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Sunday, April 19, 2020

Lessons from the Zen Master: A Review of Phil Jackson's "Eleven Rings"

Phil Jackson and Bill Russell are the only two men on Earth who have more NBA championship rings than fingers; the cover of Jackson's book Eleven Rings (co-written with Hugh Delehanty, and published by Penguin Press in 2013) is adorned with each of the championship rings that he earned as a coach. Jackson writes that those rings symbolize "circle of love" that bonded those teams together and enabled them to reach the sport's highest level.

Jackson compares a basketball team to a tribe. Citing Tribal Leadership by Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright, Jackson describes fives stages of tribe building that correspond with five stages of team building. The lowest stage is characterized by "despair, hostility, and the collective belief that 'life sucks.'" This is the mentality that binds together members of street gangs. The highest stage is "a rare stage characterized by a sense of innocent wonder and the strong belief that life is great." Jackson describes how he tried to imbue his teams with the higher stage mentality grounded in unity based on love and brotherhood. I believe that this is a valid, if idealized, explanation of the philosophical foundation of Jackson's coaching success, but if you study Jackson's personal and professional history closely then you know that he is not above engaging in manipulation, deception, and other tactics that have little to do with love or brotherhood. For instance, he was the main inside source for Sam Smith's book The Jordan Rules, but Roland Lazenby documents in his book Blood on the Horns (pp. 61-62) that Jackson told Chicago Bulls' owner Jerry Reinsdorf that assistant coach Johnny Bach was the inside source, which led to Bach being fired. Bach had been a loyal assistant to Jackson for many years. Jackson also engaged in a lot of psychological warfare with Kobe Bryant during Jackson's first stint with the Lakers; it is to Bryant's credit that he recognized how much value Jackson provided overall, and thus he forgave Jackson and welcomed Jackson back to the team, paving the way for the Lakers to win two more titles. Jackson has a rare ability to connect with people, and to bring them together as a team, but he is not above using some dark tactics in service of his goals.

Two of Jackson's greatest strengths as a coach/leader are (1) he is not afraid to challenge his best players, and (2) he empowers all of his players to feel free to make critical decisions in the biggest moments. Jackson did not shy away from challenging Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Shaquille O'Neal, or Kobe Bryant--but he usually challenged them in ways that made them better, not in ways that created a power struggle. Thus, those players understood that Jackson sought not to embarrass or control them, but rather to help them become the best version of themselves as players. That created trust. Jackson admittedly struggled to connect with Bryant more so than he did with any of his other Hall of Fame players, but ultimately he did reach Bryant. Jackson, like most if not all great coaches, did his coaching in practice. During games, he did not overload his players with instructions, nor did he hastily call timeouts if things were not going well. Great coaches understand that games are won and lost during practice; if the proper physical conditioning and mental habits are developed during practice, then timeouts and sideline histrionics are not needed during games.

It is well known that Red Holzman, Jackson's coach during his playing days with the New York Knicks, was a huge influence on Jackson's coaching style. A serious back injury forced Jackson to sit out the 1969-70 season, so during that campaign he became a de facto assistant coach. Jackson writes of this experience, "I began to see basketball as a dynamic game of chess in which all the pieces were in motion. It was exhilarating" (p. 37).

Both of Jackson's parents were Christian ministers, but their religious beliefs did not fully resonate with him, so as he grew older he learned about and explored various religious and spiritual paths. Early on, Jackson found great value in meditation, which helped him to calm and focus his racing mind. Jackson learned the importance of living in the moment. He quotes Thich Nhat Hanh on that subject: "Life can only be found in the present moment. The past is gone, and the future is not yet here, and if we do not go back to ourselves in the present moment, we cannot be in touch with life" (p. 53).

Jackson sees "a strong connection between music and basketball" (p. 66), and he taught his players to coordinate their movement in 4/4 time, instructing them that the player with the ball should pass, shoot, or start to dribble before the third beat. "When everyone is keeping time, it makes it easier to harmonize with one another, beat by beat" (p. 67). I agree that there is a connection between basketball and music/dance, a topic that I explored in my short story "Basketball and Ballet."

