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Bulls on a record pace with synergistic coach

AS the Chicago Bulls rampage toward another National Basketball Association (NBA) championship, they are goaded lightly but firmly by a soft-spoken, bearded follower of Buddha: head coach Phil Jackson.

Mr. Jackson is known for handing out books on Zen to players, enshrining the team room with native American totems, and quietly ''visualizing'' weak spots of rival teams before each game.

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Although few players are spiritual converts, they say Jackson's off-beat strategy works: He guided the team to three consecutive NBA championships in 1991-93.

The sports world abounds with unusual management styles ranging from the aphoristic Yogi Berra to the chair-throwing Bobby Knight. But few can match Jackson's success at managing a cadre of such high-paid rim-hangers.

Players credit his low-key style with forging the brilliant teamwork that this season has the Bulls charging toward an NBA record number of wins and, insiders predict, their fourth NBA title in six years.

''The thing that makes us click is our coach,'' explains guard Ron Harper during a locker room interview. ''The reason we're winning is that Phil knows how to get guys to play their style of hoops.''

With 49 wins and 6 losses as of Feb. 26, the Bulls are on their way to shattering the Los Angeles Lakers' all-time high of 69 victories in a single season. By recently trouncing the Orlando Magic, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Indiana Pacers, the Bulls reaffirmed that even some of the best teams offer them little competition.

''It's good practice for us,'' said Michael Jordan, the Bulls' star scorer, earlier this month. ''These teams are sitting back and waiting for us and they're giving us their best punches.''

Punch as they may, no team has knocked the Bulls off track. As of the All-Star break in mid-February, the Bulls led the NBA with an average of 106 points scored per game. Their average margin of victory, 11.7 points, was also the highest.

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Driving the Bulls' winning season are the balletic Mr. Jordan and superstars ace shooter Scottie Pippin and the flamboyant, record-holding rebounder Dennis Rodman. Despite opposite personalities, on the court these thirty-somethings, also known as ''Superman, Batman, and Rodman,'' form a seasoned triumvirate.

On the sidelines, thoughtfully keeping these enormous energies and unbounded egos in sync, is the sagacious Jackson.

Nicknamed ''Bones'' for his gangly physique, Jackson grew up in Montana as the son of Pentecostal ministers. In a period of soul-searching while playing for the New York Knicks in the 1960s and '70s, Jackson embraced a combination of Zen, Christianity, and native American animism that formed the basis for his mystical approach to basketball.

Since becoming the Bulls' head coach in 1989, Jackson has worked to merge spirit and sport. Aside from introducing players to Zen, he has decorated the team locker room with objects considered holy to some native American tribes: a bear claw necklace (for power and wisdom), a wooden arrow (a symbol of prayer), and the middle feather of an owl (for balance and harmony). He suggested, only half-jokingly, that the Bulls change their logo from a red steer to a white buffalo, an animal considered sacred by the Sioux.

Jackson routinely meditates each morning for about 40 minutes amid burning candles, incense, and sage at his home in Bannockburn, Ill., which he shares with his wife, June, and five children.

Most important, Jackson has crafted a Zen-inspired winning vision for the Bulls that stresses unselfish teamwork and zero tolerance for the out-of-control egos that often afflict America's hardwood heroes.

''This is one of the best teams I've played for because everyone's ego is pretty much in check. Everyone meshes really well,'' says the Bulls' 7-foot-tall center, Bill Wennington, after a practice at the team headquarters near Deerfield, Ill.

Perhaps the most striking example of how Jackson achieves harmony among the team's strong-willed players has been the smooth addition this season of Mr. Rodman - a.k.a. Dennis the Menace.

With his color-of-the-month hair, painted fingernails, tattoos, and body piercing, Rodman was known as an NBA rebel who constantly clashed with referees, sometimes refused to join team huddles, and would often not even talk with teammates off the court.

Jackson, in his 1995 book, ''Sacred Hoops,'' dubbed Rodman a ''hatchet man'' for the Detroit Pistons for his overly aggressive defense - which in 1991 included shoving then rival Bull Pippin into the stands. Pippin still bears a scar under his chin from the incident.

But despite predictions to the contrary, Rodman has flourished with the Bulls, thanks, many say, to Jackson's adept coaching. ''I don't think things could be better,'' says Chuck Daly, who coached Rodman when he in Detroit and remains a close friend. ''A lot has to do with the way Phil Jackson manages people.''

Rodman's emotional clashes with referees have all but stopped. ''We try to have him work toward remaining even through myriad bad calls - to continually be capable of coming back, being in control, and not losing himself,'' Jackson says.

Meanwhile, Rodman's energetic rebounding has helped the Bulls win and has complemented, rather than competed with, the shooting power of Jordan and Pippen. ''Michael knows that Dennis has got what he needs,'' says center Luc Longley. The rapport between the two players - nicknamed ''Air'' and ''Hair'' - is ''good and growing,'' he says.

Jackson's style has also helped Jordan mature as a player and eased his return from retirement last spring, players say.

Whereas at one time Jordan ''used every practice session as an opportunity to drive home his superiority, sometimes by tearing up other players'' now he ''understands much better how to back off,'' says Jackson.

Jackson's laid-back personality is a perfect antidote for the pressure-cooker atmosphere and media frenzy surrounding NBA competitions, players say. To calm nerves before key games, he has taken the team on impromptu visits to the Statue of Liberty and Congress.

''His whole focus is not to get too up or too down,'' says Tom Dore, the Bulls' announcer for the Sports Channel.

Heeding the Zen ideal of a clear mind, Jackson has pushed players to focus on each immediate game rather than clutter their thoughts with dreams of an NBA title. Victory, he says, is ephemeral. The true joy lies in the play.

''Basketball is a game, a journey, a dance,'' he writes, ''not a fight to the death.''

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