If you still haven’t read Phil Jackson’s latest book, it’s well worth your time (and money) to do so this summer.
It’s a tour de force filled with great notes, quotes and anecdotes on Jackson’s life journey, as well as observations about human behavior. Plenty of basketball talk, too. Highlights and difficult moments from the Zen Master’s years leading the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers help form the foundation of this book.
Six years after it was published, “Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success,” written with Hugh Delehanty, remains one of the smartest sports books of the 21st century.
It begins with a quote from the 13th century mystic poet Rumi: “When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.”
Which happens to set the tone for a mix of philosophical perspectives and everyday wisdom that is sprinkled throughout the book.
A father’s influence
There are stories, of course, about the former forward and coaching legend’s formative years, his upbringing, his high school playing days in Montana and college years at the University of North Dakota. Family tales, too.
For example, how did Phil’s father, Charles, an Assemblies of God minister, influence him?
“The great gift my father gave me was showing me how to be genuinely compassionate while also commanding people’s respect,” he revealed in one passage.
A mentor’s impact
As a player, Jackson learned valuable lessons from Hall of Fame mentor Red Holzman, who piloted the New York Knicks to a pair of NBA titles (1969-70 and 1972-73). And he shared some of that wisdom in Eleven Rings.
Exhibit A: What was Holzman’s chief strength as coach?
“Red’s singular gift … was his uncanny ability to manage men grown and get them to come together with a common mission,” Jackson declared. “He didn’t use sophisticated motivational techniques; he was just straightforward and honest. Unlike many coaches, he didn’t interfere in players’ personal lives unless they were up to something that would have a negative effect on the team.”
Phil Jackson transformed the Bulls
On page 84, Phil Jackson weighs in on how the Chicago Bulls developed into a dynasty.
“Basketball is a great mystery,” Jackson wrote. “You can do everything right. You can have the perfect mix of talent and the best system of offense in the game. You can devise a foolproof defensive strategy and prepare your players for every possible eventuality. But if the players don’t have a sense of oneness as a group, your efforts won’t pay off. And the bond that unites a team can be so fragile, so elusive.
“Oneness is not something you can turn on with a switch. You need to create the right environment for it to grow, then nurture it carefully every day…”
Phil Jackson also detailed how he guided the Bulls during their dynasty years in the 1990s, when they captured six titles in eight seasons.
“…I would assert myself forcefully in practice to imbue the players with a strong vision of where we needed to go and what we had to do to get there,” he recalled. “But once the game began, I would slip into the background and let the players orchestrate the attack.
“Occasionally I would step in to make defensive adjustments or shift players around if we needed a burst of energy. For the most part, though, I let the players take the lead.
“To make this strategy work, I needed to develop a strong circle of team leaders who could transform that vision into reality…”
A rich collection of quotes, inspirational sayings and thought-provoking expressions were selected to be place on the first page of each chapter.
Chapter one (The Circle Of Love) leads off this way: “Life is a journey. Time is a river. The door is ajar.” — Jim Butcher
And here’s how the Afterword (Life Is A Highway) concludes, passing along a quote from Daniel Boone: “I’ve never lost, but I was mighty turned around for three days once.”
Phil Jackson’s teams were blessed with talent (Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Scottie Pippen, et al), but he found a way time after time to mold personalities together, even if/when it required help to get battling egos to co-exist. He also admitted in the book that “sometimes Fish (Derek Fisher) acted as a mediator between Kobe and me.”
Reflecting on training camp for the 2008-09 season, the veteran bench boss recognized that the Lakers, who were coming off an NBA Finals loss in the previous season, had built something special.
“I was impressed by the players’ cool determination,” he wrote. “The previous year they had taken a quantum leap forward in terms of mastering the system. Now, inspired by their mutual loss, they were deepening their commitment to one another so that they could become more integrated — and invincible — as a team.
“This is what I often refer to as dancing with the spirit. By ‘spirit’ I don’t mean anything religious. I mean that deep feeling of camaraderie that arises when a group of players makes a commitment to stand up for one another to achieve something greater than themselves, no matter what the risks…”
This approach worked. The Lakers won back-to-back titles in 2008-09 and 2009-10. And he led the Lakers to five championships in all, starting with the three-peat in 1999-2000 campaign, and seven NBA Finals appearances. Since his departure as sideline supervisor in 2011, that leadership void has never been filled.