Sports

The Zen Master's Zen Master: How Phil Jackson's Mindfulness Guru Is Helping The New York Knicks

George Mumford, who has worked with both Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, is trying to strengthen the minds of the New York Knicks so that they can be stress-free and successful.

by Roland Lazenby
Jul 14 2015, 12:10pm

Photo by The Star-Ledger-USA TODAY Sports

The first time Kobe Bryant met George Mumford in 1999, he was immediately suspicious. Mumford was a sports psychologist and mindfulness expert who had worked with Phil Jackson and the Chicago Bulls, and Bryant couldn't believe that a National Basketball Association coach would actually use precious practice time to have his players sit on the floor—in the dark, no less—and meditate.

Within months of that first meeting, however, Bryant found himself being coached by Jackson, who had the Lakers adopt Mumford's mindfulness sessions.

Today, the 36-year-old Bryant considers Mumford one of the most influential figures in his life, someone who has helped him learn how to better cope with the intense, consuming pressures of top-level athletic competition.

"He meditates every day," Mumford says.

Can Mumford help the New York Knicks? That remains to be seen. Jackson is now entering his second season as the beleaguered franchise's president—brought in to reverse a decade-plus of on-court mediocrity and off-court turmoil—and as he remakes the team's roster and coaching staff, he also has brought Mumford to New York.

READ MORE: The Knicks' Shockingly Sane, Smart Offseason

Officially the Knicks' "personal and organizational development consultant," Mumford counsels players individually and conducts team meditation sessions. His work is considered important enough to warrant his presence in Las Vegas, where he's currently working with New York's summer league squad, a team that features first-round picks Kristaps Porzingis and Jerian Grant.

The goal of Mumford's work, as Jackson once explained, is to "build the muscle of the mind," so that players can clear away emotionally and mentally unhealthy pressure and perform at a high level.

"George is pretty much there to relax your mind and body, to try and help you resolve the stress that's involved with everything," former Bulls center Bill Wennington once said of Mumford. "He tries to get your basketball life, your whole life, in a peaceful, relaxed state so that you can compete. He doesn't want you to be stressed out about anything.

"George comes in and tries to teach the players a way to relax and regain your focus in a couple of breaths. To go out there and say, 'Okay, I'm here, I've done this a million times before, we've gone over it in practice, and I'm just gonna go and do it.' If you take it seriously, you find it really works."

Kobe Bryant enjoys shooting and meditating, not necessarily in that order. --Photo by Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mumford's mindfulness teachings long have been lampooned by critics of Jackson's "Zen Master" approach—even as Jackson led the Bulls and Lakers to 11 NBA championships.

If player meditation raised eyebrows during Jackson's glory seasons, it's likely to inspire more questioning—and mockery—after the Knicks won just 17 games during Jackson's first year running the franchise.

With that mind, Jackson and the team relegate Mumford's efforts to a low media profile in New York. Jackson also has long disdained his "Zen Master" nickname, believing that it incorrectly elevates his status to that of a Buddhist monk, or anyone who has a spent a lifetime engrossed in spiritual endeavors. Jackson's certainly serious about his beliefs, but he's no priest.

More prosaically, Jackson has long said he considers Mumford's sessions a competitive secret and usually declines to discuss them in detail.

For his part, Mumford has detailed some of his experiences and beliefs drawn from years of working with the likes of Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, Bryant and athletes in sports from soccer to fencing in a new book titled The Mindful Athlete. (Foreword written by Jackson). However, Mumford also is wary of appearing as though he's "cashing in," which is why he released the book through Parallax Press, a small, non-profit publisher that mostly focuses on Buddhist-related topics.

However, it's possible to suss out at least some of what Mumford does with and for athletes, and why Jackson has incorporated it into rebuild of the Knicks. Through a mix of meditation, Zen, Tai Chi, Yoga and common sense, Mumford's sessions help athletes reduce competitive anxiety and stress, both of which can degrade performance.

Outside of sports, mindfulness advocates include the Dali Lama, Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan, the Marine Corps and a number of neuroscientists, who have found that regular meditation can alleviate depression, boost memory and the immune system, shrink the part of the brain that controls fear and grow the areas of the brain responsible for memory and emotional regulation.

For religious reasons, former Lakers forward A.C. Green gave Mumford's sessions a lukewarm response. But many of Jackson's other players have raved about Mumford's influence. When Jordan spoke of playing "in the moment" as he performed spectacularly in carrying the Bulls to championships in 1997 and 1998, he was voicing one of Mumford's core principles.