Jackson's perspective on the Triangle Offense is fascinating. He disputes the popular notions that the offense is difficult to learn, and that it only works if you have a talented player like Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant as the main option. Jackson's idea when he implemented the Triangle Offense early during his tenure as the Chicago Bulls' head coach was to find a middle path between Tex Winter's devotion to the offense--Winter, after all, had essentially invented the Triangle Offense, based on concepts he learned from his USC coach Sam Barry--and Jordan's desire to give his creativity free reign. Jackson urged Jordan to have the patience to play within the Triangle for three quarters in order to get everyone else involved, and then take over in the fourth quarter if necessary. I will never forget the oft-replayed clip of Jackson, in his raspy voice, imploring the Bulls during a timeout, "Don't leave Michael alone here. It's not time yet." That little sound bite is very telling. Jackson expected the Bulls to "leave Michael" at some point, but he also expected them to at least wait until the final stanza to do so; the wisdom of involving all of the players early in the game can be seen by the way that this enabled guys like John Paxson and Steve Kerr to be ready to hit late-game shots when the opponent double-teamed Jordan down the stretch. From Jackson's standpoint, a great example of this is the three point shot that Paxson hit to clinch the 1993 NBA championship; Jackson focuses not on Paxson's shot, but on the series of passes that created the shot, a series of passes that demonstrated that the team had embraced Jackson's messages about teamwork and the Triangle Offense such that they could calmly execute at the highest level when the stakes were the highest.

Jackson's practice of giving a book to each player on his team has often been discussed. Jackson explains, "Some players read every book I gave them; others dumped them in the trash. But I never expected everyone's 100 percent engagement. The message I wanted to convey was that I cared enough about them as individuals to spend time searching for a book that might have special meaning for them. Or at least make them laugh" (p. 126).

Jackson had been planning for sports psychologist and meditation teacher George Mumford to speak to the Bulls prior to Michael Jordan's first retirement in 1993, and Jordan's absence heightened the relevance of Mumford's message about the two aspects of every crisis: danger and opportunity. Mumford emphasized the importance of mindfulness, a concept that Jackson believes is misunderstood. Jackson quotes Thich Nhat Hanh: "Mindfulness is remembering to come back to the present moment" (p. 137). The point is to stay in touch with what is happening right now, without regretting the past or worrying about the future.

The Bulls went 55-27 in 1993-94 despite Jordan's sudden retirement to play baseball, and they surprised many observers by remaining a championship contender as Pippen emerged as perhaps the NBA's best all-around player.

Jackson believes that mindfulness helped him and the Bulls overcome perhaps the most infamous moment of their 1994 playoff campaign, when Pippen refused to inbound the ball to Toni Kukoc and instead took a seat on the bench for the final play of game three versus the New York Knicks. Kukoc hit the game-winning shot, and after the contest the media fired at Pippen with both barrels. Jackson explains that throughout the crisis he stayed in the moment: when Pippen declined to inbound the ball, Jackson tapped Pete Myers for the task; afterward, instead of berating Pippen or punishing Pippen in a way that would have harmed the team, Jackson took a step back and let the players police themselves. Ultimately, Pippen apologized to the team, and the incident made the group's collective bond stronger, not weaker. Chicago came within a horrible Hue Hollins foul call of beating the Knicks and advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Jordan returned to the Bulls late in the 1994-95 season, but he was rusty--at least by his lofty standards--and the Bulls lost to the Shaquille O'Neal-Penny Hardaway Orlando Magic in the second round of the playoffs.

