WILLISTON, N.D. — Legendary basketball coach Phil Jackson credits coaching Babe Ruth baseball in Williston with setting the foundation for his career.
Jackson returned to his hometown of Williston on Friday to speak during a banquet that kicks off the 13-year-old Babe Ruth World Series.
The 10-team tournament begins today and concludes Aug. 24 at Williston’s Ardean Aafedt Stadium. It includes teams from Fargo, Grand Forks and Williston.
In a news conference before Friday night’s banquet, Jackson said Williston’s Babe Ruth baseball program gave him his first coaching job.
“Those memories of coaching kids and going through those long days of coaching both morning and afternoons and then evening baseball games are probably what got me started in the business,” said Jackson, adding that he also had groundskeeper duties.
Jackson went on to be a star basketball player at the University of North Dakota and played for the NBA’s New York Knicks. But he enjoyed his greatest success as a coach, guiding the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers to a total of 11 NBA championships.
Jackson, who moved to Williston as a sixth-grader and graduated from high school there 50 years ago, said it’s hard to recognize the town that’s now in the epicenter of an oil boom.
He recalled visiting Williston 20 years ago while in North Dakota to accept the Theodore Roosevelt Roughrider Award, the state’s highest honor.
“At that time, Williston was a sleepy town,” Jackson said. “Now it’s not sleepy at all. It’s hyperactive.”
Williston city leaders dedicated Phil Jackson Way on Friday, a busy highway bypass that carries 28,000 vehicles per day.
“Williston is suffering those great changes, but also it’s burgeoning with hope,” Jackson said.
Williston Mayor Ward Koeser said he’s given tours of the city for 19 years and people always recognize Jackson.
“We’re very proud to say he has roots in Williston,” Koeser said. “It’s neat to have him back.”
Jackson also will attend the class of 1963 high school reunion while in Williston.
“I’ll be dancing somewhere,” Jackson said, laughing.
He said he’s kept in touch with many guys from his class and has had annual get-togethers with some of his high school friends.
While in Williston, Jackson played varsity basketball and led the team to a state title. He also played football, was a pitcher on the baseball team and threw the discus in track and field competition.
When asked if he’d ever considered pursuing a baseball career instead of basketball, Jackson recalled being called into coach Harold “Pinky” Kraft’s office as a sophomore at UND.
He recalled that Kraft said, “ ‘The Dodgers are interested in drafting you. I told them you were a basketball player,’ ” Jackson said. “That let me know that it wasn’t really going to be my cup of tea.”
While speaking to the young baseball players Friday night, Jackson emphasized good sportsmanship and keeping a positive attitude.
“What I tell players before they get to a big game is that you must get involved,” Jackson said. “The coaches have taught you the best they know how. You don’t have to think anymore, you just do. You go out and do the right thing and it’ll happen.”
Jackson will participate in opening ceremonies for the Babe Ruth World Series this morning.
The tournament includes the three North Dakota teams as well as teams from Niskayuna, N.Y.; Lawrenceburg, Tenn.; Weimar, Texas; Cambridge, Ohio; Coventry, R.I.; El Segundo, Calif.; and Beaverton, Ore.
Jacob McKeever, a shortstop for the Fargo Babe Ruth team who also plays basketball, said being able to hear Jackson speak is one of the highlights of the tournament.
“He’s one of the best basketball coaches ever,” McKeever said.