TL;DR – Phil Jackson coached two teams – the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers – to a combined eleven NBA titles. No other NBA coach has won more. This is his story of how he achieved such success with a group of professional athletes with huge egos.
Between 1991 to 1998, the Chicago Bulls won six titles (two sets of 3-peats), and between 2000 to 2010, the Los Angeles Lakers won five titles (one 3-peat and one back-to-back title). Those two dynastic teams were built around superstars Michael Jordan (Chicago Bulls) and Kobe Bryant (Los Angeles Lakers). They are arguably considered the two greatest scorers in the history of the NBA and were renown for taking on opposing teams by themselves in order to win.
But basketball is a team sport and there were plenty of other players and egos on those teams. As head coach, Phil Jackson had to be the central voice and present a road map and strategy that the players would buy into. How he managed to achieve this is detailed in this book and demonstrates that beneath the sport, the training, the games, the skills, is the essential need to understand human relationships.
Like all professional sports, the need to win often overshadows everything else. Accomplishments achieved prior to taking that final step over the finish line are not given the credit they deserve because media and memories tend to focus only on whether the team (or individual) lifted up the championship trophy or won a gold medal. Just ask the Buffalo Bills (NFL American Football Team) who went to four straight Super Bowl finals but lost all four. To date, no other team in the NFL has ever reached four Super Bowls in a row and that achievement should be celebrated but instead all anyone looks at is the fact that they never won the Super Bowl in those four attempts.
However, unlike the Bills, the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s and the LA Lakers of the 2000s did obtain success in “winning terms” but their true success was blending together players and coaching staff into a cohesive unit. More importantly, they were not just championship teams, they became family (or as Jackson puts it a “tribe”). And because we are talking about humans and not robots playing a sport, the personalities, passions and conflicts all arise.
It is these narratives that make for fascinating reading (not the games themselves). Generally, my favourite read is in the fantasy/sci-fi genre, but I will read anything if it engages me. Non-fiction is not something I normally gravitate towards and Eleven Rings being about basketball is helped if you, the reader, understand the game. But there is enough in this book to show that some of the best stories revolve around real life people.
Phil Jackson was also unusual as a sports coach as he embraced approaches involving meditation, mindfulness and combining it with psychology and Native American philosophy. Players on Jackson’s teams reacted to his methods in varying ways. As you would expect some did not find meditation and mindfulness all that useful, while others embraced these alternate ways of improving team chemistry and performance on the basketball court. Jackson was coined the “Zen Master” in basketball circles and was considered quite unorthodox compared to other NBA coaches during that time.
The insights into how Jackson worked with and managed players such as Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Kobe, Shaq etc. allows the reader to understand the challenges he faced and how leadership can blossom in different ways. The bonds formed and the chemistry that comes about if those relationships are allowed room to grow shows that even on the basketball court, creativity, understanding and trust can flourish.
Jackson, himself, is not immune from ego or internal struggle. I kind of wished he explored that more in this book regarding his own foibles, doubts and weaknesses, but overall he delves into the adventure undertaken during those years. That journey rivals any good fantasy quest or sci-fi saga and thus is worth a read even for non-basketball or non-sporting readers.
4 out of 5.