Jackson says that it would be easy to explain the Bulls' 72-10 championship season in 1995-96 by referring to the talents of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and newly-acquired Dennis Rodman, but he believes that the team thrived because of how thoroughly it embraced the highest level of tribe building. The Bulls played for "the joy of the game itself" (p. 150). As a fan who watched every single Bulls game that season, I can say with confidence that that team brought a high level of competitiveness and basketball joy every game (perhaps a late season blowout loss to New York was the only exception, but most NBA teams have several games like that per season instead of just one). I remember thinking to myself from the start of the season, "These guys are trying to go 82-0. They have unmatched pride and togetherness." The 1996 Bulls carved out a special place for themselves in sports history.

Rodman filled the team's needs for a rebounder, and a defender in the paint. Jordan made significant changes to his leadership style. Jackson quotes Mumford explaining how he helped Jordan to adapt to his new teammates (only Pippen remained from the Bulls' first three championship teams): "It's all about being present and taking responsibility for how you relate to yourself and others. And that means being willing to adjust so that you can meet people where they are. Instead of expecting them to be somewhere else and getting angry and trying to will them to that place, you try to meet them where they are and lead the where you want them to go" (p. 156).

Attentive readers may recognize that this is the advice that Jordan later gave to Kobe Bryant, and that Bryant said similar things publicly regarding LeBron James during the 2018 NBA Finals:
All I thought about as a kid personally was winning championships. That's all I cared about. That's how I valued Michael. That's how I valued [Larry] Bird. That's how I valued Magic [Johnson]. It was just winning championships. Now, everybody's going to value things differently, which is fine. I'm just telling you how I value mine. If I'm Bron, you got to figure out a way to win. It's not about narrative. You want to win championships, you just gotta figure it out. Michael gave me some really good advice after the '08 Finals: "You got all the tools. You gotta figure out how to get these guys to that next level to win that championship." Going into the 2010 series, I said, "Listen, Boston, they got Ray Allen, they got Paul Pierce, they got [Kevin] Garnett, they got Sheed [Wallace], the talent is there. They're stacked." That was the first superteam. [Michael] kind of heard me lament about it, and he just goes, "Yeah, well, it is what it is; you gotta figure it out. There's no other alternative." And that's the challenge LeBron has. You have pieces that you have to try to figure out how to work with. Excuses don't work right now...

It has everything to do with how you build the team, from an emotional level. How do you motivate them?...Leadership is not making guys better by just throwing them the ball. That's not what it is. It's about the influence that you have on them to reach their full potential. And some of it's not pretty. Some of it's challenging, some of it's confrontational. Some of it's pat on the back. But it's finding that balance, so now when you show up to play a Golden State or a Boston, your guys feel like you have the confidence to take on more.
The 1996-98 Bulls won three championships, but each season posed different challenges. Jackson quotes Suzuki-roshi from the book Not Always So: Practicing the True Spirit of Zen: "That things change is why you suffer in this world and become discouraged. [But] when you change your understanding and way of living, then you can completely enjoy your new life in each moment. The evanescence of things is the reason you enjoy you life."

Prior to the start of the 1997-98 season, Jackson dubbed the campaign "The Last Dance." Bulls General Manager Jerry Krause had publicly announced that Jackson would not return even if the team went 82-0. Jackson offers an introspective analysis of his relationship with Krause:
Looking back, I think my struggle with Jerry taught me things about myself that I couldn't have learned any other way. The Dalai Lama calls it "the enemy's gift." From a Buddhist perspective, battling with enemies can help you develop greater compassion for and tolerance of others. "In order to practice sincerely and develop patience," he says, "you need someone who willfully hurts you. Thus, these people give us real opportunities to practice these things. They are testing our inner strength in a way that even our guru cannot."

I wouldn't exactly call Jerry my "enemy." But our conflict certainly tested my inner strength. 
Pippen missed the first part of the "Last Dance" season while recovering from foot surgery, but after he returned Jackson declares "the team transformed overnight. It was like watching a great conductor return after a leave of absence. All of a sudden, everyone knew what notes to play and how to harmonize. From that point on, we went on a 38-9 run and tied the Utah Jazz for the best record in the league, 62-20" (p. 191). The Bulls defeated the Jazz 4-2 in the NBA Finals, and the organization kept its word about breaking up the team. The Bulls have not come close to winning a championship since that time.