Yelling at an opponent, and not a teammate. Probably. --Photo by Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

It was a little more than 20 years ago that Mumford first observed the intensity of a 32-year-old Jordan in Bulls practices.

Mumford previously had taught mindfulness to disparate groups—from terminally ill patients in hospice all the way to prison inmates serving multiple life sentences. It was Jackson's second wife, June, who brought Mumford to the coach's attention.

Having heard about Jordan's great appetites and how little he slept, Mumford went to work for the Bulls and immediately suspected that the star was bipolar. "He was frenetic, all over the place with this hyper energy," Mumford recalled of watching Jordan practice for the first time. "I thought, 'He can't sustain that.'"

Surely, Mumford thought, Jordan was in the manic stage of some mental disorder. People who suffer bipolar disorder display periods of extreme highs, followed profound lows. For weeks, the psychologist looked closely for signs of depression in the wake of Jordan's highs.

Ultimately, Mumford realized that nothing was amiss: hypercompetitive anitmation was simply Jordan's normal state. Having roomed with Julius Erving—a.k.a. "Dr. J"—at the University of Massachusetts, Mumford had plenty of experience around elite athletic talent. But Jordan was clearly something else. The "zone" of high performance that other athletes struggled to achieve was something that Jordan accessed on a regular basis.

"Michael did have to find something to motivate himself into that state," Mumford explains. "The more you have those moments in the zone, the more you want to have them. Most people can't sustain it. His ability to find that state, his ability to concentrate, his ability to lock in was almost superhuman. He was coming from a different place, man."

Mumford's challenge with the Bulls was to help the rest of the team build up the mental strength needed to compete alongside the fiery Jordan.

"It definitely made a difference with Michael," Wennington said. "You have to be in the moment. You can't worry about what just happened, the basket you missed, the foul you made two minutes ago, because it's over. You can't worry about what's gonna happen the next time down the floor. You have to be right there in the moment.

"It's most important especially in the playoffs because that's the time of year where you have to live for the moment. It doesn't matter what's gonna happen in Game 3 when you have to play Game 1 ... George tries to get it where you're only thinking about what's happening right now. If you can get that down and just do that, it takes a lot of the pressure off because you're not worried about everything else."

Kristaps Porzingis searches for his chill. Can George Mumford help? --Photo by Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Summer league isn't the NBA Finals. But for the players on the Knicks' roster—including Porzingis and Grant—it brings a unique kind of pressure: athletes are fighting for roster spots, to be noticed by overseas scouts, to revive floundering careers or begin to establish themselves at the NBA level.

Working with today's players, Mumford says, is different than working with Jordan's Bulls or Bryant's Lakers of the early 2000s. On one hand, millennial athletes are "more receptive, and they have less of a sense of individualized self" than their predecessors; on the other, technological advances mean they deal with an information overload that constantly threatens their presence of mind.

Despite generational differences, Mumford's goal in New York is the same as it was in Chicago and Los Angeles: strengthen the minds of Jackson's athletes so that they can be stress-free and successful.

The hardest part? Often, it's getting players to buy in. When Jackson first moved to Los Angeles in 1999 to coach Bryant and O'Neal, the Lakers were viewed as immensely talented but mentally weak.

At first, Bryant made it clear to Jackson that he neither wanted nor needed mind games and motivational ploys, none of which was very different from Jordan's initial questioning of Mumford's training.

"Just coach," Bryant had said.

Just 21 at the time—a few years removed from his rookie season—Bryant liked to keep things simple, was already hyper-motivated and saw no need for what he saw as Jackson's pop psychology. Yet he soon warmed to Mumford's sessions because they offered specific mental training for reducing the stress of playoff competition, particularly the O'Neal-engineered pressure of proving he was worthy of playing for a championship team.

Out of a sense of machismo, most NBA players prefer not to acknowledge that such pressure even exists; however, Jackson and Mumford encouraged the Lakers not only to acknowledge it, but also to deal with it before it had a chance to hurt their play.

"Once [the pressure of performance] creeps into your team and your teammates, it can be destructive," Bryant has said. "Some people know how to handle it, some people don't. The pressure can get to you. You got to know how to suck it up.

"It's how you deal with it. When you feel it, it's how you deal with it."

Eventually, Bryant found that he and some of his teammates even enjoyed discussing the mental elements of competition with Mumford during individual sessions—an element of success that Jackson has imported to the Knicks.

"It was good because it gave people a chance to talk about things that might be on their mind, the hype, the pressure," Bryant later explained. "I think it's good for them to talk about those things. It increased our performance a lot. It really has. I'm surprised other teams don't do that kind of stuff. Working with George helps us to get issues out of the way before they even start."