Phil jackson's Eleven Rings
—Jackson has convinced the basketball world that he is a practitioner of right-thinking Zen philosophies that, when understood and adopted by his players, unlock latent potentials in them that lead to championships. Due to the hyper-competitive nature of spiritual leadership (i.e. spiritual leaders always claim they aren’t interested in status in this world while simultaneously engaging in behaviors that are primarily about advancing one’s status in this world) there can really only be one “Zen coach” in the league at a time. Jackson cornered this market early and has held a virtual monopoly on it for the last few decades. A singular achievement.
—His real genius, evident in Eleven Rings, is that he has convinced himself of this. Jackson has spent his entire professional life in the NBA. He is engaged to Jeannie Buss, daughter of Jerry Buss, late owner of the Lakers. (Jeannie Buss is also an executive with the team.) Jackson is at this point in his career not remotely a maverick, outsider, or serene philosopher avoiding attachment to the trivial/transient power dramas of the NBA world, but precisely the opposite. As a person who works in the world of “numbers,” who is typing this scouting report on my “breaks” and “lunch” (though no one in my field ever actually stops to take a break or have lunch) with my screen darkened, I recognize a corporate motivational speaker when I see one. Jackson is an amazing CEO with amazing CEO moves. That he does not believe he is a CEO only makes his (rhetorical) quickness and (rhetorical) leaping ability that much more deceptive.
—Credited ghostwriter Hugh Delehanty just relentlessly pounds the rock in this book. It’s all about pace. One senses that in person, Jackson is probably pretty discursive, if not a total rambler. How many Zen koans or tribal myths did Jackson spin out during the course of the conversations that became Eleven Rings? We’ll never know, because Delehanty just pushes forward. The chapters are executive summaries of Jackson’s various NBA seasons as player and coach. In other words, if you’re heading into a shareholders’ meeting and need to speak knowledgably about, say, Jackson’s fourth championship with the Lakers (Los Angeles over Orlando), but you only have ten minutes during your limo ride from the airport to the meeting to brush up on it? It’s pages 310-321. Each season is handled at roughly this length. You want a guy who can do a quick summary written in simple language? Delehanty is your man. You could tell yourself you’re sitting down to read this book “for a few minutes” and suddenly find yourself on page 150. And only forty-five minutes will have passed.
—Many fans think of Jackson as the guy who only coaches superstars, but Eleven Rings proves a good reminder that when Jackson took over the Lakers for the second time, he had to slowly build the team back to championship caliber. In his fourth season back, they won the championship over Orlando, and then won again the next year, over Boston. Yes, he had Bryant and Gasol, but he also developed and got much more than could be expected out of players like Jordan Farmar and Sasha Vujacic, and managed to keep Ron Artest from ending up in an institution. This is a minor miracle.
ould Work On:
—Overreliance on his primary skill. Everyone knows that when things get tough, he will go to his signature “I will now appropriate Eastern or Native American wisdom” move. The effectiveness of this move has weakened over time, as more and more people recognize that exoticism of philosophical and/or spiritual traditions of an “other” in the service of helping multimillionaire boy-men win professional sports championships is, um…colonial and trivial? One letter to the editor of the New York Times from the Native American Rights Fund asking Jackson to stop trivializing the diversity and cultural history of North America’s tribal nations by quoting bits of Sioux wisdom out of context so that his NBA team might beat Milwaukee on Thursday night would leave Jackson almost entirely shut down. A simple post-colonial critique would stop his rhetorical game in its tracks.
—Widening his options for coach-player dynamic. Jackson structures his relationship to his players as teacher-student, with Jackson of course as teacher. This results in narratives in which Jackson is always assumed, prima facie, to be enlightened, and his players—who are, of course, adults themselves, and some of them quite intelligent—implicitly therefore the unenlightened. We’re talking about men who have never done anything but play a game, so Jackson may not be wrong to suggest the players have things to learn, but also…Jackson has never done anything but play or coach basketball, either. Not only does he show little ability to interact with players in any other dynamic, he seems to have little interest in other dynamics. He is only effective, then, in particular situations. (See Comps for more on this.)
—Acknowledging fallibility. In Eleven Rings, Jackson does not appear to believe he has ever made a mistake, or that weaknesses in any of his teams has been the result of any of his own decisions. (Infallibility is standard for the CEO vanity memoir genre, so this weakness may in some way be a result of the league he is currently playing in, book business-wise.)
—Self-evaluation. Admits to purposely criticizing his players in the media in order to “motivate” them as if this is a clever tactic, when in fact it is probably the basest tactic. Just because publicly shaming someone is effective doesn’t mean it is clever. I doubt venerable Sioux wisdom advocates motivating Shaq by telling local sportswriters that Shaq is maybe mailing it in. (I could be wrong.)
—Durability of his methods. If Jackson has acquired and imparted to his players so much wisdom about the self and life and how we can best support and work with one another, why are he and his superstars no better at sustaining relationships than anyone else I know? Why did Jackson himself acknowledge, at the end of his second Lakers tenure, that his relationship with the team’s management had deteriorated to the point that there was almost no relationship at all? Why does Michael Jordan apparently sit in a darkened room shouting at Charlotte Bobcats games on a huge television while his new wife and her friends laugh and drink expensive wine in another room? Why was a broke, post-NBA Scottie Pippen reduced to playing awkward exhibition games in Europe to make money? Why can’t Shaq enunciate? Why is Kobe still an asshole? Why is Pau Gasol still timid? Why is Dennis Rodman laughing and hanging out with the insane child leader of North Korea? Phil Jackson, why are these men so broken?
