The Iranian Hostage Crisis: 25 Years Later
Mark Bowden's article about the 25th anniversary of the Iranian Hostage crisis will be featured in the December issue The Atlantic Monthly. On Nov. 4, 1979 a group of Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took hostage the entire American diplomatic team — which resulted in a 15-month international crisis that still has reverberations today. Bowden interviewed the former hostage-takers for his article.
Other segments from the episode on November 4, 2004
DATE November 4, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Mark Bowden discusses the Iranian hostage crisis that
began 25 years ago
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Twenty-five years ago today, radical Islamic students stormed the American
Embassy in Tehran, taking the diplomatic team hostage. The students held 52
hostages for 444 days. Today, several thousand Iranians celebrated the
anniversary by burning American flags and chanting, `Death to America.' My
guest, Mark Bowden, has written an article for the December issue of The
Atlantic Monthly magazine about the Iranian students who took the hostages.
He's writing a book about the Iranian hostage crisis. He found that some of
the hostage takers are now in the government while others regret their
actions. Bowden is also the author of "Black Hawk Down" and has a new book
collecting his articles called "Road Work."
In 1979, a grassroots revolution in Iran overthrew the shah's dictatorship.
The Ayatollah Khomeini had returned to Iran from exile, and a new
revolutionary council set up a provisional government. After the US allowed
the shah to come here for cancer treatment, a group of revolutionaries took
over the US Embassy in Tehran. I asked Mark Bowden to describe the reaction
in the US to these events.
Mark, take us back 25 years ago. What was the reaction in America when
Americans were taken hostage in the Iranian Embassy?
Mr. MARK BOWDEN (The Atlantic Monthly): Well, there was at first, of course,
a big burst of media attention, you know, know a lot of television and
newspaper reporting it was an outrage. You know, the United States Embassy
had been overrun by what appeared to be a just sort of ragtag bunch of Iranian
students who had taken hostage all of the American diplomats and the Marines
and the staff of the embassy. And I think there's an instinctive feeling that
most Americans had that we should do something. We should go in there and
chase those people out and get our people back.
But, of course, it--on a practical level, it was a very difficult situation
for the administration. Iran was a country that was extremely hostile to the
United States. We had no military presence anywhere nearby. We really
weren't in a position to do much. And then to double--to make it doubly more
difficult, there was no--very quickly after the embassy was seized, the
provisional government there folded, so there was no one to even negotiate
with. So I think Americans were angry, confused, frustrated by what happened.
GROSS: And kind of afraid because suddenly we were the great Satan. I don't
think--we've grown used to that but...
Mr. BOWDEN: Right.
GROSS: ...I mean, at the time it was incredibly shocking to see Americans
paraded around with blindfolds and being held hostage.
Mr. BOWDEN: Yeah.
GROSS: Can you talk a little bit about how this was the beginning of what has
become a conflict between parts of the West, like the United States, and the
more extremist end of militant Islam?
Mr. BOWDEN: Well, it is, and it was--I remember being particularly shocked by
it because it was one of those events that changed my understanding of America
and its role in the world. I mean, I grew up during the Cold War when, you
know, the United States and the Soviet Union formed these two great blocs, and
so, you know, we would expect that the Americans would encounter hostility in
a Soviet bloc country, but this was now a country that was not in the Soviet
bloc, was not a Communist country, and there erupted this sort of vehement
hatred of the United States, which was shocking to me, and something that I
just didn't understand. I don't think most Americans understood it. And I
didn't know enough about Iran or its history to know where it was coming from.
But the idea that there were these people who, for religious and historic and
cultural reasons just thought of the United States as the source of all evil.
GROSS: Well, the past few years you've made several trips to Iran, and you
write that, `Going to Iran now is like visiting bizarre-o-world, a mirror
universe in which everything is inverted.' What are some examples of that in
the current Iran?
Mr. BOWDEN: Well, I think that the most obvious example are the images all
over the city of Tehran. You see American symbols everywhere, but always
in--sort of debased and in propaganda displays where, you know, the American
flag is in the shape of a pistol or the American eagle is shown crashing in
flames. So that's the first and most obvious way. I went over there--the
last time I was in Tehran was in August during the Olympics, and here in the
United States, you know, I was--as I was leaving, the television here in the
United States is portraying sort of one glorious triumph after another of
American athletes in the Olympics. And I got to Tehran, and there, you know,
they were portraying one American defeat and humiliation after another. It's
all a matter of emphasis. And so in those instances where an American would
win a gold medal, it would be portrayed as a rare moment when, you know, the
United States manages to sort of stave off humiliation. And, you know, things
like that start to make you feel like you've entered into a warp where
everything is backwards.
