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Eleven Rings by Phil Jackson

Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success By Phil Jackson and Hugh Delehanty

2013, The Penguin Press

Coach Phil Jackson with Scottie Pippen

After watching The Last Dance on Netflix this past Spring, about Michael Jordan’s last season with the Chicago Bulls, I read Eleven Rings by the team's former coach Phil Jackson. Now, a Covid lockdown and many months later, I promised Dylan I would finally complete this post, so here it is.

Rings for Champions

Coach Phil Jackson won eleven NBA championships, six with the Chicago Bulls and five with the L.A. Lakers. In his book he tells us about how he got there, the players who went with him, and the ups and downs along the way.

Zen Master

I was interested in Jackson’s reputation as the “Zen Master”, and how he used Eastern philosophy (simple stuff like breathing exercises for example) to create a spirit of oneness among the members of his teams.

It sounds like his method worked better with the Bulls than the Lakers, but he did try it with both teams.

Bulls vs Lakers

Air Jordan

I enjoyed more reading about the Bulls than the Lakers. Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman are all very interesting characters, whereas Kobe Bryant comes off looking like he was a pretty selfish guy, at least at first. Both Jordan and Jackson agree that Kobe is the only player to come close to being as good as Michael Jordan. (This summer in New York City I overheard two fans arguing about who was better between the two.)

Jackson speaks more highly of the Bulls:

When I first started coaching the Bulls, they had already started transforming themselves into a one-mind-oriented team.

This was not true of the Lakers, and Jackson explains why.

The glorified self vs Buddha

Whereas the Bulls had just one enemy (the Detroit Pistons), the Lakers had numerous rivals, the worst being "the culture that fed them". By the time most future NBA players are middle schoolers, they become immersed in a universe that reinforces egoistic behavior, says Jackson. As they grow older and continue to succeed they become surrounded by legions of agents, promoters, groupies and other sycophants who keep telling them they’re “da man”. It doesn’t take long before they start to really buy into it. What’s more, L.A. is a world devoted to celebrating the notion of the glorified self. Everywhere the Lakers went – not just the superstars but the other players as well – they were greeted as heroes and offered endless, often lucrative, opportunities to bask in their wonderfulness.

Jackson tells how he tried to overcome the focus on self, and put the players in touch with their “deep longing for real connection”, which he felt was necessary for future success. (212) He describes how he used different philosophical behavioral approaches such as the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path to help win championships. (220)

Sexual Assault: inaction vs action

When Kobe Bryant was accused of sexual assault, Jackson admits to feeling anger toward him, which he says was increased by the fact he had failed to express anger when his own daughter was sexually assaulted by a college athlete. I was shocked by how he blames his inaction in the case of his daughter on the way he was conditioned since childhood to suppress rage, and especially by his statement: In truth, there wasn’t much I could have done; the case was in the hands of the police, and meddling on my part would probably have done more harm than good. WHAT? He misses the point that his daughter needed him to stand up for her, and not surprisingly, we learn that in the end she chose not to press charges. (264)

Michael vs Kobe

There’s an interesting comparison of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, their styles as shooters, defenders, teammates, and leaders. Overall Michael comes out looking better.(284)

On losing: Coach vs players

Jackson says it’s easier for players than coaches to deal with losing a game, due to the physical release players get from the game. The coach tends to wake up in the middle of the night and go over every play.

The World vs Home

I like this quote from Eleven Rings (Afterword):

A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it. -George Moore

It reminds me of a conversation I had in college:

Me: Oh, wouldn’t it be amazing to sail around the world?

Friend: I guess if you’re not happy in your own backyard, you won’t be happy anywhere.

65 views2 comments


Sep 10, 2020

No, should we? I just looked it up and will see if Dylan wants to watch. He's worried about not being able to play basketball at school this year due to Covid, so maybe he'll relate even more to it! Thanks for the suggestion!

As for the point of the book, Eleven Rings, I think controlling ego in order to play well was one of the points of the book. Jackson gave insight into how he tried to help players do that. Sounds like it wasn't always easy!


Sep 07, 2020

I know that the 80's and 90's is supposed to be the golden age of basketball, but the bullying/self-glorification/win-at-all-costs mentality isn't great. I think I prefer the activism of the current players. But then again, I'm not just talking about the pure sport in itself, which is maybe the point of the book?

I am in the middle of watching Soderbergh's High Flying Bird. Have you (or Dylan) seen it?

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