1. Phil Jackson is the most successful coach in National Basketball Association history, the owner of 11 World Championship rings that lend themselves to the cover and title of this, his seventh book. Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success begins with Jackson’s days as a player with the 1970 New York Knicks and traces his career through coaching Michael Jordan in Chicago to his final season with Kobe Bryant and the 2011 Los Angeles Lakers. Part memoir, part motivational screed, Eleven Rings details not only the path to each championship, but also the development of Jackson’s coaching philosophy, a hybrid of Eastern/First Nations spirituality and management strategizing.
2. E.g.: “Leadership is not about forcing your will on others. It’s about mastering the art of surrender.”
3. Jackson always struck me as less Zen master than a sort of 6-foot-7 Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer prowling the sidelines in Joseph Stalin’s mustache and a very square-shouldered suit. Partly because of a bum knee, he moved rigidly, awkwardly, with none of the ease common to most beings at one with the universe. Eleven Rings does little to humanize that image, as Jackson frames even his players’ accomplishments by how well they received his Buddhist teachings. After spending the better part of one chapter discussing how well he managed conflicts between his two stars, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, Jackson offers himself sly congratulations: “What pleased me even more [than winning that year’s championship] was the synergy the two of them exhibited in the last part of the season, after they realized that they needed each other to achieve the only goal that mattered.”
4. The book’s subtitle, “The Soul of Success,” perfectly captures the confluence of spirituality and achievement symptomatic of a certain stream of New Age thinking for which Jackson seems an unofficial spokesman. Suggesting that “success,” or the pursuit of it, might have a “soul” speaks to a loose ideology built on appropriating whatever best serves each practitioner’s quest for self-fulfillment – free-market individualism, essentially, yet couched in mystical, ancient traditions. So, whether Jackson quotes Lao-Tzu or Eckhart Tolle, or compares basketball players to Lakota warriors, everything is imbued with, and tautologically forgiven by, some transcendent purpose.
5. Slavoj Zizek explains: “The ‘Western Buddhist’ meditative stance … enables you to fully participate in the frantic pace of the capitalist game while sustaining the perception that you are not really in it; that you are well aware of how worthless this spectacle is; and that what really matters to you is the peace of the inner Self to which you know you can always withdraw.” (Other prominent Western practitioners of Buddhist meditation, in case you were wondering, have included Steve Jobs, George Lucas and Bill Clinton.)
6. Speaking of Clinton, Jackson could be thought of as a sort of Third Way coach, one who carved a singular space between and beyond “win one for the Gipper”-style cheerleading and chair-throwing abuse. Even so, Eleven Rings has little to say about basketball that feels particularly novel. In keeping with Buddhist mindfulness, Jackson repeatedly trumpets that old maxim about “the journey, not the destination,” as though winning games (and championships) might be a fortunate byproduct of playing the sport on some higher plane of consciousness. His most fascinating insight, inspired by Thelonious Monk’s rules for jazz combos, is that “the best way to get players to co-ordinate their actions [is] to have them play the game in 4/4 time.” (Imagine a team practice set to a metronome!) But jazz is only mentioned again in passing, and instead the book regresses into generalities about “moving in harmony” and “one breath, one mind.”
7. The thing, though, is that in professional sports, perhaps our most prominent manifestation of capitalism-as-spectacle, superstition and cliché seem to work. Say what you will about corny spirituality and pat aphorisms (e.g. “Let each player discover his own destiny”), but Jackson got the job done, and it’s impossible to argue with his methods, even when he’s confessing things like, “Sometimes when I’m filling out forms, I list my profession as ‘magician.’” The man was unique, and possibly brilliant, in pushing his players to new limits: he once had his Bulls meet in the “tribal room,” to collectively write – and burn – testimonials to each other: “I’ll never forget that moment. The quiet aura in the room. The fire burning in the darkness. … I don’t think the bond among us had ever been stronger.” What’s maybe most refreshing about Eleven Rings, especially in these cynical, anti-spiritual times, is its “mindful” author’s remarkable lack of self-consciousness.
8. Still, this is a boring book. Part of what makes the NBA so compelling is the athleticism of its players, and good basketball writing articulates and celebrates the sport’s unique style. But Jackson isn’t concerned with beauty; Jordan’s astounding hand-switching layup in the 1991 Finals, for example, gets no mention here. Instead, Jackson steamrolls through that series, as he does every season of his 20-year coaching career, with the detached tone of a clinician.
9. For those hoping for coaching tips, there isn’t much in the way of specifics here, either. The Triangle Offence that Jackson’s teams worked to perfection isn’t elucidated beyond generalizations (and reverence); there’s also no sense of how practices were run beyond, occasionally, the odd shake-up, such as the time Jackson made his players scrimmage in the dark, which he brings up twice without much elaboration. (Like, how dark?)
10. Eleven Rings is likely most valuable as a management text, which might speak to the praise most often heaped on Jackson as a coach: his ability to discipline, mollify and motivate larger-than-life men and their attendant personalities. And while his achievements are undeniably impressive, rather than reading them enumerated, without much passion or flare rising above the gong-like beating of Zen mantras, I’d suggest you float over to the internet, dig up some of these classic games, and watch them yourself.
11. Oh, in case you were wondering: “The soul of success,” the book concludes, “is surrendering to what is.”
Pasha Malla is the author of People Park and The Withdrawal Method.