GROSS: What does the embassy compound that the hostages were held in look
Mr. BOWDEN: Well, it's right in the heart of Tehran. It's a 27-acre
compound and it really is striking. It's a kind of oasis because the city is
just a teeming sprawl of 12 million people, very busy, congested, loud, noisy,
dirty, and this is a basically 27-acre compound with a pine grove. And what
it looks like today is pretty much what it looked like 25 years ago. The main
building, the chancery building, is--they used to call it Henderson High. It
looks like one of these high schools that was built in the 1940s. It's kind
of orange brick, two stories tall, about a block long. A handsome building,
but it has been decorated with anti-American propaganda, so on the brick wall
all around the outside of the embassy are murals showing things like the
Statue of Liberty with a death mask or, you know, again, you know, the
American eagle going down in flames or slogans, `Death to the United States'
or quotes from Khomeini, "We shall inflict a great defeat on the great Satan."
So it's kind of festooned with this anti-American propaganda.
GROSS: What functions are these buildings in the former embassy compound used
Mr. BOWDEN: Well, the chancery itself is home to a permanent exhibition of
anti-American propaganda, which is very--which I went through, and it's
frankly pretty unimpressive. I think I could probably do a better job putting
together an anti-American display.
GROSS: What's in it?
Mr. BOWDEN: Well, there are these sort of papier-mache models of the Statue
of Liberty with fangs and, you know, photographs of poor maimed children who
are the victims of, you know, bombings or whatever. You know, big
cartoonishlike paintings on the walls of Uncle Sam strangling babies and--it's
just awful. It looks like--I described it in the story, I think, as something
that a bunch of high school students with a bad attitude would put together.
But that's the main building. And the compound itself is used as a base for
the Revolutionary Guards who are the elite military unit that protects the
The other half of the compound is the headquarters for the Majlis, which is a
civilian organization which I compare to the sort of Fascist brown shirts,
who are called out to--with sticks and just in by, you know, numbers, I guess,
to put down any kind of anti-regime protests that go on, and also are used to
enforce the regime's rules and regulations about the way women are allowed to
dress. People are prohibited from holding hands, men and women, women and
women and--nobody can hold hands, I guess, except for maybe mothers and
daughters can hold hands. But, you know,these are the people who are
fanatics, civilian fanatics who enforce the regime's rules and regulations.
GROSS: You were able to actually interview some of the people who took the
Americans hostage 25 years ago. Were they all willing to talk with you?
Mr. BOWDEN: No, not all of them. Some--I would say even most of them weren't
willing to talk to me. It's still a very volatile political situation in
Iran, and involvement in the takeover of the embassy puts you in a peculiar
position, because it's one of the sort of founding acts of this revolution,
and if you're opposed to it, which some of the former hostage takers are, then
to speak out honestly about it, you run the risk of being arrested and beaten
or put in jail. A lot of the people who were involved would prefer not to
talk about it at all just to avoid being put in that position.
Some of the people who took over the embassy remain very religious, highly
connected with the regime, very anti-American, so they would just view me as
probably a CIA agent or a, you know, military intelligence person, not a
reporter, and they wouldn't trust me enough to sit and talk to me. So the
people who would talk to me are those who--not all of them, but most of the
ones I spoke with were the ones who've sort of put their neck out by publicly
criticizing what happened.
GROSS: You spoke to the student who actually came up with the idea of taking
Americans hostage in the Iranian Embassy--in the American Embassy in Iran.
Tell us something about who this person was then and what they're doing now.
Mr. BOWDEN: Well, Ebrahim Asgharzadeh was an engineering student at Tehran
University in 1979, and he had always been--I think he said he'd always been
fairly political and, of course, Iran in the year prior to the takeover of the
American Embassy had been through this wrenching revolution where the people
have risen up and overthrown the regime of the shah, chased the shah basically
out of Iran, and were in the process of sort of trying to create a new
government. So a lot of young people like Ebrahim Asgharzadeh had sort of
drifted away from their study and their planned career path and gotten caught
up in the revolution.
