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Phil Jackson: The Lubricating Oil

Phil Jackson never saw a movie until his senior year in high school. TV? His family didn't own one. Dancing? Not allowed. For a while he thought he'd follow his parents, both Assemblies of God ministers in Montana, into soul saving.

But he ended up playing in the NBA, experimenting with LSD, living in Woodstock, coaching the world's most famous athlete, moving to Los Angeles and dating the boss' daughter -- The Man's daughter? Did I mention she's posed nude for Playboy?

OK, so I may have skipped over a few details.

Zen Schmen

Somewhere in there, Jackson collected more titles than any other NBA coach all the while hearing snide comments from his peers. Arrogant. Egomaniac. Front runner.

An NBA coach read a column I wrote making the case for Jackson as Coach of the Year several seasons ago. He saw me coming toward him down a hallway the same day. His disdain was palpable. I had to be kidding, right? No, I said, I wasn't kidding. Well, then, I simply didn't know what coaching was all about.

Red Auerbach, the legendary Boston Celtics coach and architect, griped that Jackson "picked his spots" as an NBA coach. The shorthand: He had Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in Chicago, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles. Who couldn't win with that?

Auerbach's nine NBA titles -- eight of them consecutively -- was the standard until Jackson won his 10th two seasons ago when the Lakers dispatched Orlando in five games.

Jackson immediately donned a Roman numeral "X" hat. He said his kids gave it to him. Not the classiest move for sure to make it all about himself. Then again, it's not as if he lit a cigar on the bench.

The 11th title for Jackson came just a few weeks ago in a Game 7 squeaker over Red's old team, after which Jackson hopped in his car and drove to Montana to contemplate retirement.

Auerbach, who died in 2006, wasn't so insanely protective of his legacy that he didn't see the value of Jackson's approach. In fact, he allowed that Jackson was a "great coach." What a concession. You mean, Auerbach didn't have a locker room full of Hall of Famers in Boston? He won with inspiration and perspiration?

Old Red simply had more respect for coaches who took on the bigger challenge of molding mediocrity into excellence.

"He never tried building a team and teaching the fundamentals," Auerbach was quoted saying. "When he's gone in there, they've been ready-made for him. It's just a matter of putting his system in there. They don't worry about developing players if they're not good enough. They just go get someone else."

Well, now...Jackson dispelled that notion when he reclaimed a Lakers team that hit the skids in 2004-05 without Jackson and went 34-48. He rehabilitated a team that no longer had Shaquille O'Neal, mending a failed relationship with Kobe Bryant (Bryant called Jackson's triangle offense "boring"; Jackson wrote a book calling Bryant "uncoachable.")

The result? Five years later, the Lakers are back-to-back champs. If Jackson returns, he's in position for his fourth "threepeat."

Reading List

Phil Jackson's attempts to get players to think beyond basketball has led to a tradition. Every year, he goes to the bookstore and buys each player a book to take on the first long trip of the season.

Here's what he handed out to his 2009-2010 Lakers in January:
Ron Artest: "Sacred Hoops" by Phil Jackson.
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Luke Walton: "The Monkey Wrench Gang" by Edward Abbey.
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Pau Gasol: "2666" by Roberto Bolano.
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Sasha Vujacic: "Reservation Blues" by Sherman Alexie.
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Andrew Bynum: "Six Easy Pieces" by Walter Mosley.
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Shannon Brown: "Dreams from My Father" by Barack Obama.
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Kobe Bryant: "Montana 1948" by Larry Watson.
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Derek Fisher: "Soul on Ice" by Eldridge Cleaver.
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Josh Powell: "The Souls of Black Folk" by W.E.B. Du Bois.
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Jordan Farmar: "Makes Me Wanna Holler" by Nathan McCall.
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DJ Mbenga: "Monster: The Autobiography of an LA Gang Member" by Sanyika Shakur.
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Adam Morrison: "Che: A Graphic Biography" by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon.
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Lamar Odom: "The Right Mistake" by Walter Mosley.

(Note: Kobe Bryant says he never reads Jackson's suggestions)

Auerbach's gripe and the grudging applause from other coaches is understandable on some fundamental level, I guess. A coach is as good as his talent. And Jackson always had more talent than most. He's also tweaked egos, challenged convention and won more mind games with players than he lost by a long shot.