Jackson summarizes his feelings about the "Last Dance" by quoting Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron's words about letting go (pp. 200-201):
Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don't really get solved. They come together again and fall apart again. It's just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.
Jackson could not stay away from coaching basketball for long--and why should someone stay away from the thing that he does best, and that gives him so much joy? After one season away from the NBA, Jackson joined the L.A. Lakers to help Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant on the same kind of journey that Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen had taken together.

Although Jackson had enjoyed great success using the Triangle Offense without having a dominant center, the offense is designed to feature a great post player (Jordan filled that role for the Bulls). O'Neal was thus the perfect player to be the focal point of the Lakers' attack. The Triangle Offense not only brought out the best in O'Neal but--much like what happened with the Bulls--it provided a structure that enabled O'Neal's less talented teammates to thrive. Bryant filled a unique role, both scoring like Jordan once did while also serving as the primary playmaker a la Pippen.

After hiring Jackson, Lakers' owner Jerry Buss told him that he wanted to win one more title to add to his collection of five championships from the 1980s. Jackson replied that the Lakers could win three or four titles.

Jackson often felt frustrated by the young Kobe Bryant (pp. 216-217): "Kobe was also a stubborn, hardheaded learner. He was so confident in his ability that you couldn't simply point out his mistakes and expect him to alter his behavior. He would have to experience failure directly before his resistance would start to break down. It was often an excruciating process for him and everyone else involved. Then suddenly he would have an aha moment and figure out a way to change."

During Jackson's first season with the Lakers, the team reached a crossroads moment, trailing by 15 points versus Portland in game seven of the Western Conference Finals. Jackson's Chicago point forward Pippen was now Portland's leader, and Pippen's "free-ranging attack," as Jackson described it, had carried the Trail Blazers from a 3-1 deficit to the brink of the franchise's first NBA Finals appearance since 1977. During a timeout, Jackson told the Lakers, "Forget about Shaq. There are four guys around him. Shoot the shot, just shoot it." Bryant scored 25 points, grabbed 11 rebounds, dished for seven assists, and blocked four shots--leading the Lakers in each of those categories--as the Lakers pulled off the improbable comeback.

The Lakers took a 2-1 lead over the Indiana Pacers in the NBA Finals, but the Pacers had an opportunity to tie the series after O'Neal fouled out in overtime in game four. Instead, Bryant--despite being hobbled by an ankle injury that forced him to sit out the Lakers' game three loss--took over by scoring eight of the Lakers' 16 overtime points. Jackson recalls, "I was impressed with Kobe. That was the first time I saw how impervious he was to excruciating pain. He wasn't going to let anything stop him. That night he reminded me of Michael Jordan" (p. 227).

The Lakers won the 2000 NBA title. Jackson notes, "The year after winning a championship is always the hardest. That's when everybody's ego rears its head and the uncanny chemistry the team felt just a few months earlier suddenly dissolves into thin air" (p. 231).

Jackson admits that he rode Bryant harder than he rode O'Neal: "Kobe had all kinds of weapons. He could pass; he could shoot; he could attack off the dribble. But if he didn't learn to use Shaq the right way and take advantage of his enormous power, the team would be lost" (p. 240).

Jackson also admits that his public assertion that Bryant had sabotaged games in high school so that he could lead a comeback and be a hero was "an irresponsible, off-the-cuff remark" that "turned out to be untrue." Jackson says that he apologized to Bryant in person and in front of the whole team, but he notes that his breach of trust caused a rift with Bryant that took years to fully heal.

Although the Lakers got off to a bumpy start to their title defense in 2000-01, they closed out that season with a record-setting 15-1 playoff run.