He was a--had become a sort of political leader on campus at Tehran
University, and he and four other students met in--as part of the small
political organization that Asgharzadeh had formed, and were discussing ways
of demonstrating or what they should do next, and they actually had a vote
over whether to attack the American Embassy or the Soviet Embassy, and they
voted and three of this original vote agreed that they wanted to go after the
American Embassy, and that's what really started it. So that's who Asgharzadeh
Today he's well-known for having been the instigator of the takeover of the
embassy. He is a reform politician who has spent some time in jail for
criticisms of the regime, and he's a newspaper editor whose newspaper,
amazingly, is still being published in Iran at a time when most reform
newspapers have been shut down.
GROSS: Now one proposal was to target the Soviet Embassy instead of the
American Embassy because why?
Mr. BOWDEN: Well, because the Soviets represented a godless power that was a
threat to Iran. The Soviet Union bordered on Iran. The foundation of the
Iranian revolution was extreme Islam, the religious fervor, and so some of the
Iranian students who were not Marxist leaning, who were more nationalist,
viewed the Soviet Union as the greatest threat to their new country. Most of
them, three of the five, viewed, you know, the United States as really being
the biggest threat to Iran, and that goes back to a--frankly a rather dark
episode in our history where, you know, we interfered with politics in Iran,
and I think, you know, we deserve some of the antipathy that we have.
GROSS: This is 1953 that you're referring to when the CIA helped to overthrow
Mossadegh, who was the democratically elected president of Iran.
Mr. BOWDEN: Right. And installed the shah, you know, which led to the, you
know, next 20 years of Iranian history. So there was a great deal of honest
resentment of the United States in Iran, and a growing fear that the United
States was going to interfere with this new revolution.
GROSS: My guest is Mark Bowden, the author of "Black Hawk Down." His article
in the December edition of The Atlantic magazine is about the students behind
the Iranian hostage crisis. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mark Bowden. He has an article
called Among the Hostage-Takers in the December issue of The Atlantic
Monthly, and it's about the men and women who took hostage Americans in the
Iranian Embassy 25 years ago, and he's currently working on a book called
"Guest of the Ayatollah"(ph) about what happened 25 years ago in Iran.
Well, you quote the student who instigated the hostage taking as saying, `Our
aim was to object to the American government by going to their embassy and
occupying it for several hours.' Well, it was 444 days, not several hours.
What did you learn about what the original plan was and, you know, what they
really expected to happen?
Mr. BOWDEN: Well, the students were very naive, as students tend to be, and
they saw this as just a demonstration right out of the mold of demonstrations
that they had seen in Europe and in the United States during the Vietnam War
era where college students would take over the dean's office and hold it for,
you know, a week or two as a way of publicizing their grievances and what
out--this is what these students had in mind. But behind the students
were--was a fairly sophisticated organization of mullahs, led by a cleric
named Koaniha(ph), who was popular among the students, and I think, you know,
if you want to talk about what the motives were, you have to differentiate the
motives of someone like Koaniha from those of the students.
Koaniha is in the middle of a power struggle in Iran. What had happened was
after the shah left, there was a real wrestling match going on inside of Iran
between those Iranian politicians who wanted to create a secular democratic
state, a more traditional government, and then there were the mullahs and the
religious extremists who wanted something completely different than that.
They wanted to try to create this new, holy, Islamic republic. But in their
way, in the mullahs' way, was the provisional government that the Ayatollah
Khomeini had established when he came back to Iran.
Now I think that someone, that Koaniha, who was sort of the guiding force
behind the students, he was less interested in having a demonstration and
announcing to the world their grievances. He saw an opportunity to rally
public support behind anti-Americanism, to focus all of the anger toward the
United States and bring it to bear on this political struggle that was taking
place in Tehran. And, in fact, what happened was that the takeover of the
embassy, you know, created an outpouring of anti-American demonstrations
throughout Iran and put such pressure on the provisional government, which was
obligated to protect the Americans who were part of that diplomatic mission,
that they resigned the day after the embassy was taken.
So now suddenly these students, who walk into the embassy thinking that
they're gonna be there for a day or two and do their demonstration, are in the
middle of a raging political storm in their own country. The Ayatollah
Khomeini announces that he supports what they've done, elevating them to the
status of, you know, national heroes. It was a piece of political theater
that tipped the scales in the power struggle toward the mullahs. And so the
students found themselves, I think, trapped in much the same way that the
Americans who were working at the embassy found themselves trapped in. There
was no way for them to walk out after all this happened.
