Eye on the Ball

Interview: George Mumford, sports psychologist and L.A. Lakers meditation coach,  talks about his troubled youth, his encounter with Buddhism, and the peculiar challenge of putting a ball into a basket.came to Buddhism from a troubled youth. Katy Butler talks with the man behind the bench.

It happens at least once every time I turn on the television and watch the Los Angeles Lakers play basketball. Their opponents may be younger, with a ragged, raw, desperate energy. Fans may be ringing cowbells, waving plastic wands, and booing, while the Lakers pass the ball fluidly among themselves. Amidst the movement, calm descends. The ball bounces, shuttles, and moves, and then—quicker than sight—Shaquille O’Neal or Kobe Bryant will leap and plunge it into the basket.

The trademark harmony of this championship team—and the stillness at its center as it moves down the court—is usually credited to Phil Jackson, the Montana-born Zen meditator who coached the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships before moving to the Lakers in 1999 and winning three more. Both teams presented Jackson with a specific coaching challenge: how to make highly paid and media-mobbed superstars (like Michael Jordan of the Bulls, and Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant of the Lakers) part of a collaborative, well-functioning whole. For the past decade, Jackson has been aided in this venture by Vipassana teacher George Mumford, an African American sports psychologist whose practice is emotionally informed by his own recovery from drug addiction.

Jackson first hired Mumford in 1993 to teach meditation—initially packaged as “stress reduction”—to the Chicago Bulls. His role has gradually expanded, and he now spends ninety days a year with the Lakers—about one week a month. In a 1997 interview, Jackson described Mumford’s contribution this way: “There will be a meditation, then he’ll do a little bit of a talk, and then the coaching staff and I disappear. It’s more of a group experience, where they do this quiet thing together, and then talk about the team as a community and bringing out the best in each other. The funny thing is, invariably we go on a five-game winning streak whenever we see George.”

Mumford, a former board member of Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California, and of Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, is variously described as a Vipassana teacher, a sports psychologist, and a business consultant, but he is a maverick, not comfortable with any label. He may be best known for his work with the Lakers, but his life story is equally compelling—how the suffering of chronic physical pain and substance abuse led him from Twelve Step spirituality to a deep grounding in Buddhism and Vipassana, or Insight Meditation. Tapes of his retreats reveal a highly systematic but accessible teaching style—he speaks from his own life and never gives the impression that he’s a perfect soul who’s reached the top of the mountain.

I interviewed Mumford on a snowy day in November at the home he shares with his partner, clinical psychologist Edye Merzer, in the suburbs of Boston. It was just after Thanksgiving—early in the long basketball season—and halfway across the country, the Lakers were struggling uncharacteristically. Even though they had won the past three NBA championships back to back, they had lost eleven of their first sixteen games of the ’02-’03 season. Mumford struck me as a warm man with a busy schedule. He sandwiched our interview between a morning business consultation in Rhode Island and late-afternoon meetings with athletes he works with at Boston College. We talked in a rear den, looking out on neighbors’ houses and snowy birches.

It’s still relatively uncommon for an African American man to study Vipassana—much less to teach meditation in prisons and to professional basketball players like the Bulls and the Lakers. So I wonder if you could just start at the beginning and tell me, how did you get involved in Buddhism in the first place? Who are you?

I’m still asking that question. It’s not an everyday occurrence for an African American man to go to IMS [the Insight Meditation Society] to practice meditation with a bunch of folks he doesn’t know in a small New England town. I didn’t go up there because it was a cool thing to do. I came to Buddhist practice because I had dukkha, dukkha, dukkha [suffering]! Excuse my language, but my ass was on fire. [laughs] My life depended on meditation practice.

This was nineteen years ago. I was about six months into recovery from substance abuse—

Which substances? Heroin, crack cocaine, and alcohol. I was a functional addict. I owned a home that I shared with my mother, and I worked as a financial analyst for a Fortune 500 company in the defense industry. Being a perfectionist had allowed me to be a drug addict and continue to work. I don’t know how I pulled that off, but I did.

It was very schizophrenic. I had a hidden life. After work I would go to Roxbury, or Dorchester, or Revere, or wherever—to the shooting galleries. You go there, and you pop, and you get high. And it got to the point where I had to get high just to function normally. My god was getting high and leaving my body, floating in space, taking off—anything that would get me away from the emotions that I was experiencing.

And how did that lead you to Buddhism? I got into Twelve Step recovery and lo and behold, I had pain. I had to deal with a lot of chronic pain—migraines, headaches, back pains. And emotional pain and spiritual pain. And I knew, because of my addiction, that I couldn’t take pain medicines. So the therapist I was working with suggested I join an experimental stress management program that was part of my health plan. The person running it was Dr. Joan Borysenko, one of the pioneering specialists in the mind-body response.

Joan gave us a syllabus of Buddhist books to read, and suggested, to those of us that might be up for it, going to a silent retreat. Being the recovering perfectionist that I am, I spent a year reading every book on her syllabus and trying the exercises alone. And then I went up to Barre for a three-day [Vipassana] retreat. That’s how I got into it, and my practice just took off from there.

What was that first retreat like for you? Well, they told me to bring a cushion, and I brought, like, a regular big soft square cushion you’d buy at a store. [laughs] People didn’t tell you things. They assumed you knew things. To make things worse, I walked around and nobody was talking to me. I said, these folks are strange! And then the light bulb went off and I realized, this is a silent retreat! [laughs]

Physically, it was difficult. I tried everything. I sat on a chair, I sat on a cushion. My flexibility was really not there, and I had knee and ankle problems. I didn’t know then that there’s a relationship between playing basketball on hard concrete and being on crutches later in life.

I am very grateful for the folks on that retreat who put up with all my noise-making and movement. It was horrendous. But I knew there was something there, and I stuck with it. I never thought about leaving.

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