Jackson notes that a recurring challenge for the Lakers was that each season O'Neal would come into camp out of shape. Which problem would you rather have, a young star who is brash and confident but always works hard, or a more experienced star who lacks the discipline or pride to stay in shape?

The Lakers won their third title under Jackson in 2002, enabling him to tie Red Auerbach's record of most NBA championships won by a coach (nine).

Jackson writes little about the 2002-03 season, when O'Neal again arrived in camp out of shape. That season, the Lakers were not able to pull everything together during the postseason, and they lost to the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs.

Jackson reveals that his daughter Brooke was the victim of a sexual assault when she was in college. Even though Jackson concedes that he does not believe that Bryant was capable of sexual assault, and that the evidence against Bryant "seemed superficial at best" (the criminal charges against Bryant were eventually dismissed), the shocking announcement in the summer of 2003 that Bryant had been accused of sexual assault unleashed within Jackson an anger toward Bryant that "kept smoldering in the background." That anger could perhaps explain some of the negative comments about Bryant as a player that Jackson made at that time, and that Jackson later repudiated.

Jackson writes in depth about his anger, and how he learned to manage it (p. 269):
No question, anger focuses the mind. It's an advance warning system alerting us to threats to our well-being. When viewed this way, anger can be a powerful force for bringing about positive change. But it takes practice--and no small amount of courage--to be present with such uncomfortable feelings and yet not be swept away by them.

My practice when anger arises is to sit with it in meditation. I simply observe it come and go. Slowly, incrementally, over time I've learned that if I can stay with anger, which often manifests itself as anxiety, and resist my conditioned response to suppress it, the intensity of the feeling dissipates and I'm able to hear the wisdom it has to impart.
The Lakers lost 4-1 to the Detroit Pistons in the 2004 NBA Finals. Then, the team let Jackson go, and traded O'Neal to the Miami Heat. Jackson was not gone from the game for very long. After the Lakers struggled through a disappointing 2004-05 campaign, they brought Jackson back as the coach.

Jackson offers some interesting takes on the players he inherited at that time. He writes that he had hoped that Lamar Odom could perform the Pippen role next to Bryant in the Jordan role, but "Lamar had trouble learning the intricacies of the system and his game often fell apart when we needed him the most" (p. 282). Jackson observes that starting point guard Smush Parker could at times be the most energetic player on the floor, but "when the pressure mounted he had a hard time holding himself together. He was a time bomb waiting to explode" (p. 283).

Clearly, Bryant did not have anything approaching a championship-level supporting cast, though that did not stop the media from blaming him for the Lakers not winning another championship from 2005-08. Jackson spends about two pages comparing Bryant to Jordan. It should be noted that Bryant is one of the few players in NBA history who can even be compared to Jordan at all. Jackson praises both for their willingness and ability to play through injury and pain. Jackson notes that Jordan relied more on power and strength on offense, while Bryant utilized finesse. Jackson rates Jordan as a better shooter overall, but says that Bryant's hot streaks tended to last longer. Jackson declares Jordan to be a "tougher, more intimidating defender." Jackson considers the biggest difference to be Jordan's superiority as a leader.

Anyone who thinks that Bryant quit during the second half of game seven versus Phoenix in the 2006 playoffs should note that Jackson praises Bryant for following the game plan, and calls out Odom and Kwame Brown for being "missing in action...despite endless opportunities."

Still, the Lakers made progress during the 2006-08 period, and they had one of the best records in the league during the first part of the 2007-08 season before acquiring Pau Gasol. Finally, Bryant had a worthy second option, and the inconsistent Odom could be placed in the more suitable role as third option. The Lakers advanced to the 2008 NBA Finals, but were outmatched physically by the Boston Celtics.

The Lakers displayed great focus in the 2008-09 season. They made it back to the Finals, and they beat the Orlando Magic. The last great highlight of Jackson's coaching career came in 2010, when the Lakers beat the Celtics in a seven game rematch of the 2008 Finals. Jackson had his 11th ring, and Bryant had earned his fifth ring.


