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Cannabis and Phil Jackson

"I said, ‘Coach, Is this weed?' He said, 'No, it's sage – it's the cousin of Cannabis.'"

Phil Jackson is one of the most recognizable personalities in the NBA. He played 12 seasons in the league and won two championships as a player. As a coach, he won a record 11 titles (most notably with the Chicago Bulls and LA Lakers franchises). Much has been made of Jackson’s coaching style, which seemed to meld aspects of Eastern philosophy into the rugged competition structure of professional basketball.

Jackson is certainly considered to be one of the greatest coaches of all time, known for his unorthodox approach to mentoring and motivating his players. And while he’s often considered to have hippie “tendencies” (he’s an avid Grateful Dead fan), he’s not known for being a recreational Cannabis user like so many other NBA personalities. That reputation, however, changed a bit after a spate of interviews that Jackson gave in 2016.

Jackson was on a publicity tour of sorts at that time for his book “11 Rings: The Soul of Success” – while Cannabis and the NBA were very much in the news because of positive comments Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr had made about Cannabis and player health. During an interview with the show, “We Need to Talk”on CBS Sports, Jackson talked about his own experience with Cannabis in the ‘70s after a back surgery. “I was smoking marijuana during that period of time,” Jackson said. “I think it was a distraction for me as much as a pain reliever. But I never thought of it as ultimately a pain medication for that type of situation.” 

He then went on to discuss marijuana usage more broadly among current NBA players. “We have tried to stop [marijuana use] in the NBA. I don’t think we have been able to stop it. I think it still goes on and is still a part of the culture in the NBA. It is something that we either have to accommodate or figure out another way to deal with it.”

It’s this sort of attitude that has made Jackson so beloved among players in the NBA. His tolerance and acknowledgement that Cannabis is a “part of the culture” is just stating what most fans already knew. And it’s not surprising coming from Phil Jackson, a coach who took a hands-on approach with so many of his players. He mentored them not just in the game, but in life as well – often giving his players books on spirituality and philosophy to read like “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” “Siddhartha” and texts by Nietzsche.

Then, at the 2016 American Express “Teamed Up” event, Jackson and one of his most famous former players, Shaquille O’Neal, got together for a sit-down moderated conversation. When the subject turned to Jackson’s famous meditation sessions with his players, Shaq had a story to tell. Apparently, these sessions would always feature incense being burned to set the mood, so to speak. One day, Shaq noticed a familiar smell to one of the incenses. “It smelled just like weed,” O’Neal said. “I said, ‘Coach, Is this weed?’ He said, ‘No, it’s sage – it’s the cousin of Cannabis.'”

Whether or not that story is truly about Cannabis or incense – we don’t know. But one thing is for sure: When someone, as respected as Phil Jackson, speaks out favorably in support of Cannabis, we all benefit.

This article was originally published in the June 2021 issue of Northwest Leaf.

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