Picking his spots? Most of the coaches who found fault with Jackson would've done the same given the opportunity.

Show me a race car driver who opts to prove his greatness by choosing the slow car in the field and I'll show you a guy choking on exhaust fumes as he gets lapped.

It's more accurate to say that the opportunities picked Jackson, rather than the other way around. Who couldn't win with Michael Jordan? Try Doug Collins. Who couldn't win with Shaq and Kobe? Ask Del Harris.

The Man in the Panama Hat

Teams weren't lining up to hire Jackson early in his career after he retired as a player (He won two titles with the Knicks as a gritty, long-armed defender who played hard and smart). The book he wrote in 1975 -- Maverick -- in which he revealed his experimentation with LSD, probably didn't help.

That counter-culture image followed Jackson to his first NBA interview. For the occasion, he wore a Panama hat with a macaw feather. Chicago was looking for an assistant to head coach Stan Albeck. He was, to put it mildly, a casual job seeker.

When Sports Illustrated NBA reporter Jack McCallum wrote about Jackson after the coach's first NBA title with the Bulls, he related how Jackson felt the need to tell Albeck about the legend and meaning of the feather in his hat.

"His eyes glazed over very early in the interview," Jackson told SI.

And, no, he didn't get a second interview.

When his detractors sniff that Jackson never paid his dues, it's a matter of definition. He coached in Puerto Rico during the summers. After his rejection in Chicago, he returned to Albany of the Continental Basketball Association where he won a title while trading in a short commute to live with his family in a holistic community near Woodstock.

It's not too difficult to get the reputation for being "different" in a clubhouse or locker room. If you can knock off a crossword puzzle or two, you're typecast as cerebral. If the puzzle is the New York Times and it's Saturday, you're viewed as a possible consultant for the next Shuttle launch.

(Former Cleveland Indians pitcher Charles Nagy once told me how he got chosen to be the team representative in the player's association. "I made the mistake of wearing glasses to the ball park one day," Nagy said. "They thought I looked smart." He was half kidding. I think.)

Jackson wasn't just a bookworm as a player and coach. He wasn't just curious. In the NBA mindset, his interest in Eastern philosophies pretty much made him a meditating lama compared to those around him. A coach who considers author Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance a spiritual manual is going to be met with a full eye roll if he tries to apply any of that to life in the NBA.

"Like Lubricating Oil"

When Jackson got a second call to interview in Chicago a few seasons after he failed to land the assistant job, GM Jerry Krause told him to lose the Panama hat. He fit the mold better. He got hired as Collins' assistant and took over when the Bulls felt a coaching change was necessary.

Collins believed Jackson campaigned for the job behind his back, even pretending to embrace Tex Winters' triple post "triangle" offense. Maybe he did. But it would've made no sense for Jackson to simply espouse the triangle to get the job. The greatest player in the world, Jordan, didn't especially care for it.

Through gaining trust in Jackson, Jordan came to trust the triangle. Jackson's offense was Winters' offense. His defense was assistant John Bach's defense. But the team? The team was always his in Chicago. It was no different in either of his tours of L.A. though Kobe Bryant put that to the test.

At the time of the Sports Illustrated profile of Jackson, the coach's wife, June, said, "Phil's like lubricating oil. He keeps everything moving."

Not the highest coaching praise perhaps but surely the most accurate.

Living in the Moment

It's well chronicled that Jackson won with Hall of Fame talent like Jordan, Pippen, Shaq and Kobe. (And an All-Star in Pau Gasol).

In winning 11 titles, Jackson massaged egos big and bigger. He reached the straightest of arrows and the oddballs alike (C'mon down, Ron Artest).

Jordan and Bryant, two of the strongest personalities in the game, came to embrace Jackson's ways. All that living in the moment stuff that so many of Jackson's peers thought was bunk? Jordan epitomized it, recognizing how his energy had to fit in the flow and not necessarily steer the action.

