I loved Phil Jackson’s latest memoir, Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success, written with Hugh Delehanty. It’s full of interesting stories from his time coaching Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, amusing and at times inspiring riffs on his Zen spirituality beliefs, and smart advice on how to coach a bunch of individual talents to work together as a team.
Jackson is one of the winningest coaches ever. And probably the most spiritually inclined. I found plenty of insights on teamwork, leadership, and meditation that are broadly applicable. That said, if you aren’t interested in basketball, it’ll be a slog. There are many love letters to the triangle offense and blow-by-blows of seasons which will interest only those with an above-average interest in the game.
Here are some of the lessons and a couple direct quotes:
- “After years of experimenting, I discovered that the more I tried to exert power directly, the less powerful I became. I learned to dial back my ego and distribute power as widely as possible without surrounding final authority.”
- He didn’t call a time out when an opposing team went on a 6-0 run. He wanted his players to figure out a solution themselves — not bail them out.
- Mix up practice routines by introducing novelty in a long season. He had the Bulls practice in silence once; another team they scrimmaged with the lights out. He broke the team into a stronger squad and a weaker squad and then didn’t call any fouls on the weaker squad during a scrimmage.
- The Knicks coach, when Jackson was a player, wanted bench players to be actively engaged in the game so they were prepared mentally. He’d give them several minutes’ warning before putting them in the game so they could focus in.
- Follow your breath with your mind as it moves in and out like a swinging door.
- Practices for new NBA players would start with the basics, including footwork, dribbling, passing. Even at the professional level, re-visiting the basics was necessary. Most experts understand simple things deeply.
- “At that time most coaches subscribed to the Knute Rockne theory of mental training. They tried to get their players revved up for the game with win-one-for-the-Gipper-style pep talks. That approach may work if you’re a linebacker. But what I discovered playing for the Knicks is that when I got too excited mentally, it had a negative effect on my ability to stay focused under pressure. So I did the opposite. Instead of charging players up, I developed a number of strategies to help them quiet their minds and build awareness so they could go into battle poised and in control.”
- On road trips, he selected a book for each player to read. He assigned Michael Jordan Song of Solomon.
- Jackson orchestrated a meeting between Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan during a Lakers’ trip to Chicago, with the hope that Michael could help Kobe understand the value of selfless play. After shaking hands, the first words out of Kobe’s mouth to Jordan were “You know I can kick your ass one on one.”