—Addressing the tough questions. “On a personal level, Michael was more charismatic and gregarious than Kobe,” Jackson says. Interesting. Or, no, wait…what does that mean? On a temperature level, the refrigerator was warmer than the freezer? On the sexual assault accusation against Kobe in 2003: “I had difficulty believing Kobe was capable of committing such an act.” Well, that’s—wait, what do you mean by “capable”? And “difficulty believing”? What are you saying? Oh, right—you’re purposely not saying anything.
—A quick glance at Jackson’s rhetorical game leads one to believe he’s working squarely in the tradition of “play the right way” coaches. Jackson names Red Holzman, who coached him when he was a player with the Knicks, as his primary influence. Holzman advocated quick ball movement designed to hit the open man, regardless of who that was.
—Holzman’s years are too far in the past for most fans to remember. The obvious contemporary comp (because he actually uses the phrase “play the right way”) is Larry Brown. Interestingly, Brown’s 2004 Pistons beat Jackson’s Lakers in the finals, which suggests that the 2004 Pistons played “righter” than the Lakers. I’m writing that like it’s some kind of a joke, but it’s probably just true.
—A younger comp would be Boston’s Doc Rivers. His “Ubuntu” rhetoric is in many ways his version of Jackson’s Native American stuff, Brown’s “play the right way.” In a universe in which anything was possible, it would have been fun to have Jackson and Rivers switch teams for a season and see what Jackson would have done with the Celtics, Rivers with the Lakers.
—Jackson’s folksy Eastern truisms stand in interesting counterpoint to the “family” ethos of the coach most think is currently the best, San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich. “Pop” is well known for only grudgingly doing the NBA-required in-game interviews, and protesting the NBA’s grueling regular-season schedule by sending his stars home instead of playing them in a game during a four-games-in-five-nights stretch this year. (The league levied a significant fine against him, probably mostly because he too openly rested players rather than doing what other coaches do, which is craft fake injuries by mentioning some tendinitis or joint issue a week ahead, having the player mention it a few days later, and then, on the pre-selected date, having the player skip a game due to this “injury.” In other words, these coaches behave exactly as you and I do when we turn a three-day weekend into a four-day weekend by mentioning some stomach discomfort Thursday morning, acting uncomfortable Thursday afternoon, groaning before leaving Thursday evening, and then taking a sick day on Friday—which coincidentally happens to be the morning we have train tickets booked to head out of town.)
—Popovich places himself within the circle of his players, coaching via a “family” metaphor as opposed to Jackson’s “school” metaphor. (When asked what he said to Manu Ginobili between games four and five of the finals this year, Popovich said, “That’s family stuff.”) Despite his surly demeanor, this is warm-fuzzy stuff—fans love that there is “family stuff” and that “Pop” defends a protected family space for his team, into which outsiders may not enter.
—Jackson, on the other hand, will pretty much tell the media anything. This is not to say he sells his players out or fails to protect them. He simply sets himself up as outside the players’ sphere—his is an observer of the “students” in the same way fans and the media are observers. The only difference is that he gets to speak to them in practice, too—he actually gets to coach. But if the media ask what’s going on with a certain player, Jackson is perfectly ready to make some observations, which he often frames in the tone of I’m not sure, but it sure seems like… and then follows with a quick joke and light-hearted chuckle. When the media ask similar questions to Popovich, he tends to answer so literally that he effectively avoids answering. If asked what he said to a player who made turnovers, for instance, Popovich will say he told the player to stop turning the damn ball over, and then ask for the next question.
—Jackson’s most famous rival is Pat Riley. (He claims in Eleven Rings that he deliberately touched Riley on the arm before a critical Knicks-Bulls playoff game as a way of “counting coup,” a Sioux practice of touching but not hurting an enemy.) Riley is probably Jackson’s closest comp, though—thus their dislike of one another. Both men are interested primarily in rings, in cultivating a certain cult-of-personality about themselves, and in maintaining a magisterial presence. Riley moved himself into upper management, building the Miami Heat from the suite level rather than working with them on the floor. (He has coach Erik Spoelstra handling the mundane, day-to-day stuff.) They are, at the end of the day, Lombardi men. Winning is the only thing.
—The deeper story. Born and raised by Pentecostal ministers in Montana, Jackson became a long-haired member of the New York Knicks, riding his bike around Manhattan in the early 1970s. Counterculture! He became an assistant coach, then a coach…won a championship in blue-collar Chicago, then another and another…gained further status and power. Employed the spiritual traditions of other cultures to further his climb in the mainstream, big-business profession in which his career actually operated. Moved to media-mecca Los Angeles, achieved more. From small town religion to big city 60s/70s counterculture to 90s fame squarely in the center of the establishment, to twenty-first century power…Eleven Rings is not about Phil Jackson. It’s about America.
Pete Tothero occasionally fulfills his duties as the magazine’s Sports Editor.