Bryant was slower to come around. He may not yet "get" Jackson the way Jordan did. There's no debate, though, that Bryant has become a walking advertisement for what Jackson has always considered his mission when it comes to dealing with players: "to strengthen the muscle of their mind."

Bryant is lobbying for Jackson to return. So is Lakers' guard Derek Fisher who recently told ESPN.com that he can't believe Lakers ownership is even floating the idea of a paycut for Jackson after consecutive titles.

"In terms of my feelings about him: He's remarkable," Fisher said. "It's sad to me when you think about what he's accomplished in his career, that he still always has to deal with these type of scenarios where there's a question of whether or not he's the best person for the job, or he's not really coaching because of the players that he's had.

"He's just a remarkable human being in terms of his approach to managing and coaching the team. I think not even just the Lakers, but the NBA as a whole, would lose a big part of what this game has been about the last 20 years if he's not back. If he's not back, it changes the whole landscape."

Jackson will turn 65 in September. He fought kidney stones and a bad hip last season. He walks like the Tin Man left to rust in a monsoon.

Eleven titles as a coach. Two as a player. How can that be an unlucky number when it's also been his yellowbrick road?

Bud Shaw is a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer who has also written for the Philadelphia Daily News, San Diego Union-Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The National. You can read his Plain Dealer columns at Cleveland.com, and read all his mental_floss articles here.

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25 Wonderful Facts About It’s a Wonderful Life
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Mary Owen wasn’t welcomed into the world until more than a decade after Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life made its premiere in 1946. But she grew up cherishing the film and getting the inside scoop on its making from its star, Donna Reed—who just so happens to be her mom. Though Reed passed away in 1986, Owen has stood as one of the film’s most dedicated historians, regularly introducing screenings of the ultimate holiday classic, including during its annual run at New York City’s IFC Center. She shared some of her mom’s memories with us to help reveal 25 things you might not have known about It’s a Wonderful Life.

1. IT ALL BEGAN WITH A CHRISTMAS CARD.

After years of unsuccessfully trying to shop his short story, The Greatest Gift, to publishers, Philip Van Doren Stern decided to give the gift of words to his closest friends for the holidays when he printed up 200 copies of the story and sent them out as a 21-page Christmas card. David Hempstead, a producer at RKO Pictures, ended up getting a hold of it, and purchased the movie rights for $10,000.

2. CARY GRANT WAS SET TO STAR IN THE ADAPTATION.

When RKO purchased the rights, they did so with the plan of having Cary Grant in the lead. But, as happens so often in Hollywood, the project went through some ups and downs in the development process. In 1945, after a number of rewrites, RKO sold the movie rights to Frank Capra, who quickly recruited Jimmy Stewart to play George Bailey.

3. DOROTHY PARKER WORKED ON THE SCRIPT.


Getty Images

By the time It’s a Wonderful Life made it into theaters, the story was much different from Stern’s original tale. That’s because more than a half-dozen people contributed to the screenplay, including some of the most acclaimed writers of the time—Dorothy Parker, Dalton Trumbo, Marc Connelly, and Clifford Odets among them.

4. SCREENWRITERS FRANCES GOODRICH AND ALBERT HACKETT WALKED OUT.

Though they’re credited as the film’s screenwriters with Capra, the husband and wife writing duo were not pleased with the treatment they received from Capra. “Frank Capra could be condescending,” Hackett said in an interview, “and you just didn't address Frances as ‘my dear woman.’ When we were pretty far along in the script but not done, our agent called and said, ‘Capra wants to know how soon you'll be finished.’ Frances said, ‘We're finished right now.’ We put our pens down and never went back to it.”

5. CAPRA DIDN’T DO THE BEST JOB OF SELLING THE FILM TO STEWART.

After laying out the plot line of the film for Stewart in a meeting, Capra realized that, “This really doesn’t sound so good, does it?” Stewart recalled in an interview. Stewart’s reply? “Frank: If you want me to be in a picture about a guy that wants to kill himself and an angel comes down named Clarence who can’t swim and I save him, when do we start?”