GROSS: Was there any Iranian students who participated in the hostage taking
who felt that their efforts were coopted by the mullahs? In other words, that
the students were being used by the mullahs?
Mr. BOWDEN: Many of them feel that way today. In fact, many of them felt
that way at the time. There were a large number of those who were involved in
the initial takeover of the embassy who just left and who refused to stay
involved because what was going on was something that violated their own
principals. So that what you had left after the first week were the hard-core
of those who were willing to play along with this power play in Tehran, and
then all the others who they recruited who came from the more fanatical reach
of, you know--in the Islamic students' organizations who came in to be guards
and to actually make the captivity work.
GROSS: You write about how the leader of this student group who initiated the
idea of the hostage taking at the American Embassy met and proposed to his
wife during the hostage crisis.
Mr. BOWDEN: Right.
GROSS: What are some of the things you learned about the atmosphere inside
the embassy for the students who were the hostage takers?
Mr. BOWDEN: Well, I think that's actually, Terry, one of the most interesting
things about this story and, you know, we view things through, you know, an
American lens, but if you can imagine being in a country that has lived under
the sort of totalitarian heel of someone like the shah for your entire life,
and then to have been part of an uprising and national revolution that
overthrows this terrible dictator, and here you have, at age 18, 19, 20, an
opportunity to take part in creating a new kind of country, so everyone, you
know, called themselves brother and sister and there was this wonderful,
almost euphoric feeling of possibility at the time and so, you know, love
blossoms in such atmospheres. And so you had, you know, inside the embassy, a
number of young men and women, you know, living and working together, side by
side, month after month after month, and so it's not terribly surprising that
romances ensued, and a number of the hostages I met and interviewed met and
married, you know, during this whole episode.
GROSS: The hostage takers?
Mr. BOWDEN: Yes.
GROSS: Yeah. Were the hostage takers able to leave the compound at all, or
were they as stuck there as the hostages?
Mr. BOWDEN: No, the hostage takers did leave. They worked in shifts, so they
would--you have just basically a regular work day. Clearly, though, for the
leaders, you know, this became a full-time occupation, and many of them, you
know, told me that in retrospect, how frustrated they were to have suddenly
been yanked out of their schooling and their career path and their personal
lives and to suddenly been saddled with this tremendous responsibility
and--but at the same time, it made them very important people. I mean, if you
can imagine, you know, you're a bunch of college students and you decide to
make a demonstration, and suddenly you are a player on an international stage
and, you know, make--helping to make policy for your country and dealing, you
know, in very, very high stakes, the center of a whole lot of press attention
and regarded as a national hero in your country. So I think there was a mix
of sort of pride, of having been able to accomplish something, as they saw it,
you know, terribly important, and also some sense of frustration that it
dragged on and on and on, and kept them from maybe what they personally would
have preferred to have been doing.
GROSS: Mark Bowden's article, Among the Hostage-Takers, is in the December
edition of The Atlantic magazine. A new collection of his articles has just
been published called "Road Work." Bowden will be back in the second half of
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Coming up, we talk with Phil Jackson about his final season coaching
the Los Angeles Lakers while superstar Kobe Bryant faced sexual assault
charges. Also, more on the Iranian hostage crisis with journalist Mark
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Mark Bowden. He's best
known as the author of "Black Hawk Down." We're talking about his article in
the December edition of The Atlantic magazine about the Iranian hostage
crisis, which began 25 years ago when militant Iranian students took over the
American Embassy in Iran, taking the Americans hostage. The article is based
on Bowden's interviews with the hostage-takers. Bowden is writing a book
about the crisis.
What are some of the positions of power that the former hostage-takers have
risen to in Iran?
Mr. BOWDEN: Well, the two most powerful are a couple who actually met during
the hostage-taking and married. One is Mohammad Hashemi, who became the
deputy secretary in the intelligence ministry, which is a very nefarious,
sinister and powerful organization in Iran. It's like the secret police in
Iran. And he was one of the most powerful figures in the regime for many
years; just recently stepped away from that and has gone into private
He's married to Massoumeh Ebtekar, who is now a vice president of Iran in
charge of the environment, who was the most famous to Americans of the
hostage-takers because she was raised partly in Philadelphia as a child and
spoke fluent, American-accented English. And so she became, in the press
conferences and things that the students held during this crisis, the
spokesman for them. And so Americans would see this short of chubby-faced
young Iranian woman who spoke absolutely perfect American English, you know,
denouncing the United States on TV. And it made her, I think, the most
notorious and the most hated of the hostage-takers.
