Legends on the Hilltop

The Silk Speaker Series takes place every semester at USF, featuring prominent speakers from different industries. Pictured from left to right Phil Jackson, Bill Cartwright, Lisa Leslie. Photo by Leila Tselner/SF Foghorn

Basketball legends came to the Hilltop this past weekend as a part of the Silk Speaker Series for USF’s annual CelebrateUSF family weekend. Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer Lisa Leslie moderated a discussion on “championing excellence” with 11-time National Basketball Association (NBA) Champion and Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson, as well as five-time NBA champion and USF basketball’s all-time leading scorer, Bill Cartwright. Leslie led the discussion as the three reminisced on their athletic journeys, touching on topics like leadership, mentorship, teamwork, and personal growth.

Jeff Silk ‘87 and his wife Naomi fund the Silk Speaker Series, which occurs every semester. According to their website, “The Silk Speaker Series is designed to provide learning opportunities and discussions for USF’s students, alumni, faculty, and friends of the university.” Past speakers include Robin Roberts, Kal Penn, Stephen Curry, Steve Wozniak, Charles Schwab, and more.

Leslie, a three-time Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) Most Valuable Player and four-time Olympic gold medalist, talked about her experiences as an early star in the league. She is most well-known for being the first woman to dunk in a WNBA game in 2002. Cartwright and Jackson recalled their time as members of the Chicago Bulls. Jackson coached Cartwright from 1989 to 1994 in Chicago, along with arguably the most famous basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan. Jackson coached the Bulls to six NBA championships before taking the head coaching position with the Los Angeles Lakers, winning five championships with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.

In an exclusive interview with the Foghorn, Jackson spoke on the personal impact USF has had on him, as well as the world of basketball.

“We practiced in this gym a number of times during my tenure, both as the Chicago Bulls coach and as the LA Laker coach,” Jackson said. “We paid homage to the teams that were here — also to Bill Russell and Bill Cartwright and the great teams that they played on. And one of my basketball friends told me to make sure to mention Quinton Daly when I’m up at [USF] as one of the talented players that came through this organization.” 

Jackson continued, “[USF] has a history. Phil Wolf, the coach, ran the triangle offense…but he’s one of the legacy guys that was coaching fundamentals the way we espouse basketball that should be played. There’s a good feel about [being here], and it’s a college court that feels really like back in the day.”

Jackson has been nicknamed the “Zen Master” because of his holistic approach to coaching and leadership. Much of Jackon’s leadership style came from growing up in Montana and North Dakota and immersing himself in indigenous communities. He would also host basketball camps in college on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation of the Lakota Sioux. 

When Leslie asked for Jackson’s advice on those looking to cultivate leadership in their lives, he said, “I just think you’re either kind of like a born leader. I don’t think that you kind of develop leadership skills. And people have leadership classes, they do all these things about leadership and their tricks, and I do think they’re just kind of like an energy that you portray or something that might be God-given or DNA.”

He continued, “I don’t know what characteristic I would say I reversely possess, it might be the ability to conceptualize. I believe in conceptualization and you’re leading people in a way in which you are prepared. Maybe that’s something that has to do with leadership. But to tag a name onto it. I have a little bit of trouble just to put that up.”

While Cartwright agreed with Jackson, Leslie explained how she’s cultivated her leadership skills over her life.

“I felt like I wasn’t born a leader… I was so scared and just so timid. And I think that it’s almost laughable that out of all of the females, I’m the only athlete or professional athlete in the whole family,” Leslie said. “I felt like I really had to make a decision and an assertive effort. But I can tell you I’ve always been competitive and I love to win. So that might have just been the reason why I got here.” 

Hundreds filled War Memorial Gym, with many in Lakers and Bulls gear. For many attendees, this was their first time on campus. 

Matt Johnson came from a ways away, dressed head to toe in Lakers gear, to hear the Zen Master speak. “I drove up here from Mariposa, California, which is up by Yosemite,” Johnson said. “So it’s a three-hour drive. I have a friend whose son goes here, and he got an email about this and told me about it. I am a huge Lakers fan. And I love Lisa Leslie, too. I’ve never been to the USF campus. So I just thought I would check it out.” 

“[The talk] was amazing,” Johnson continued. “I really like Phil’s philosophy that being a leader is about being a part of a team. And it’s about enabling other people to be their best. You don’t always have to dictate to them, that this is what you have to do. He gives people the freedom to become the best that they can be.”

First-year business marketing major Jeremiah Broussard said, “It just really felt humbling in a way, that they’re in my atmosphere and listening to what they’re saying, and their experiences. And I like how as a first-year, I can see they were able to succeed and how their journeys were through life.”

Cartwright was named Director of University Initiatives in 2016. Cartwright said he continues to try and bring prominence to USF through his involvement.“[This is] amazing,” he said. “Because it is just enough that USF represents everything that I’ve learned from Phil, from caring, from learning to moving forward with your thoughts, to being positive, to being helpful. 

“I know that everybody is thrilled to have him here,” Cartwright said. “Thank goodness for Jeff and Naomi Silk. They’re amazing people to help make this happen.”

The Silk Speaker Series is set to return in February with a discussion featuring former speech writer and personal counsel of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Clarence Jones along with This Is Us and The People Vs. OJ Simpson star, Sterling K. Brown.

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