6. IT WAS DONNA REED’S FIRST STARRING ROLE.


Getty Images

Though Donna Reed was hardly a newcomer when It’s a Wonderful Life rolled around, having appeared in nearly 20 projects previously, the film did mark her first starring role. It’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the role today, but Reed had some serious competition from Jean Arthur. “[Frank Capra] had seen mom in They Were Expendable and liked her,” Mary Owen told Mental Floss. “When Capra met my mother at MGM, he knew she'd be just right for Mary Bailey.”

7. MARY OWEN IS NOT NAMED AFTER MARY BAILEY.

Before you ask whether Owen was named after her mom’s much beloved It’s a Wonderful Life character, “The answer is no,” says Owen. “I was named after my great grandmother, Mary Mullenger.”

8. BEULAH BONDI WAS A PRO AT PLAYING STEWART’S MOM.

Beulah Bondi, who plays Mrs. Bailey, didn’t need a lot of rehearsal to play Jimmy Stewart’s mom. She had done it three times previously—in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Of Human Hearts, and Vivacious Lady—and once later on The Jimmy Stewart Show: The Identity Crisis.

9. CAPRA, REED, AND STEWART HAVE ALL CALLED IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE THEIR FAVORITE MOVIE.


Liberty Films

Though their collective filmographies consist of a couple hundred movies, Capra, Reed, and Stewart have all cited It’s a Wonderful Life as their favorite movie. In his autobiography, The Name Above the Title, Capra took that praise even one step further, writing: “I thought it was the greatest film I ever made. Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody ever made.”

10. THE MOVIE BOMBED AT THE BOX OFFICE.

Though it has become a quintessential American classic, It’s a Wonderful Life was not an immediate hit with audiences. In fact, it put Capra $525,000 in the hole, which left him scrambling to finance his production company’s next picture, State of the Union.

11. A COPYRIGHT LAPSE AIDED THE FILM’S POPULARITY.

Though it didn’t make much of a dent at the box office, It’s a Wonderful Life found a whole new life on television—particularly when its copyright lapsed in 1974, making it available royalty-free to anyone who wanted to show it for the next 20 years. (Which would explain why it was on television all the time during the holiday season.) The free-for-all ended in 1994.

12. THE ROCK THAT BROKE THE WINDOW OF THE GRANVILLE HOUSE WAS ALL REAL.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain 

Though Capra had a stuntman at the ready in order to shoot out the window of the Granville House in a scene that required Donna Reed to throw a rock through it, it was all a waste of money. “Mom threw the rock herself that broke the window in the Granville House,” Owen says. “On the first try.”

13. IT TOOK TWO MONTHS TO BUILD BEDFORD FALLS.

Shot on a budget of $3.7 million (which was a lot by mid-1940s standards), Bedford Falls—which covered a full four acres of RKO’s Encino Ranch—was one of the most elaborate movie sets ever built up to that time, with 75 stores and buildings, 20 fully-grown oak trees, factories, residential areas, and a 300-yard-long Main Street.

14. SENECA FALLS, NEW YORK IS “THE REAL BEDFORD FALLS.”

Though Bedford Falls is a fictitious place, the town of Seneca Falls, New York swears that it's the real-life inspiration for George Bailey’s charming hometown. And each year they program a full lineup of holiday-themed events to put locals (and yuletide visitors) into the holiday spirit.

15. THE GYM FLOOR-TURNED-SWIMMING POOL WAS REAL.

Though the bulk of the film was filmed on pre-built sets, the dance at the gym was filmed on location at Beverly Hills High School. And the retractable floor was no set piece. Better known as the Swim Gym, the school is currently in the process of restoring the landmark filming location.

16. ALFALFA IS THE TEENAGER BEHIND THAT SWIMMING POOL PRANK.

Though he’s uncredited in the part, if Freddie Othello—the little prankster who pushes the button that opens the pool that swallows George and Mary up—looks familiar, that’s because he is played by Carl Switzer, a.k.a. Alfalfa of The Little Rascals.

17. DONNA REED WON $50 FROM LIONEL BARRYMORE ... FOR MILKING A COW.

Though she was a Hollywood icon, Donna Reed—born Donnabelle Mullenger—was a farm girl at heart who came to Los Angeles by way of Denison, Iowa. Lionel Barrymore (a.k.a. Mr. Potter) didn’t believe it. “So he bet $50 that she couldn't milk a cow,” recalls Owen. “She said it was the easiest $50 she ever made.”