GROSS: And who are some of those students who feel alienated or betrayed by
the current Iranian government and feel that the revolution was hijacked, that
it wasn't the idealistic vision that they had when they participated in the
revolution 25 years ago?
Mr. BOWDEN: Well, Ebrahim Asgharzadeh is one. Abbas Abdi was one of the
central figures who's now serving a prison sentence because he was a newspaper
editor and he published a poll--the results of a poll which showed that 74
percent of Iranians wanted renewed ties with the United States, which so
angered the regime that they threw him in jail. Abdi has made efforts to
reach out to former hostages and to try to begin to repair some of the damage
between the United States and Iran, for which he's, you know, serving a prison
Mohsen Miramadi--Mirdamadi, rather, was a member of the Maglis, a very
high-ranking member of the Maglis, who was one of the founders of the
students who took over the embassy. I was scheduled to interview Mirdamadi
last December in Tehran. I was in Tehran planning to see him the next day.
He was attacked and beaten by one of these groups of, you know, Iranian brown
shirts as he was giving a speech at a local university and ended up being in
the hospital, and I never got a chance to meet him. But he's spoken out very
bitterly about the way that the revolution has turned out in Iran, saying that
he felt that when they got rid of the shah that they had rid their country of
totalitarianism and now all they've done is create a new kind of totalitarian
GROSS: Now a lot of people think that the future of Iran lies with the
current students, and that the current students want freedom--or at least more
freedom than they have--and they don't want to live in a religious theocracy.
Did you speak to any young people who are students now in Iran and ask them
about their perceptions of the students who took the Americans hostage 25
Mr. BOWDEN: Yes, I spoke to a lot. And most of the people who I met and
talked to are embarrassed by what happened in 1979. These are young Iranians.
They despise the religious regime that runs their country. They chafe under
the regulations that govern their lives--what they can wear, where they can
go, what they can say. They're frightened of the regime. There were
demonstrations--widespread student demonstrations a year ago in Iran that were
violently cracked down on, and a number of the key student leaders from
campuses have been sent to jail. This has intimidated young people to a great
extent in Iran. So, you know, those who are opposed to the existing regime
see the takeover of the American Embassy as a founding example of the sort of
pariah status that their country has that they would like to end.
But by the same token, there are also still, you know, religious extremists,
young people, as well, who are totally on board with the ideology of the
regime and with the notion that the United States represents everything evil
in the world and who would, I think, gladly sacrifice their lives and attack
the United States if they had the opportunity.
GROSS: Has writing this book--and I know you're not finished with it yet, so
you're not done with the process of thinking things through. But is the
process of writing this book changing, in any fundamental way, your thoughts
about what happened during the Iranian hostage crisis or what the meaning of
that crisis has finally been?
Mr. BOWDEN: Well, it's changed my thinking about it in a lot of ways. I
mean, I think I felt, as most Americans did, that this was a sort of
unprovoked, illogical attack on the part of these sort of crazed, you know,
Islamic students in Iran. And, in fact, you know, when you begin to study the
history of Iran, the role of the United States in Iran, you can see how
logically very sensible, idealistic people could have become enraged at the
United States and could have become so suspicious of the United States and its
role in the country. So I have a much better understanding of how and why it
happened from an Iranian perspective.
I also, I think, have a much better understanding of how much it was political
theater; you know, that the taking of the embassy was turned into--it's an
active political theater based upon myths that Iranians fervently believe
about the United States, in the same way that Americans have myths about
people in other countries. And so, you know, there was, I think, a profound
level of misunderstanding that's always there between two countries that don't
know each other well. And then there were, I think, very clever people who
manipulated these myths to accomplish their local political ends in Iran.
So I think I see the takeover of the American Embassy as a much more pivotal
event in the history of Iran than anything else; that it's something that
basically created the Iran that we face today.
GROSS: What are the myths that you're talking about?
