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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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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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