In Buddhist teachings the term skillful means is used to describe an approach to making decisions and dealing with problems in a way that is appropriate to the situation and causes no harm. Skillful means always arise out of compassion, and when a problem emerges, the idea is to address the offense without denying the humanity of the offender. A parent who packs a kid off to bed for spilling milk instead of handing the child a sponge is not practicing skillful means.
Like large families, basketball teams are highly charged, competitive groups. Because you win or lose as a team, individual recognition sometimes gets lost in the larger effort. The result is heightened sensitivity. Everybody is competing with everybody else all the time, and alliances are sometimes tentative and uneasy a fact of pro sports life that works against deepening intimacy. Players are always complaining about not getting their fair share of playing time or having their role on the team diminished.
Though some coaches try to settle differences in team meetings, I prefer to deal with them on an individual basis. This helps strengthen my one-on-one connection with the players, who sometimes get neglected because we spend so much of our time together en masse. Meeting with players privately helps me stay in touch with who they are out of uniform. During the 1995 playoffs, for instance, Toni Kukoc was troubled by reports that Split, Croatia, where his parents live, had been hit by a barrage of artillery fire. It took several days for him to get through on the phone and learn that his family was all right. The war in his homeland is a painful reality of Toni's life. If I ignored that, I probably wouldn't be able to relate to him on any but the most superficial level.
Athletes are not the most verbal breed. That's why bare attention and listening without judgment are so important. When you're a leader, you have to be able to read accurately the subtle messages players send out. To do that means being fully present with beginner's mind. Over the years I've learned to listen closely to players-not just to what they say, but also to their body language and the silence between the words.
I find it amusing when people ask me where I get my ideas for motivating players. The answer is: in the moment. My approach to problem-solving is the same as my approach to the game. When a problem arises, I try to read the situation as accurately as possible and respond spontaneously to whatever's happening. I rarely try to apply someone else's ideas to the problem-something I've read in a book, for instance-because that would keep me from tuning in and discovering a fresh, original solution, the most skillful means.
During the 1991 playoffs, Philadelphia's Armon Gilliam was doing a dance on our front line. Scottie was too small to guard him, and Horace had trouble containing him. So, in an inspired moment, I decided to throw Scott Williams, then an untested rookie, at Gilliam, and it worked. To keep Scott from losing his composure in the closing minutes of the game, I told Jordan to keep his eye on him. From then on, Scott, who like Michael is a North Carolina alum, became Jordan's personal project. because I refused to play the game by the book.
Ultimately, leadership takes a lot of what St. Paul called faith: "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1). You have to trust your inner knowing. If you have a clear mind and an open heart, you won't have to search for direction. Direction will come to you.
(From Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior, by Phil Jackson and Hugh Delehanty. NY: Hyperion, 1995, pp. 162-164.)