Mr. BOWDEN: Well, the myths at the time were that the United States had this
incredible intelligence capability and presence in Iran; that everything that
happened that was a problem for the provisional government or for the, you
know, revolutionary council was engineered by Americans, whether it was, you
know, rebel uprisings in Kurdistan or resistance that they faced near the
Soviet border, whether it--they even blamed hurricanes and train derailments,
you know, the kind of natural disasters or accidents that happen in any
country. Everything was blamed on the United States. And there was also this
idea that the United States had this, you know, capability of doing just about
whatever it wanted in Iran when the truth was, as I've discovered by working
on the story--is that the entire CIA presence in Iran in 1979 consisted of
three CIA officers, all of whom were taken hostage in the takeover of the
Tom Ahern, who had been there, who was the CIA station chief, had been there
for only about eight months. Bill Daugherty, the other CIA officer, had been
only recruited to become a CIA agent the previous January and had been in
Tehran for about four weeks. And Malcolm Kalp, who is the other CIA
officer--who was there for four days before the embassy was taken. None of
those three men even spoke Farsi. They had no contacts with anybody in the
government. They had no capability of influencing anything going on in Iran.
But the myth of this American omnipresence and omnipotence was so powerful in
Iran that those who wanted to could stir up fears that the United States was
planning to overthrow the revolution, was planning to bring the shah back and
put him back on the--all of which was just completely out of the question,
something that the United States could not have done, even if it had fervently
wanted to do so.
GROSS: Mark Bowden, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. BOWDEN: You're welcome, Terry.
GROSS: Mark Bowden's article, Among the Hostage-Takers, is in the December
edition of The Atlantic. A new collection of his articles has just been
published called "Road Work."
Coming up, the great NBA coach Phil Jackson talks about his final season.
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Phil Jackson discusses his new book, "The Last Season:
A Team in Search of Its Soul"
TERRY GROSS, host:
In his final season coaching the Los Angeles Lakers, Phil Jackson had to deal
with conflicts between superstars Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, who is now
with the Miami Heat. And Jackson had to keep the team focused as Bryant faced
sexual assault charges, which put him in the middle of a media circus. Now
Jackson has written a memoir called "The Last Season: A Team in Search of Its
Soul." He won six NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls when it included
Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen. Jackson won three
championships with the Lakers. In his last season the Lakers lost to the
Detroit Pistons in the finals. Jackson holds the NBA coaching record for most
playoff wins. I spoke with him about his new memoir.
You talk, of course, about the rape charges against Kobe Byrant, and you say,
`Was I surprised? Yes, but not entirely.' Why not?
Mr. PHIL JACKSON (Former NBA Coach): Well, you know, I think that, you know,
having been around Kobe and seeing, you know, his willpower, you know, his
commitment to doing what he wants to do when he wants to do it, his ability to
be forceful and angry, you know, has shown some of the characteristics that
could have, you know, behaved in that pattern. But, you know, no one knows
what's behind closed doors, and, you know, I refuse to speculate in that area
GROSS: How have you seen his anger manifested on the basketball court?
Mr. JACKSON: Well, in a variety of ways, some of it at his teammates and some
of it at himself and his opponents and some at referees, some of it at me. In
fact, that was probably one of the things that really changed our relationship
in the last year prior to this--was that there were some heated words,
vitriolic words, as--I actually said to Kobe that, `We can't have that. It's
too destructive to have that vitriolic kind of hot flow coming out of you
towards me because it undermines what the team has to do.' And we reached an
impasse at some point and were able to overcome that during the course of the
And that basically is really the story of this book--is that maybe it was my
approach, maybe it was my reticence to jump in with both feet, to leave Kobe
alone and allow him to have all this space around a trial, a very trying time,
accusations that were damning; a possible, you know, sentence that would be,
you know, prohibitive to even playing basketball perhaps, let alone destroying
his life or things that, you know, I wanted to stay apart from, back away
from. And, in reality, you know, I think the book shows that the more
involved I was with Kobe, the better off our relationship was. And rather
than standing back and allowing him to have all the space, I needed to be
involved and proactive and take advantage of the fact that, you know, he was
searching perhaps for discipline, and he was searching perhaps for leadership
GROSS: Are you surprised that he didn't sit the season out?
Mr. JACKSON: It was a consideration. And it was a consideration not only
that we expressed to him and asked him about it in the meeting in August with
him a year ago last August, but also something that we talked about between
the general manager and myself--that, you know, `Is it, you know, going to be
necessary for him to sit out?' And at some point during the season it was
even suggested by me that maybe it was better if Kobe sat out for a while.
