Zen and the art of basketball sanity: The New York Knicks sit down for meditation

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By Hal Conick 

If you were a New York Knicks fan during the 2013-14 season, chances are you were very stressed out while watching your team play. After a while, as the losses and insane Andrea Bargnani and JR Smith defensive rotations (or lack thereof) piled up, that stress may have given way to sadness, anxiety, desperation, despondence and depression.

This year, join the Knicks players in stepping back, taking a deep breath, clearing your mind and finding your inner peace. ESPN’s Ian Begley reported this week that noted Zen Master and Knicks President Phil Jackson will bring “mindfulness training,” better known as meditation, to the locker room this year.

“It falls into the category of mental performance,” brand new Knicks Coach Derek Fisher told Begley. “We take it seriously.”

For the uninitiated into meditative practices, this may sound downright asinine. After all, Jose Calderon isn’t Buddhist and Carmelo Anthony will likely not be going on a peyote journey with Phil Jackson this season. But meditation isn’t strictly a religious practice; there’s scientific evidence that it can help reduce anxiety, depression, stress and pain. Not only that, it gives your mind a level of focus that is otherwise extremely difficult to attain, something badly needed by Knicks players last year.

The quizzical the Knicks may receive, and Phil Jackson has likely received time and again from players and fans, regarding meditation is nothing new in society. In my previous job as a copywriter, a mental health professional client I worked with (who has a strong base of Christian clientele) said he did not want any references made to meditation in any of his company’s marketing collateral, even though he was a strong believer in what it can do for the human mind.

“People think it’s strictly a Buddhist thing,” he told me. “They don’t really get that it has nothing to do with religion and can actually be helpful. Let’s just leave it out.”

Jackson, owner of 11 championship rings in the NBA, has long been a proponent meditation for his teams and has likely dealt with gas faces, stink eyes, dirty looks, “fuck you”s, and general dissonance from a litany of the best professional basketball players over the years regarding his demand for the practice. However, his success has likely made many players think twice. Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Dennis Rodman and even Mark Madsen have all likely been made to sit down, ignore outside distraction and simply breathe.

The result? Bow down to the Zen Master and kiss the rings. Bow all the way down, because the likely keeps one on his pinky toe (we all know Phil Jackson is likely a freak) after place one on each of his 10 fingers.

George Mumford, a sports psychologist and meditation teacher, has extensively worked with Phil’s teams, including players like MJ and Kobe, over the years. In an interview with Mindful.org, Mumford said he believes the practice has been key for helping players get in the mystical “zone” basketball players often discuss.

“When they are playing their best, they can do no wrong, and no matter what happens they are always a step quicker, a step ahead,” Mumford told the website. “That happens when we are in the moment, when we are mindful of what is going on. … By mindful, I mean being aware, being engaged with the present moment. Mindfulness is useful because it is through this that we can see what is going on. It means knowing what needs to happen and doing it.”

Stepping outside of the NBA, Chicago Bears stud wide receiver Brandon Marshall has utilized meditation over the past three seasons to help in his battle with Borderline Personality Disorder. A man who was previously prone to bouts of rage against opponents, officials, teammates and coaches alike has learned to calm himself via focus and deep breaths. Instead of meditating simply in comfort, Marshall said he will take a few moments to focus his mind on the practice field and on the sidelines during game day.

Meditation in my own experience
This isn’t simply some story I’m writing to praise the Knicks for their crunchy step forward (as a Bulls fan, it takes a lot for me to praise a team owned by Jim Dolan, a top 20 goober in sports). I am a huge proponent of meditation myself.

In the past four-plus months, I have attempted to meditate every day. While I’ve missed three days, I’ve successfully racked up more than 50 hours of time in chunks of 15-to-20 minute sessions. In my short time meditating, I’ve noticed a reduction of stress and anxiety, a greater amount of empathy for people, far more self-confidence, and as it pertains to this story, a much greater desire to work out, focus and kick my own ass for longer periods of time in the gym.

During workouts, I used to get lost up in time. If I was boxing, I’d damn sure be checking that round clock. If I was doing a minute of push-ups or crunches, the second hand seemed to crawl at a snail’s pace. Now, I’m much more willing to step back and think, “Three minutes is nothing,” even at my most physically exhausted. While I’m not a pro athlete, the difference was night and day; I can only imagine this would have a similar impact for those who work out and play sports for a living.

What meditation may mean for the Knicks transition to the triangle
Now, don’t get me wrong, I do not believe the Knicks will be able to meditate their way into a playoff spot. Derek Fisher is a first year head coach who is attempting to install a triangle-based offense, which insists upon crisp ball movement from each position, to a team that was downright bad at passing last year. Looking at the numbers, New York’s assist ratio, or the percentage of possessions that ended in an assist, was 16.1. This is good for 24th in the league, tied with the incredibly awful basketball stylings of the Utah Jazz.

In addition, the initial year or two of running a triangle-style offense usually means a rocky start. Just take a look at Kurt Rambis’ terrible two seasons in Minnesota, Bill Cartwright’s .338 winning percentage in Chicago or Jim Cleamons disastrous 28-70 run in Dallas. These teams already bad rosters, for the most part; the triangle served to make things even more confusing and hard to watch. However, Tex Winter’s system of beautiful basketball has worked stunningly under Phil’s guiding hand for many seasons; I have a hard time betting against the Fisher and Phil installation of the triangle in New York over the long haul. The only way the potential for success could be shut down is by the hand of Jim Dolan’s petulant impatience,

While meditation won’t save the Knicks’ 2014-15 season, it may help  them make the transition to becoming a good team over the next couple of seasons, something well in reach with a superstar like Carmelo Anthony on board. Instead of screaming “WHY GOD WHY” or putting their head down in sadness when JR Smith pulls up for a 30 foot jumper with 15 seconds left on the shot clock, Knicks teammates can simply breathe and calmly explain to Smith, “JR, that’s the dumbest shit you’ve done in the last five minutes,” explaining where the ball needs to go to make the offense work well.

Seeing the impact of meditation and mindfulness takes time and patience. You will notice the changes slowly but surely, and the same is true of becoming a good team in the NBA. Going from possessions like these:

To playing efficient, graceful basketball will take time. In the city that never sleeps, perhaps Knicks fans and players alike can take at least a few minutes to sit back, relax their mind and start on the road to finding inner peace. Let’s be honest, anything has to be better than when they tried finding Metta World Peace.

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