The Tao of Luke: A coaching style built by championship mentors

From ESPN - December 7, 2017

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- There are times when Rob Pelinka will walk down the hallway from his office in the UCLA Health Training Center, past Magic Johnson's office where a flat screen television is almost always on ESPN, and down to Luke Walton's office.

Sometimes, the sounds of the Grateful Dead and other '70s classic rock will be blaring out of the head coach's office as Walton gets "in the zone." Other times, Pelinka will find the room as quiet as a library with Walton deep in meditation.

"I usually keep going when I see that," the Los Angeles Lakers' general manager said, laughing. "Man, I keep it moving. I wait until he is back in the present."

However, Luke Walton's present is deeply connected to his past and to a collection of champions who had the most influence on his life: From his father, Hall of Famer Bill Walton, to his longtime coach and mentor, 11-time champion Phil Jackson, to his first professional sideline boss, Steve Kerr, who collected five rings as a player and already has two more with the Warriors.

It takes a certain type of unflappable personality to handle coaching in the entertainment capital of the world with a point guard who has Hollywood-sized hype and comes with the most opinionated father in all of sports. Perhaps the type of even-keeled personality that has been molded by Walton's eclectic championship collection of mentors.

JEANIE BUSS POPS her head into an early October practice and finds Walton gathering his team at the center of the court to discuss the shooting in Las Vegas that took 58 lives just days before the Lakers are set to play a preseason game there.

The Lakers' owner watches the team meeting and sees Jackson's Zen finger prints all over it.

"[Jackson] knew that Luke was going to be somebody that would be a great coach," Buss said at the espnW: Women + Sports Summit in early October. "So now because of that relationship, he was talking to them about the emotions that people were feeling and he was encouraging them to share how they were feeling.

"I thought this is like a touch of something that Phil brought to him and I was so proud of what he was doing with these young men."

During the 2009-10 season, Walton's final full season as a player with the Lakers, the then-reserve forward was limited to 29 games due to a back injury and felt like he was not part of a Lakers team that was coming off a championship and on its way to another one.

"I was lost," he said.

While Walton was sidelined, Jackson had him sit in on coach's meetings and chart statistics from the bench during games. The gesture, Walton said, and Jackson's guidance meant "everything" to him. Walton did not know it at the time, but Jackson's move gave Walton his first major exposure to NBA head coaching, a priceless internship under the game's most successful coach and a daily tutorial on how Jackson's mind worked strategically.

"I do think Luke has a similar personality to Phil in that he is a coach that stays in the moment, you do not see him get too emotionally high or too emotionally low," Pelinka said. "He has a presence. He has a lot of confidence, but yet he approaches things with calmness, which is an enduring quality."

Walton is employing some of Jackson's methods but with a 2017 spin on it.

Pelinka introduced Walton to a meditation and mindfulness app company called "Headspace." The app guides its customers through sessions as short as 3 minutes, allowing 20-something NBA stars who might have a short attention span to meditate even on the way to a game.

Once a month, Headspace co-founder Andy Puddicombe visits the Lakers' film room on a game day, dims the lights and conducts a 15-minute meditation session while the players attempt to enter a state of relaxation in their plush chairs. The goal is to train their mental game by concentrating on eight areas -- motivation, focus, training, competition, communication, analysis, recovery and rehabilitation -- to get them relaxed but in an active state of readiness on game day. Walton hopes an app like this can help players cope with the pressures they face in today's social media-driven world.

"That is a whole different realm that no other generation of NBA player has ever had to deal with," Lakers rookie Kyle Kuzma said.

Puddicombe, who spent 10 years training to become a monk in Burma and Tibet, has worked with the British Olympic team, professional athletes and pro teams. Puddicombe worked with the New York Knicks the last two seasons when Jackson ran the franchise as team president.

While Jackson failed to build a winner in New York and seemed out of touch with Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis, Walton still uses some time-tested Jackson techniques to keep his team engaged and his message fresh.

Jackson used to love incorporating movie themes and scenes into game tape to break up the monotony of film sessions. During the Lakers' training camp this fall, Walton borrowed that method, using a scene from Denzel Washington's "Man on Fire" to drill his team into running more. Washington is training Dakota Fanning to start swim races faster by honing in on the sound of the starting pistol, using two wooden blocks to simulate the gun sound.

"It's the sound that will set you free," Washington's character says.

Preaching to the team to run off makes and misses, Walton had the team watch the clip of Washington training Fanning and then had Lakers assistant coach Jesse Mermuys smash two wooden blocks against each other, just like Washington, to signal the players to run in practice.

"[Jackson] has been a pretty big influence on me," Walton said. "Last year I tried a bunch to not call timeouts and let the guys figure it out like he used to do with us. I have gotten softer at it. In the middle of the game, Phil's thing was he used to love that you guys are in this mess, figure a way to get yourself out. We would either lose by 20 or have to come together on the court and figure out how to stop the bleeding."

While much of Walton's approach comes from the Jackson portfolio, Richard Jefferson, Walton's longtime friend and former teammate at Arizona, said the Lakers coach is more like his father.

"Oh he is a hippie," Jefferson said. "Make no mistake, that is Bill Walton's son out there. Say what you want about Phil and Steve, he grew up calling his dad, Bill. All you have to do is look at his dad. So when you start seeing the new wave stuff, do not just think that is from Phil Jackson."

Nuggets forward Richard Jefferson on Luke Walton

Warriors coach Steve Kerr on Luke Walton


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