And because his presence on the team was distraction, I felt that it was a
conflict for me to have to coach, especially when he wasn't capable of
playing. And he was injured, you know, a dozen games or so in the last
season's--during the course of the last season.
GROSS: You talk in your book about how you were concerned about how Kobe
Bryant would mature, coming of age in the NBA, which he joined when he was
still in high school. What were some of your concerns?
Mr. JACKSON: When I began coaching the Lakers in 1999-2000 season, I believe
Kobe just had turned 21. And I saw a young man who was living with his
parents, even though he had moved into a separate house and they kind of had
spaces right next door to each other. They had kind of a compound in the
Brentwood area of Los Angeles. And he had yet to have relationship with a
girl that was known about. His comings and goings were really monitored a lot
by his parents, who had tried to, you know, monitor his development,
involvement in the NBA. His father had been an NBA player, known as Jelly
Bean Bryant, and played with Philadelphia 76ers during the early '70s and
eventually went on to Italy to play for most of his career in the Italian
leagues over there. But they knew what the NBA lifestyle was like. They knew
the pitfalls of it and they did want to make sure that Kobe's life was
monitored and, you know, eased and he had a way to get into the NBA without
the shock of just dropping him in there. And so they had moved as a family
out to LA.
So what I saw was a young man who was going to go through all the rebellion
that you normally go through when your child goes off to college. He goes off
to college, he learns how to take care of himself, he learns how to wash his
clothes, feed himself and doesn't call, perhaps doesn't answer the phone, has
a rebellion attitude that is a way that children break away from their
parents. And as they break away from their parents and they get involved in
relationships with people of the opposite sex, they start to break away even
farther, philosophically. And because of Kobe's sheltered past, I saw that
this was a young man that more than likely was going to have to go through all
those growth processes during the course of playing basketball while he was
involved very tightly in his family life and have to make the movement towards
maturation under a microscope. He wasn't going to be given that opportunity
to do it in college where, you know, if you even have a college season where
you're a high-profile college athlete, it might only be for three and a half
months on a college campus. It's not for an eight-month or nine-month period
of time which might involve an NBA year. So the spotlight was on his growth
and development and I knew that rebellion might even hold, you know, rebellion
against the coach who was an authority figure behind all that.
GROSS: And that would be you.
Mr. JACKSON: That would be me.
GROSS: Do you think he rebelled against you?
Mr. JACKSON: I think so. You know, I don't want to make any inference that
I, you know, was a father figure to him, but there was a relationship that we
had. It was a real strong relationship at the start. And, you know, he had
to find his own way and had to, you know, step out on his own. And, you know,
I think that my coaching influence over Kobe Bryant lasted only maybe two, two
and a half years of the five years that I was here with the Lakers in LA.
GROSS: My guest is Phil Jackson, former coach of the Chicago Bulls and the
Los Angeles Lakers. His new memoir is about his final season with the Lakers.
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Phil Jackson, and he has a new
memoir about his last season with the Lakers and it's called "The Last
Now the two superstars of this team during your last season were Kobe Bryant
and Shaquille O'Neal. I mean, they were the superstars of the team through
your tenure at the Lakers.
Mr. JACKSON: Yes.
GROSS: Do you think their relationship changed in any fundamental way during
your final season?--which was also Shaquille O'Neal's final season with the
Mr. JACKSON: I don't think it changed that much, Terry. I think it was
pretty much set. They'd reached a certain impasse and it was just brought
back into reality at the beginning of the season. Before the first game, the
conflict that happened between the two of them in the papers solidified, `OK.
This is how it's going to be. We're not going to ever find the real common
ground to live from but we can co-exist together. Just don't disrespect me,'
was kind of the message that Shaq had led Kobe, you know, to know. And Kobe
was, `Don't tell me how to play my game. I'm my own person. I'm not your
sidekick.' And that was the message I think the two of them wanted to get
across to each other. And other than that, I felt that they were dedicated to
winning a championship and they were going to find a way to get to this
position regardless of how much angst and how much difficulty this team was
going to provide to them.
GROSS: What did you try to do to straighten out their relationship?
