As ESPN continues to roll out The Last Dance, GQ staffers will make their cases for the ultra-cool doc’s most stylish moments.
I have not enthusiastically or even voluntarily watched a sports game in over 20 years, but I have religiously kept up with The Last Dance for two reasons. The topic happens to coincide with the short-lived period of my childhood when I became a basketball fan in an attempt to impress my father (don’t worry, this isn’t that kind of essay), while the release happens to coincide with a global pandemic that has kept me, along with the rest of the documentary’s record-setting audience, trapped inside the house with no option but to watch all of television in its entirety. The stars, aligning just so, have provided me with a third reason: Phil Jackson. And, by extension, Phil Jackson’s fits.
My unlikely quarantine obsession took root during the fourth installment of the docuseries, which revels in the glorious, unlikely crunchiness of the Chicago Bulls head coach. As longtime collaborator Charley Rosen put it, “Phil was like a hippie and different from the NBA fraternity.” Footage shows Jackson leading the team in yoga exercises and talking about Dennis Rodman with serene, open-hearted understanding drawn from Native American tradition. A frame in his office contains not one, or even two, but five slightly different photos of the Dalai Lama. I realized that I wanted to be Phil Jackson (chill, centered, level-headed, in possession of 13 NBA championship rings), but also that I wanted everyone else in my life to be Phil Jackson (chill, centered, level-headed, capable of coaching me to 11 NBA championship wins).
These qualities are evident in his off-court wardrobe, which mostly consists of sensible work shirts and jeans—exquisite dadcore, all around. His uniform is humble and practical, less about vanity and more about getting the job done while giving others room to shine. One outfit in particular sums up Jackson’s entire aura. He’s climbing up the stairs of the team plane—during his final, fraught season with the Bulls—wearing a plaid shirt tucked into sturdy denim, a utilitarian cobalt backpack over his shoulder and a classic beige trench slung over his arm. Tying it all together is a funky pinch-front cowboy hat adorned with a beaded leather strap. The hat elevates the look into one that you might encounter by the trail mix bulk bins of your local food coop, or during the encore of a Van Morrison concert. It is the sartorial equivalent of throwing up a good-natured shaka in the face of adversity. It says, “I will write a book called Sacred Hoops one day.”
I would be remiss to discuss Phil Jackson of the late nineties without mentioning young Phil Jackson of the seventies, because his vintage photos in The Last Dance have inspired a number of internet denizens to beg Jackson to—and I’m paraphrasing here—squeeze their bodies down to the size of a basketball and slam dunk them.
At the time, Jackson was playing for the Knicks. His 6’8” frame was lankier, his moustache just as splendidly bushy. He was dropping acid and thinking he was a lion roaring up and down the beach. His offcourt looks were cooler, to be sure—the world’s longest pair of overalls paired with a baseball tee, a leather jacket that makes him look like a Max’s Kansas City regular—but still casual and restrained.
And there is one photo from his youth that is almost exactly analogous to that January 1998 plane shot, down to the plaid shirt, jeans, and travel bag slung over his shoulder. He’s well on the road to growing into the person he’ll one day be, one funky hat away from becoming the Zen Master.