How Bill Walton, Phil Jackson and Steve Kerr shaped Luke Walton

ByOhm Youngmisuk ESPN logo
Thursday, December 7, 2017

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- There are times when Rob Pelinka will walk down the hallway from his office at the UCLA Health Training Center, past Magic Johnson's office, where a flat-screen television is almost always tuned to sports shows, and down to Luke Walton's office.

Sometimes, the sounds of the Grateful Dead and other '70s classic rock will be blaring out of the head coach's office as Walton gets "in the zone." Other times, Pelinka will find the room as quiet as a library, with Walton deep in meditation.

"I usually keep going when I see that," the Los Angeles Lakers' general manager said, laughing. "Man, I keep it moving. I wait until he is back in the present."

Luke Walton's present, however, is deeply connected to his past and to a collection of champions who had the most influence on his life: From his father, Hall of Famer Bill Walton, to his longtime coach and mentor, 11-time champion Phil Jackson, to the first boss of his professional coaching career, Steve Kerr, who collected five rings as a player and already has two more with the Warriors.

It takes a certain type of unflappable personality to handle coaching in the entertainment capital of the world with a point guard who has Hollywood-sized hype and comes with the most opinionated father in all of sports. Perhaps the type of even-keeled personality that has been molded by Walton's eclectic championship collection of mentors.

JEANIE BUSS POPS her head into an early October practice and finds Walton gathering his team at the center of the court to discuss the shooting in Las Vegas that took 58 lives just days before the Lakers are set to play a preseason game there.

The Lakers' owner watches the team meeting and sees Jackson's Zen fingerprints all over it.

"[Jackson] knew that Luke was going to be somebody that would be a great coach," Buss said at the espnW: Women + Sports Summit in early October. "So now because of that relationship, he was talking to them about the emotions that people were feeling, and he was encouraging them to share how they were feeling.

"I thought this is like a touch of something that Phil brought to him, and I was so proud of what he was doing with these young men."

During the 2009-10 season, Walton was limited to 29 games because of a back injury and felt like he wasn't part of a Lakers team that was coming off a championship and on its way to another one.

"I was lost," he said.

While Walton was sidelined, Jackson had him sit in on coach's meetings and chart statistics from the bench during games. The gesture, Walton said, and Jackson's guidance meant "everything" to him. Walton didn't know it at the time, but Jackson's move gave Walton his first major exposure to NBA head coaching, a priceless internship under the game's most successful coach and a daily tutorial on how Jackson's mind worked strategically.

"I do think Luke has a similar personality to Phil in that he is a coach that stays in the moment, you don't see him get too emotionally high or too emotionally low," Pelinka said. "He has a presence. He has a lot of confidence, but yet he approaches things with calmness, which is an enduring quality."

Walton is employing some of Jackson's methods, but with a 2017 spin on it.

Pelinka introduced Walton to a meditation and mindfulness app company called "Headspace." The app guides its customers through sessions as short as three minutes, allowing 20-something NBA stars who might have a short attention span to meditate even on the way to a game.

Once a month, Headspace co-founder Andy Puddicombe visits the Lakers' film room on a game day, dims the lights and conducts a 15-minute meditation session while the players attempt to enter a state of relaxation in their plush chairs. The goal is to train their mental game by concentrating on eight areas -- motivation, focus, training, competition, communication, analysis, recovery and rehabilitation -- to get them relaxed but in an active state of readiness on game day. Walton hopes an app like this can help players cope with the pressures they face in today's social-media-driven world.

"That is a whole different realm that no other generation of NBA player has ever had to deal with," Lakers rookie Kyle Kuzma said.

Puddicombe, who spent 10 years training to become a monk in Burma and Tibet, has worked with the British Olympic team, professional athletes and pro teams. Puddicombe worked with the New York Knicks the past two seasons when Jackson ran the franchise as team president.

While Jackson failed to build a winner in New York and seemed out of touch with players such asCarmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis, Walton still uses some time-tested Jackson techniques to keep his team engaged and his message fresh.

Jackson used to love incorporating movie themes and scenes into game tape to break up the monotony of film sessions. During the Lakers' training camp this fall, Walton borrowed that method, using a scene from Denzel Washington's "Man on Fire" to drill his team into running more. Washington is training Dakota Fanning to start swim races faster by honing in on the sound of the starting pistol, using two wooden blocks to simulate the gun sound.

"It's the sound that will set you free," Washington's character says.

Preaching to the team to run off makes and misses, Walton had the team watch the clip of Washington training Fanning and then had Lakers assistant coach Jesse Mermuys smash two wooden blocks against each other, just like Washington, to signal the players to run in practice.

"[Jackson] has been a pretty big influence on me," Walton said. "Last year I tried a bunch to not call timeouts and let the guys figure it out like he used to do with us. I have gotten softer at it. In the middle of the game, Phil's thing was he used to love that you guys are in this mess, figure a way to get yourself out. We would either lose by 20 or have to come together on the court and figure out how to stop the bleeding."

While much of Walton's approach comes from the Jackson portfolio, Richard Jefferson, Walton's longtime friend and former teammate at Arizona, said the Lakers coach is more like his father.

"Oh, he is a hippie," Jefferson said. "Make no mistake, that is Bill Walton's son out there. Say what you want about Phil and Steve, he grew up calling his dad Bill. All you have to do is look at his dad. So when you start seeing the new-wave stuff, don't just think that is from Phil Jackson."

