Let the Game Come to You

George Mumford has helped athletes, business owners, and prisoners alike navigate their thoughts and emotions, allowing them to perform at their peak. Let go of trying to make things happen, he says, and you can find “the masterpiece within.”

Steve Hailey, whom Mumford mentored as an athlete at Boston College, shares a relaxed moment with his old coach and friend. Photograph by Erik Jacobs

This wasn’t exactly the kind of life-changing moment he had in mind.

George Mumford had just emerged from a detox center in Dorchester, Massachusetts, and it was the first time he could remember being sober for 21 days straight. George had been drinking pretty heavily since he was a teen and had gotten hooked on painkillers in college, which later morphed into a full-blown heroin addiction. For a long time, he’d been able to hide his habit and hold down his job as a financial analyst for a digital equipment manufacturer, but after his marriage fell apart, he turned to Alcoholics Anonymous and that inspired him to try to get clean.

As he walked down Morton Street that day toward the house in Mattapan where he was living, he had a surprising revelation. “This was the first time that I’d ever really seen my street,” he recalls. “It was as if I had been living in fantasy my whole life.”

The next morning George had a strong compulsion to use again. But instead of going out and trying to score some heroin, he went into the bathroom and recited the Serenity Prayer. He said it over and over until slowly the compulsion began to fade. “What I realized then was that if the George who went into detox came out at the other end, I was in deep trouble,” he says. “Fortunately, the George who came out of detox was a different George.”

Thus began what Mumford calls his “joyful journey of discovery” to figure out how not only to maintain sobriety, but also, as he puts it, “to live life on life’s terms.” That journey has taken him from grappling with his own demons to becoming the mindfulness coach for Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and the championship-winning Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers, as well as writing a new book, The Mindful Athlete: Secrets to Pure Performance.

A quiet, unassuming man with a boyish smile and the calm, down-to-earth presence of a forest monk, Mumford, 64, would rather spend time musing about philosophy or the latest breakthroughs in neuroscience than promoting himself on the mindfulness circuit. He doesn’t have a slick, tweetable formula to sell. But those who know him well—superstar athletes and meditation teachers alike—often refer to him as the “real deal,” someone who not only understands the secrets of peak performance but also practices them in his own life.

Jordan credits Mumford for making him a better leader. Shaquille O’Neal has referred to him as the Lakers’ “secret weapon.” And Phil Jackson, who has worked with George for more than 20 years on the Bulls, the Lakers, and now the New York Knicks, praises him for pioneering a new approach to sports training that’s “not just about sitting and breathing, but carrying mindfulness into action.”

“George really lives this stuff and…he makes people say ‘I want that.’ ”
Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction

Mumford’s journey wasn’t an easy ride. Shortly after he came back from detox, he went into withdrawal and started suffering from migraines and debilitating back pain. One of his doctors recommended a new stress management program run by mind-body expert Dr. Joan Borysenko, and he started experimenting with meditation. After a while, Borysenko urged him to attend a retreat at the Insight Meditation Society’s center in Barre, Massachusetts, which was an unnerving experience. At first, he was put off by how unfriendly everyone was until it dawned on him that nobody was talking to him because it was a silent retreat. Then toward the end of the retreat the instructor asked everyone to describe their experience and George was flummoxed by the jargon they were using.

But he stuck with it because, in his words, his “ass was on fire” and he was hell-bent on reinventing his life. What he liked about meditation was that it gave him an outlet for his sensitive nature. As a kid, he’d often be sad for weeks if one of the neighboring families moved away or he encountered a wino who had passed out in the street. But he never knew what to do with those feelings. It was only when he got deep into meditation that he discovered he could use his sensitivity to hold difficult emotions in his heart with wisdom and understanding.

Meditation also allowed him to become more intimate with his mind. “When I was starting out, I had a tough time giving up the idea that I had to know everything,” he says. “I thought I had to think ‘I’m breathing’ in and ‘I’m breathing out.’ When in actuality the thinking is just getting you to the breath so you can feel it. It’s about letting it happen and not interfering.” The more time he spent meditating the more he began to see that his best thinking wasn’t going to keep him from getting stoned. “I realized that maybe I should take the cotton out of my ears and just listen and learn something,” he adds. “Instead of doing it George’s way, how about trying to understand how the universe works? How about aligning myself with the way things are?”

In addition to studying meditation, Mumford read voraciously, searching for answers—a book a week for the past 30 years, he estimates. One insight that hit home was Albert Einstein’s observation that “the most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe.” Growing up as an African-American male in a tough neighborhood, it wasn’t surprising that Mumford developed a vision of the world as an unsafe place, which forced him to escape into fantasy. But as his practice deepened, he discovered that if he became more compassionate and shifted the way he acted, he could create a sense of well-being and safety in himself and others.

