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'I went to Dennis' rescue': Phil Jackson revisits comments about Mormons from '98 NBA Finals

New York Knicks president Phil Jackson answers questions during a news conference at the team's training facility, Friday, April 14, 2017, in Greenburgh, N.Y. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
New York Knicks president Phil Jackson answers questions during a news conference at the team's training facility, Friday, April 14, 2017, in Greenburgh, N.Y. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
Julie Jacobson, AP

SALT LAKE CITY — On Wednesday, legendary NBA coach Phil Jackson revisited the comments he and Dennis Rodman made about Mormons during the 1998 NBA Finals, with Jackson saying that he tried to "rescue" his controversial player.

Jackson, whose Chicago Bulls faced the Utah Jazz in two straight NBA Finals, was in town on Wednesday speaking at Domopalooza, the annual conference hosted by Utah-based software as a service company Domo, at the Salt Palace Convention Center. Jackson was one of several speakers on Wednesday who had a sitdown interview with Domo CEO Josh James.

Back in 1998, Rodman used a curse word when he spoke about members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, saying, "It's difficult to get in sync because of all the (expletive) Mormons out here. And you can quote me on that,” according to the Deseret News.

He was fined $50,000 for the comments, according to The New York Times.

In response, Jackson said in 1998, "To Dennis, a Mormon may just be a nickname for people from Utah. He may not even know it's a religious cult or sect or whatever it is."

Rodman stood by his remarks in the following days, according to the Deseret News.

"Maybe I don't know some of the Mormon people. The Mormon people don't like me, either, right? That's a given, right?" he said, according to the Deseret News.

Rodman later apologized, saying, "That was a bad action on my part. So we retract that. Like I said, I would have said it if we were in Houston or anything else. … But if I knew it was like a religious-type deal, I would have never said it. I'm sorry about that."

Dennis Rodman and referee Dick Bavetta share a laugh during Game 6 of the NBA finals at the Delta Center on June 14, 1998.
Dennis Rodman and referee Dick Bavetta share a laugh during Game 6 of the NBA finals at the Delta Center on June 14, 1998.
Tom Smart, Deseret News

Nearly 20 years removed from the incident, Jackson said on Wednesday, “I went to Dennis’ rescue.”

Rodman didn’t understand the Mormon faith, and his coach tried to explain the religion to him, Jackson said.

But Jackson calling Mormonism a cult also caused controversy. James told the former coach that he didn't have a good reputation in Utah because of that. Jackson didn't directly respond to James' observation as he explained how he tried to defend Rodman.

"He doesn’t know if they’re a sect or a cult but I’m assuring him that they’re really good people," Jackson said while speaking at Domopalooza, adding that he later received four or five copies of the Book of Mormon at his office once the NBA Finals were over.

Jackson said Wednesday he always faced a “raucous” crowd when the Bulls played the Jazz. In fact, he had to wear ear protection during the NBA Finals because the arena was so loud. His ears, he said, rang like he was at a rock concert.

Jackson referred to the Jazz's Bear mascot, who rode a motorcycle on the floor before the game.

“I always thought it should have been the Utah Grizzlies and the Memphis Jazz,” Jackson noted.

Jackson spent the rest of his time on stage talking with James about the difference between Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, how he approached coaching in the NBA and the most important lessons in life.

Jackson, who won 13 NBA championships, has a unique story for each title he won.

“There’s a story from every one. There’s a winning story from every one,” he said. “It’s a story of a lifetime.”

Jackson said it’s important for winning teams (and organizations or businesses) to have a system in place that people can remain focused around.

Having interoffice rivalries can help, he said. Personality conflicts will always arise, but that doesn’t mean there are always problems.

“I got to watch how rivalries on the team, instead of disrupting a team, were able to build (an even better team),” he said.

Managing players and employees with egos can be difficult, he said. But you shouldn’t shy away from it. Having one diamond on the team, like a Bryant or a Jordan, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, he said.

“When you have that one diamond, you do what you can to keep that diamond,” he said, adding that you should work to include superstars in a team-oriented system so that everyone benefits.

“A star makes all his players better. And that’s a challenge for you."

Finding great players isn’t always easy. Jackson said he does all sorts of research — including reading astrological signs — to see how players will gel with a team.

“The most important thing I did was teach meditation and mindfulness to people,” he said. “I think that was the No. 1 thing that got people together.”

He said having a “one breath, one mind” mentality will help unify players.

“We try to think about nothing. We try to make it clear. We try to have an open mind,” he said. “Get ourselves really clear about our purpose, about our direction, about having nothing else than what’s here. Now.”

Jackson spent some time talking about his relationships with Jordan, Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, all of whom have a different relationship with the Zen master.

He told jokes about O’Neal and how he would show up to practice and film videos with the team’s film crew (who produced hype videos meant to play before games) instead of playing basketball since he found the sport “too easy.”

He said he and Bryant regularly have breakfast together and that he recently watched Bryant’s Oscar-winning documentary, “Dear Basketball.”

As for Jordan, the two still talk on the phone.

“Those relationships have moved on, and I know there will be reunions and reunions,” he said.

Jackson said people move on in life and he's seen it happen with his own reunions, explaining that there’s always at least one player missing whenever he has a reunion with the 1970 and 1973 title-winning Knicks teams, of which he was apart of.

“We always value our time together with a uniqueness,” he said.

As for Jackson’s one great piece of advice for life?

“Eight hours is enough. Make that work,” he said. “I’ve always valued my family and the fact that I can overwork. Be concise about your work. Be with your family. That’s where you get your sustenance and your strength."