Mr. JACKSON: Well, there's all kinds of ways and, you know--from actually
running two-man games on the court with them to, you know, conferencing them
together. But, you know, I think the reality was that I didn't use
professional help when I probably should have used conflict resolution or had
some professional help from come in that could be trusted, would feel
appropriate support for both of them, not have a valence of plus or minus with
either one of these two players so they didn't feel the other person was
getting favored and have them really work on a relationship that made some
sense of them, that these are the things that are evident. `Kobe, you're
never going to make the same amount of money that Shaq is. Shaq, you're never
going to be able to bring the ball down the court and do whatever you want to
do with it. You're going to have to rely on Kobe bringing the ball down the
court. You guys are going to have to find a way to play together to make this
thing work out to the best of our ability and support each other in these
situations, because that's what a team's all about.'
GROSS: At what point did you decide--you say in your book at some point you
decided that you couldn't stay on the team if Kobe Bryant stayed. What was
like the tipping point for you on that?
Mr. JACKSON: You know, there are a number of incidents that preceded for
about, you know, six weeks or so. And, you know, I try not to get into them
all, but as, you know, we went along, there was just one that eventually, you
know, just, you know, was--caught me off guard and it was simply, you know,
the fact that he didn't come on the court and participate in the practice when
he had said he was going to. And Kobe had had an injury, a shoulder injury.
And he didn't have to come on the court to participate and practice. He had
to be out on the court to watch or observe. But I asked him if he's going to
come out and he said, `Yeah, sure.' And then when he didn't participate, I
asked him why, and he said, in very course language, `Because of my "blank"
shoulder.' And I said, `I didn't know it hurt you that bad.' And he said,
`Well, you didn't ask.' And then it led from one thing to another where
finally I just said, you know, `I'd like you just to be straight with me and
just, you know, square up.' And, you know, as I turned to leave the room, you
know, I heard, you know, some profanity behind me and, you know, that was--I
just kept going and went to the general manager's office and said, you know,
`I don't think I can reach this young man anymore and I don't think it's--you
know, I'm the right person to continue on in this job. So if you're all going
to keep Kobe Bryant on this team, then I don't think we need to continue our
contract negotiations, and you can tell the owner that'--and walked out of the
room. And, you know, it's kind of described in the book as a tirade, but I
don't think it reached tirade proportion. But it was firm and I was angry.
GROSS: This is a pretty personal book, not only--I mean, it contains a lot of
reflections about other people and reflections about your conflicts with other
people on the team, but, you know, particularly Kobe Bryant. And I just
wonder how you feel about making some of those conflicts more public than
you'd made them before.
Mr. JACKSON: Well, it was something that obviously, you know, I had to just
sit on a long time this summer and think about. Be reassured that even though
that it was personal, it's not about that. It's about the story, and it's got
to be about the bigger picture that's in that story. It's not about the
conflicts that happen. It's about the resolution that happens. It's about
the fact that even in a resolution that happened, there wasn't enough fertile
ground or enough foundation for us to have total success, and it's a near
miss. And that, in itself, is intriguing in its own right. So the story,
itself, stands out, even though it's personal. And even though there are
names used, it's about the acts as people, it's not about the people
GROSS: Do you know how Kobe Bryant has reacted to your book?
Mr. JACKSON: Yes, he said--and very rightly so, that, you know, `This is
about a book in which Phil's trying to sell books. He's--I mean, this is
something'--and he stated some things that it's about selling books, because
it's controversial. And, you know, that's--Kobe's really good with the press,
and, you know, I think he's reacted in--and his statement was simply this, `I
really respect the time I spent with Phil Jackson and our chance to team
together and win some championships.' And that's the professional, you know,
side of Kobe Bryant that always steps forward.
GROSS: Are you worried what he'll say about you when he writes his memoir?
Mr. JACKSON: Not really. I think that, you know, it'll be even-handed,
because I've been honest and heartfelt with him.
GROSS: So do you want to get back into basketball again in some capacity or
Mr. JACKSON: I don't know, Terry. I think the year will really answer that
question, and I want to remain open to it without trying to be, you know,
like, remorseful or, you know, debted to basketball. I want to remove myself
from it so I have a chance to really, you know, assess, you know, do I want to
be part of this? Is it fruitful? Is it, you know, consistently a good way
to, you know, spend my time? And I--you know, when you're almost 60 years
old, you don't have a whole lot of time left, and that's important.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us, and I wish
you good travels.
Mr. JACKSON: Thank you very much, Terry. It's always a pleasure to be on
your show. You have a wonderful show.
GROSS: Phil Jackson's new memoir is called "The Last Season: A Team in
Search of Its Soul."
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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