When Michael Jordan first retired in 1993, then Chicago Bulls head coach Phil Jackson was tasked to fill the void — no matter how vast — left by his superstar. Since it came late in the offseason, the Bulls couldn’t sign a player of the same caliber as Jordan. So they had to settle for decent role players like Pete Myers, Toni Kukoč, Steve Kerr, and Bill Wennington. All of them combined were no match for Jordan’s scoring prowess, leadership, and intensity. Jackson had to think of another method to keep the Bulls afloat.
In classic Phil Jackson fashion, the legendary head coach thought of teaching mindfulness meditation to his players. He tapped George Mumford, a sports psychologist and meditation teacher, to give the Bulls a mini-workshop on “coping with the stress of success.” In his book “Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success,” Jackson described Mumford’s first meeting with the players:
“So George talked about the two aspects of every crisis: danger and opportunity. If you have the right mind-set, he said, you can make the crisis work for you. You have the chance to create a new identity for the team that will be even stronger than before. Suddenly, the players perked up.”
Jackson liked Mumford's poignant observation of players — particularly those who transition from college to the NBA. In college, they were usually the best player on their team. But once they enter the big league, they were demoted to being a role player or, worse, relegated to the end of the bench. It sounds normal to fans, but it could be extremely tough for the players. Mumford tweaked his technique of “mindfulness meditation” to the needs of an NBA player.
The meditation technique proved pivotal for the Bulls. In that first season without MJ, the Bulls managed to squeeze out a pretty good 55-27 season. Jackson proved he could carve out a decent season even without his superstar.
The Bulls were just one of Mumford’s clients. In Jackson’s book, the Zen Master pointed out that former veteran forward Jared Dudley was actually one of Mumford’s top clients. Dudley was a high-scoring forward in his four-year stint in Boston College and averaged as much as 19.0 points per game. When he was drafted as the 22nd overall pick in 2007, Dudley’s numbers were nowhere near his college stats. In his second season, he played just a mere 20 games for the Charlotte Bobcats and averaged 5.4 points. It was a low point early in Dudley’s career.
However, like most stories, there is a happy ending. Mumford worked with Dudley and taught him the similar technique he taught the Jordan-less Bulls. The results took a few years and reached their pinnacle in the 2011-12 NBA season. Dudley, donning the Phoenix Suns jersey, averaged career-highs in almost all statistical categories. He averaged 12.7 points on 48.5 percent shooting and 4.6 rebounds. A casual would say that any player could chalk up these pedestrian numbers. But if you know Dudley, he is one of the wisest veterans in all of NBA history.
A good reason why he became a journeyman was that teams were craving for the knowledge he amassed over the years. That 2020 Lakers title would not be possible if Dudley wasn’t around, barking at the players — both young and experienced — to keep their thoughts straight. Maybe he even thought the likes of Kyle Kuzma and LeBron James some of the things he learned from Mumford.