Openings, opportunities, and the triangle offense
The fourth letter in the Hebrew alphabet is dalet. Its name is connected to the Hebrew word delet, meaning door. In a more mystical sense, dalet is a passageway, an opening, a chance to cross over to a better place, an opportunity to transform and ascend to a higher state of being. In the ancient Hebrew alphabet the symbol for dalet is a triangle.
When I hear the word “triangle”, I don’t think about geometry or the instrument you play if you’re not that good at playing instruments. I think about Phil Jackson. On April 19th, ESPN began airing “The Last Dance”, a 10-part documentary series on the Chicago Bulls dynasty of the 1990’s and, man, is it good. And I say that as a Knicks fan, who gets the willies every time I hear that loathsome riff that kicks off the Bulls’ pregame intro song.
In 1989, when Jackson became head coach of the Bulls, the team’s singular mission to was to find a way to beat the Detroit Pistons in the NBA playoffs. At that time, the Pistons were known as the NBA’s Bad Boys because they were a bunch of thugs who played dirty. But they also played well. The Bulls just couldn’t get past them, even with Michael Jordan leading the charge. Jackson recognized therein lay the problem.
“The spotlight is always on the ball,” Jackson said in the documentary. “If it’s always in [Jordan’s] hands, they can build a defense around that. We need to find a way to make everybody better.”
This was the new philosophy: team success over individual glory. Almost immediately, Jackson installed a system called the triangle offense that was all about creating space and options. It wasn’t new to the game of basketball, but it was new to the modern NBA.
Bulls assistant coach Tex Winter had learned the triangle from the man who invented it, Sam Barry, while playing for USC in the 1940’s. Winter refined the concept over the next four decades, almost exclusively in college coaching jobs, and when he started working for Jackson he found a boss who saw its promise for pro ball. Using the triangle, the Bulls won the NBA championship in 1991 and went on to win five more titles over the next seven years.
The triangle offense was the Bulls’ dalet, their open door, their chance to transform and go to a better place — and they took it. In doing so, they did a lot more than adopt a new playbook, they made a paradigm shift. It came with a lot of uncertainty and risk as big changes always do.
First of all, Phil Jackson was no ordinary guy. He was a 6-foot-8 soft-spoken hippie, who was into Buddhism and Native American traditions. He was ahead of his time in sports, talking about practices such as visualization and quieting the mind. It would’ve been easy to write him off as a kook, think the Bulls were nuts for putting their future in his hands. This flower child is going to convince the greatest basketball player of all-time to handle the ball less and score fewer points? Tell him that rather than being the sun around which all the other players revolve, the other players were going to do some shining of their own?
Not all star athletes would’ve been on board with that concept. Ego and greed would’ve gotten in the way. If you know baseball, you may remember A-Rod getting tagged as a “24-plus-one” kind of player, meaning there’s him and then there’s everybody else. Jordan wasn’t like that. Even though he existed in another stratosphere and could’ve balked or walked upon hearing he’d have to share the spotlight — he didn’t. He was secure enough and smart enough to see the value of the triangle.
And then there was Dennis Rodman, the former Pistons Bad Boy who came to the Bulls in 1995. By that point, he was well known as an eccentric who dressed in drag, dated Madonna, pierced many of his body parts, and dyed his hair a rainbow of colors. Many coaches would’ve bitten their tongues and swallowed their judgment of Rodman, forced themselves to tolerate his out-thereness because of what he gave them on the court as a ferocious defender and rebounder. Not Phil Jackson. He saw a kindred spirit in Rodman, and embraced what made him different.
In the documentary, Jackson talks about the meaning of “heyoka” among the Lakota people of North America. Heyoka is a kind of sacred clown, a contrarian, or “backward-walking person” who speaks, moves and reacts in an opposite way to the people around them. Jackson told Rodman he was the heyoka in the Bulls’ tribe. But rather than saying it with derision, he said it with appreciation and respect. And that made all the difference.
“[Jackson] didn’t look at me as a basketball player. He looked at me as a great friend,” said Rodman in the documentary. “He realized that I probably needed him for inspiration. He wanted to see me persevering.”
Former Bulls guard Steve Kerr added, “I had never met a coach who was that different and genuine when it came to bringing the group together. Everything was about being focused and playing as one.”
I’ve been thinking about how the transformation the Bulls underwent using the triangle might apply to this moment. The pandemic, while oppressive and overwhelming, is also a dalet, an opportunity, as Jackson offered the Bulls, to find a way to make everybody better.
An opportunity is not a guarantee. It’s a set of circumstances that makes it possible to do something, a moment that can be seized or not. As we stand on this figurative threshold with lots of big choices to make about how to proceed, it’s a good time for each of us to take a long look in the mirror and ask: “When I say, ‘We’re in it together’ do I mean it? Do I really want to be like Mike or, in truth, will I never stop looking out for number one?”
This time in isolation gives us a chance consider our values, not what we profess to believe on Facebook or in texts to our friends, but what’s in our hearts. Are we truly willing to make changes and sacrifices for the greater good or is that just lip service that’ll be out the window as soon as we’re up and running again?
The question isn’t whether we can run the metaphorical triangle, but whether we want to. There’s no doubt we have the ability. I’m just not sure we have the desire — to be connected, to be unified, to ask not what our team can do for us but what we can do for our team.
The door is open. Whether we go through it remains to be seen.