Like his free-spirited, tie-dyed father, Luke has not been afraid to speak his mind on issues, such as voicing his opinion during the preseason on why it was important for his team to lock arms as a show of solidarity during the national anthem.

"My dad taught me and my brother since we were a young age to always question authority," Walton said. "It is not being a bad kid. It is doing what is right because you either need to understand what is going on or make changes for the better. That is kind of the mindset we were raised with as kids."

Growing up as the laid-back son of an outspoken father known for his bigger-than-life personality and eye-opening comments also has prepared Walton to handle the challenge of coaching Lonzo Ball -- perhaps no rookie since LeBron James has come into the league with as much attention -- and dealing with Lonzo's famously outspoken father, LaVar, who can go from feuding with Donald Trump to harping on Walton and the Lakers' coaching staff for their "soft" handling of his son.

LaVar said this week on SiriusXM NBA Radio that Walton needs to play the No. 2 overall pick for the entire fourth quarter to start winning more games. Walton often will bring Lonzo Ball in midway through the fourth and finish games with the rookie unless the game is out of hand or sixth man Jordan Clarkson is playing better. Ball is averaging 7.5 minutes in the fourth quarter and has not played in the fourth in five games this season.

No other coach in the NBA has to deal with the intense scrutiny surrounding Ball and his high-profile father, who has done interviews on CNN and ESPN and offers a critique of Walton's coaching whenever asked.

"My background as a player and even growing up with the dad that I have and spending those two years in Golden State just helped me prepare for being able to have all these distractions and focus on what is really important to us," Walton said. "Do I have to deal with more than most coaches? I would say yeah. But every coach has to deal with some internal conflict.

"Anyone that says anything about us, not just [LaVar], but anyone, if you are not part of our group or circle, have whatever opinion you want. It doesn't matter. We are in here every day grinding and working on getting better."

Kerr smiled when asked if he has ever had to deal with a basketball parent.

"When I coached my son's eighth grade AAU team, I had to talk to a couple of parents," he said. "But never in the NBA."

While his father gave Walton his first exposure to basketball, and Jackson gave him a front-row seat to observe coaching greatness, it was Kerr who first put Walton on an NBA sideline. The Golden State Warriors' coach has played as large a role as any in guiding Walton to the Lakers' coveted post. The two developed much of their basketball philosophy and approach as championship role players for Jackson, so it was a natural fit for Kerr to hire Walton, who spent two seasons learning at Kerr's side and guided the Warriors to a 39-4 start in 2015-16 while Kerr was out with a back injury.

Walton marveled at how Kerr's innate feel for not just his stars but also his little-used reserves could keep everyone on the team invested. Despite not being a Walton, Kerr feels much of his coaching DNA is also in Luke.

"I think Luke and I are as much alike as human beings as any two coaches could possibly be in the NBA," Kerr said. "When you consider our backgrounds, growing up in Southern California, on the beach, laid back, both played for Lute Olson [at Arizona], grounded in the fundamentals of Lute, Tex Winter and Phil Jackson, deeply in love and passionate about the game but not to the point of obsession. Good life balance, family man, he has younger kids, I have older kids.

"Luke is as much like me as anybody I can think of, and our coaching profiles probably reflect that."

BEFORE EVERY GAME, Walton and Pelinka huddle together to discuss basketball, life and anything else that comes to mind. Despite being hired under the previous regime, a source close to Walton said that one of the best things to happen for the coach was the hiring of Pelinka and Johnson in the spring.

"They are a young team, they got some talent and they are going to win some games and are going to have some growing pains," Kerr said. "The best organizations are the ones that stick together through thick and thin, and if you have that kind of support as a coach, then it can all really be successful."

Walton, a former Lakers player, Pelinka, who was an agent for Kobe Bryant and other former Lakers, and Johnson, a Lakers legend, all share a deep bond with the franchise that predates their current positions, and they have known one another for years. They all appear to be in rhythm on the rebuilding vision and know that there will be tough times ahead with such an inexperienced roster.

So far, Walton has navigated early potential land mines, such as Julius Randle'sunhappiness with Walton's decision to bring him off the bench behind Larry Nance Jr. Still, Randle has played hard and become one of Walton's best players and his preferred choice at center on the majority of nights.

"[There's] a little more confidence in him [this season], which is well deserved and we all love to see it," Nance said. "By the way he commands his huddles, calls out different things, there is a lot more certainty behind it. He's definitely gotten more comfortable in the role."

Walton and team management continue to preach that this season is about seeing progress and development and that's what they will keep in mind if and when the losses pile up and the expected growing pains become excruciatingly severe. There are signs that may already be starting, as the Lakers (8-15) carry a season-worst five-game losing streak into Thursday night's game in Philadelphia.

The losses keep Walton up at night, but he admits they're a little easier to swallow this season because he can see the progress being made and where the team is heading.

"He struggled mentally [with the losing and figuring out how to accomplish his goals]," Jefferson said. "I think to see that some of his players are starting to understand their message and getting a player like Ball who has the same type of mentality that Luke had as a player, like a pass-first team guy. That is not to take anything away from D'Angelo [Russell], but Luke knows how to coach that."

Walton says he is much more comfortable and has more patience in his second year with a "clearer vision of where we are going." But rather than entertain the possibilities of next season, when the Lakers dream of having two superstars for Walton to coach, Walton prefers to stay in the moment.

"It will be glorious when it happens and it is going to happen," Walton said of winning a championship after watching the Warriors' ring ceremony at the beginning of the season. "But I am not thinking about how long and this and that. But it will be a lot of fun when we get back there."

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