us get focused."
"I took coaching theory classes at college," says Cleamons. "Those athletes who don't tense up in the most stressful times, they flow freely. Basketball is all about skills. Being able to move quickly. Shooting is all about visualization and focusing on the rim. Ball-handling is about being able to pick the ball up. Defensively, you've got to concentrate on team sets, and see things in advance. It all comes down to a presence of mind and a clarity ... the mind being comfortable plays a great role in your success."
But what about the team getting in a circle and screaming in each other's faces? What about the ways athletes get psyched up in movies?
Cleamons, every muscle in his face relaxed, his voice dripping calm, is unimpressed.
"That psyched up stuff doesn't work. If you get psyched up, at some point in time you get psyched down," he says. "Let's take the game tomorrow night. A lot of people think it's a big game. ... The purpose is to give yourself an opportunity to get your best performance. It's not about winning. There's a difference. You want your best performance. You want your teammates' best performance. And if you provide your best performance chances are you will win. But in order to have your best performance, you have to be relaxed."
A lot of Laker fans and critics say the Lakers are sometimes too relaxed, but Cleamons says that's something he never worries about: "Fans," he says, "are fanatical. Their expectations are off the charts. You have to realize that you're not a robot. Even though you would like to give the exact same energy all the time, we don't. ... What you try and do is reach that level of consistency and stay there. Consider running track. If you're consistently a 9.9 sprinter in the 100 meters, then if you run 9.9, you're probably going to be in the upper echelon of your event. Every meet, you want to run 9.9. If a guy wants to beat you, he has got to run 9.8. If he runs 9.8 that night, you give him credit. But you know if you run your 9.9 you're going to be in the final. What we try to do is run 9.9 every night and there are nights the other team does bring more energy, more passion, more determination, but by and large I think the way we would like our team to play, they get the results we want over time. I like our history."
"He teaches calm," says Person, of his boss Phil Jackson. "He teaches you how to find your way in the maze, in the chaos. You can always go back and find yourself with that breath. I've learned during anxious moments, since I have been here with the Lakers, that that breath is very important to take to center yourself. Players do it. They get together, take a breath, collect their thoughts, so they can perform. ... We're going to take our breath and we're going to have one mind, one collective breath, and we're going to go out there and do it together. Phil teaches that, and he's great to learn from."
"Before the lights are turned off," says Person of the sessions like the Lakers will have the morning of Game 7, "there are a thousand things going through your mind. A thousand thoughts, personal, basketball-wise, or anything else. You start to focus on that breath, everything goes away. You're in complete darkness. It's just you and that breath. And when the lights come on you feel relaxed, you feel rejuvenated, and you have a rejuvenation period that carries forward onto the court."
What about the fact that sports are just about as macho a thing as there is, but meditation is really so tough? Person won't fight it. "It's very sexy," he says. "The approach is not macho at all. It's kind of cute, in a sense, that you've got a bunch of 250-pound athletes, strong and lean and they sit five minutes meditating with one another, trying to learn from their collective breath."
Mock it, he says, at your peril. He's confident it's the right thing to do. "Phil," he points out, "is the ultimate leader when it comes to the mental coaching game."
The Laker staff is convincing that meditation offers a major advantage, and one any team might consider employing. So ... do the Celtics do the same thing?
I told Glen Davis what his opponents will be doing before Game 7: "They meditate?" he replied, his face scrunched up in confusion. "In the dark? What is that? They just sit there? For real? ... Naw, I ain't trying that. If that's what they do to get ready for the game, hey: Whatever floats your boat."