18. THE FILM WAS SHOT DURING A HEAT WAVE.

It may be an iconic Christmas movie, but It’s a Wonderful Life was actually shot in the summer of 1946—in the midst of a heat wave, no less. At one point, Capra had to shut filming down for a day because of the sky-high temperatures—which also explains why Stewart is clearly sweating in key moments of the film.

19. CAPRA ENGINEERED A NEW KIND OF MOVIE SNOW.

Capra—who trained as an engineer—and special effects supervisor Russell Shearman engineered a new type of artificial snow for the film. At the time, painted cornflakes were the most common form of fake snow, but they posed a bit of an audio problem for Capra. So he and Shearman opted to mix foamite (the stuff you find in fire extinguishers) with sugar and water to create a less noisy option.

20. THE MOVIE WASN’T REQUIRED VIEWING IN REED’S HOUSEHOLD.

Though It’s a Wonderful Life is a staple of many family holiday movie marathons, that wasn’t the case in Reed’s home. In fact, Owen herself didn’t see the film until three decades after its release. “I saw it in the late 1970s at the Nuart Theatre in L.A. and loved it,” she says.

21. ZUZU DIDN’T SEE THE FILM UNTIL 1980.

Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu in the film, didn’t see the film until 1980. “I never took the time to see the movie,” she told Detroit’s WWJ in 2013. “I never just sat down and watched the film.”

22. THE FBI SAW THE FILM. THEY DIDN’T LIKE IT.

In 1947, the FBI issued a memo noting the film as a potential “Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry,” citing its “rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a ‘Scrooge-type’ so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists.”

23. THE MOVIE’S BERT AND ERNIE HAVE NO RELATION TO SESAME STREET.

Yes, the cop and cab driver in It’s a Wonderful Life are named Bert and Ernie, respectively. But Jim Henson’s longtime writing partner, Jerry Juhl, insists that it’s by coincidence only that they share their names with Sesame Street’s stripe-shirted buds. “I was the head writer for the Muppets for 36 years and one of the original writers on Sesame Street,” Juhl told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2000. “The rumor about It's a Wonderful Life has persisted over the years. I was not present at the naming, but I was always positive [the rumor] was incorrect. Despite his many talents, Jim had no memory for details like this. He knew the movie, of course, but would not have remembered the cop and the cab driver. I was not able to confirm this with Jim before he died, but shortly thereafter I spoke to Jon Stone, Sesame Street's first producer and head writer and a man largely responsible for the show's format … He assured me that Ernie and Bert were named one day when he and Jim were studying the prototype puppets. They decided that one of them looked like an Ernie, and the other one looked like a Bert. The movie character names are purely coincidental.”

24. SOME PEOPLE ARE ANXIOUS FOR A SEQUEL.

Well, two people: Producers Allen J. Schwalb and Bob Farnsworth, who announced in 2013 that they would be continuing the story with a sequel, It’s a Wonderful Life: The Rest of the Story, which they planned for a 2015 release. It didn’t take long for Paramount, which owns the copyright, to step in and assure furious fans of the original film that “No project relating to It’s a Wonderful Life can proceed without a license from Paramount. To date, these individuals have not obtained any of the necessary rights, and we would take all appropriate steps to protect those rights.”

25. THE FILM’S ENDURING LEGACY WAS SURPRISING TO CAPRA.

“It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen," Capra said of the film’s classic status. "The film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud… but it’s the kid who did the work. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”

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Listen to What Darth Vader Sounded Like On the Star Wars Set
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

The voice of Darth Vader, provided by James Earl Jones, is one of the most iconic aspects of the original Star Wars movies. But James Earl Jones wasn't the actor wearing that outfit—it was British actor David Prowse, who was cast in part because he was huge (reportedly 6'5" and a former body-building champion).

George Lucas always intended to replace Prowse's voice, but it's still a bit of a shock to hear a muffled British voice coming out of Darth Vader's helmet. Here's video showing what Darth Vader sounded like on the set before James Earl Jones re-recorded the dialogue.

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