Another thinker who had a profound impact on him was the philosopher Martin Buber, who wrote in The Way of Man, that a “divine spark” lives in every thing and being. But over time that spark becomes “encrusted in an isolating shell” and the only way to liberate it is by “hallowing” everything and making it holy. “For me, that’s what it all comes down to,” says Mumford. “Each person has a uniqueness, a divine spark, a masterpiece within. Our job in life is to find what that uniqueness is and share it with the world. It’s like a chrysalis. You’re a caterpillar and you have to go inside and struggle to get out. But the struggle gives you the strength to fly.”

Mumford had to make some big changes in his life before he got to that point. He quit his job, earned a master’s degree in counseling psychology at Cambridge College, and started teaching at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, where he lived for several years. While there, he met Jon Kabat-Zinn and did an internship at Kabat-Zinn’s stress reduction program at the UMass medical center. Around 1991, Jon tapped George to head up a state-funded project to teach mindfulness to more than 5,000 prison inmates.

In the beginning, the job was unsettling. In fact, the first prison he visited felt so emotionally toxic it was four days and lots of meditation until he could get back some equilibrium. But George was buoyed by the inmates’ enthusiastic response. At one meeting, he started talking about getting trapped in a fight-or-flight mindset and he could tell he’d hit upon a hot topic. “How’s that shit working out for you?” he said, as the room burst into laughter. “They understood,” he recalls, “that what I was saying was that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. So if the shit ain’t working, you’ve got to change something, and it’s usually the mind.”

Another breakthrough came when he was leading a group in meditation and the warden’s voice came over PA system. This was the most hated man in the prison, and the inmates immediately started grumbling. So George turned it into a teachable moment. He told the group that the next time the intercom came on, he wanted them just to notice the sound and try not to interpret it in any way. What he was trying to do was get them to elongate the perception process so that they could take in more of what was happening. As psychologist Victor Frankl famously said, “between stimulus and response there is a space” and “in our response lies our growth and freedom.”

Kabat-Zinn was impressed by what he saw. “George can basically talk to anybody and make sense of something that on the surface seems like much ado about nothing,” he says. “You’re going to get people to sit still and do nothing, and that’s going to benefit them? But George really lives this stuff, and people can feel it. He’s so authentic. So totally George. He makes people feel better and say, ‘I want that.’”

Madeline Klyne, a meditation teacher who worked on the project, was struck by the lighthearted way George punctured illusions. “He cracks people up and invites them to laugh at themselves,” she says. “People can get pretty grim. But he used to say, ‘Everyone is in prison.’ The people in prison and the people out of prison. Everybody’s suffering. So how do we get out of that?”

As it turned out, the prison project led Mumford to his dream job. In the summer of 1993, Kabat-Zinn was doing a workshop at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, and mentioned the success George was having with inmates. It just so happened that Phil Jackson’s then-wife, June, was in the audience and got Phil jazzed up about bringing George in to work with the Chicago Bulls.

When George arrived at training camp in October, the team was in a state of upheaval because its star, Michael Jordan, had just left the game to pursue his dream of playing baseball. Jackson, who’d studied Zen meditation, had dabbled in teaching meditation to the players as a way to help them deal with the absurd pressures of the basketball life. But George could bring the training to a deeper level. Not only that, he had played ball at UMass and been Hall of Famer Julius (Dr. J) Erving’s roommate, which gave him instant cred with the players.

At first, the players made light of George’s sessions. One day they arrived at practice wearing T-shirts showing a player dozing during meditation with a headline that read, “I’ve Been Mumfied.” But, over time, Jackson noticed the team’s focus and energy slowly improving. As forward Scottie Pippen told one reporter, “You don’t know how to operate if you haven’t been Mumfied.”

Jackson describes Mumford as a “medium” who helps players connect with a deeper part of themselves. “George opens the doors for them to have these ah-ha moments,” he says. “A lot of the guys in the NBA have been taught about emotional control, but they’ve never been taught about why thoughts arise and how not to get sucked into them. George helps them understand that they’re not just their thoughts. They can get into that space where they’re just watching their thoughts and allowing them to happen without acting on them.”

“George talked me off the ledge of anger and frustration.”
Michael Jordan, the highest points-per-game scorer in NBA history

In the years that followed, Mumford worked with the Bulls as they charged—mindfully, of course—to their second three-peat championship, including a record-setting 72-10 season in 1995-96. Then a few years later, he joined Jackson in LA to help motivate the Lakers to win a three-peat series of their own. Along the way he developed a series of principles that have guided his work ever since:

1. Be Still and Know

One of the first things Mumford talked about with the Bulls was the power of stillness, which he had learned practicing tai chi and other martial arts. “When the mind is still,” he says, “you have an inner knowing when and how to strike. It’s playing the game on a spiritual level. You may not know what you’re going to do next, but in that moment you have the ability to see and act simultaneously without a hair’s breadth in between.”

Athletes often refer to this as being “in the