1) As noted above, Jackson's self-serving account of Johnny Bach's dismissal firing by the Bulls varies from accounts previously provided publicly by both Sam Smith (who, as the author of The Jordan Rules, presumably knows who his sources were) and Roland Lazenby (in Blood on the Horns and in Mindgames, where Lazenby bluntly calls Jackson's version of events "a prevarication."). Jackson, not Bach, was Smith's confidential source, but Jackson led Jerry Krause to believe that Bach was the source, and this contributed to Krause's decision to fire Bach. Lazenby wrote that when Krause learned the truth he apologized to Bach. Lazenby also quoted Bach as saying that he and Jackson had a conversation about the matter, but that the contents of that conversation would remain private. 

2) Utah Jazz player Bryon Russell is repeatedly referred to as Byron Russell. This error even takes place in the book's index.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:23 PM



At Wednesday, April 22, 2020 12:45:00 AM, Anonymous Michael said...

I would never dispute Phil Jackson's integral role in some of basketball's greatest championship dynasties, specifically his artful management of superstar egos, but I have always slightly rolled my eyes at the "Zen master" narrative surrounding him. As you mentioned, he wasn't always above using petty if not nefarious tactics and I always found his reported feud with Jerry West to be very telling. I know they both have their own version of what happened and I wouldn't doubt that West played some role in their icy relationship but all the evidence points to Jackson being the more antagonistic party. If Jackson were truly concerned with spiritual enlightenment he probably would have cultivated a stronger relationship with West, the man who convinced the Lakers to hire him as head coach, and he absolutely wouldn't have reportedly screamed at him to "get the ---- out" of the locker room after a game.

At Thursday, April 23, 2020 5:30:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree with you that the evidence favors West in the Jackson versus West drama. Jackson does not mention that situation at all in Eleven Rings, which is interesting considering that he does discuss Krause. Krause was wrong in many respects, but I think that Jackson had the edge in framing things for public consumption. In other words, even if Krause had been right I think that he still would have lost the P.R. battle with Jackson. That said, it is hard to sympathize with a G.M. who ran off Jackson, Jordan, Pippen, and the rest so that he could try to prove how smart he is.

At Thursday, April 23, 2020 8:22:00 PM, Anonymous Michael said...

I'm sure Jerry Krause did have some legitimate personal issues with Jackson but it's impossible to imagine any of them being valid reasons for getting rid of Jackson and breaking up a thriving dynasty. I want to say that Krause's actions were a crime against basketball, which they were, but they really were just a crime against everything good in life.

At Friday, April 24, 2020 2:15:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree. Whatever legitimate issues Krause may have had, his statement that, even if Jackson went 82-0, the 1997-98 season would be Jackson's last season as Bulls' coach is indefensible.

If there were legitimate issues, or if this was a mutual parting of ways (as Reinsdorf and Krause asserted after the season), then Krause should have said something to the effect of, "We thank Jackson for his successful tenure as our coach. We appreciate everything that he has done for the franchise. We have mutually decided that this season will be our last season together."

Krause's ego got in the way. He wanted to prove that he could win a title without Jackson, Jordan, and Pippen. Instead, he provided good evidence that he could not win a title without them, and ultimately Reinsdorf got rid of Krause.

As Jordan said in a video clip shown in "The Last Dance," "The Cubs have been rebuilding for 42 years." The Bulls have been rebuilding for 22 years since Krause broke up the six-time champions.

At Friday, April 24, 2020 7:03:00 PM, Blogger Keith said...


I noticed that Jordan statement in The Last Dance in particular. I also noticed that he was opposed to the Bulls throwing away/tanking the remainder of the season in 1986 because he was worried it would promote a culture of losing too.

At Sunday, April 26, 2020 12:40:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Yes, it is interesting that at both the beginning and the end of Jordan's career in Chicago he had a much different perspective than management about the importance of winning now as opposed to building or rebuilding.


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