During his storied career as head coach of the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers, Phil Jackson won more championships than any coach in the history of professional sports. Even more important, he succeeded in never wavering from coaching his way, from a place of deep values. Jackson was tagged as the “Zen master” half in jest by sportswriters, but the nickname speaks to an important truth: this is a coach who inspired, not goaded; who led by awakening and challenging the better angels of his players’ nature, not their egos, fear, or greed.
This is the story of a preacher’s kid from North Dakota who grew up to be one of the most innovative leaders of our time. In his quest to reinvent himself, Jackson explored everything from humanistic psychology and Native American philosophy to Zen meditation. In the process, he developed a new approach to leadership based on freedom, authenticity, and selfless teamwork that turned the hypercompetitive world of professional sports on its head.
In Eleven Rings, Jackson candidly describes how he:
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PHIL JACKSON is arguably the greatest coach in the history of the NBA. His reputation was established as head coach of the Chicago Bulls from 1989-1998; during his tenure, Chicago won six NBA titles. His next team, the Los Angeles Lakers, won five NBA titles, from 2000 to 2010. He holds the record for the most championships in NBA history as a player and a head coach. He also has the highest winning percentage of any NBA coach (.704). Jackson was a player on the 1970 and 1973 NBA champion New York Knicks. In 2007 Jackson was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
A former editor for Sports Illustrated and People, HUGH DELEHANTY is the co-author with Phil Jackson of the bestselling memoir, Sacred Hoops.
THE CIRCLE OF LOVE
Life is a journey. Time is a river. The door is ajar.
Cecil B. DeMille would have loved this moment.
Here I was sitting in a limo at the ramp leading into the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, waiting for my team to arrive, while an ecstatic crowd of ninety-five thousand plus fans, dressed in every possible combination of Lakers purple and gold, marched into the stadium. Women in tutus, men in Star Wars storm-trooper costumes, toddlers waving “Kobe Diem” signs. Yet despite all the zaniness, there was something inspiring about this ancient ritual with a decidedly L.A. twist. As Jeff Weiss, a writer for LA Weekly, put it: “It was the closest any of us will ever know what it was like to watch the Roman Legions returning home after a tour of Gaul.”
Truth be told, I’ve never really felt that comfortable at victory celebrations, which is strange given my chosen profession. First of all, I’m phobic about large crowds. It doesn’t bother me during games, but it can make me queasy in less controlled situations. I’ve also never really loved being the center of attention. Perhaps it’s my inherent shyness or the conflicting messages I got as a kid from my parents, who were both ministers. In their view, winning was fine—in fact, my mother was one of the most fiercely competitive people I’ve ever met—but reveling in your own success was considered an insult to God. Or as they would say, “The glory belongs to Him.”
This celebration wasn’t about me, though. It was about the remarkable transformation the players had undergone en route to the 2009 NBA championship. You could see it in their faces as they descended the long purple and gold staircase into the coliseum dressed in rally caps and championship T-shirts, laughing, jostling, beaming with joy, while the crowd roared with delight. Four years earlier the Lakers hadn’t even made the playoffs. Now they were masters of the basketball universe. Some coaches are obsessed with winning trophies; others like to see their faces on TV. What moves me is watching young men bond together and tap into the magic that arises when they focus—with their whole heart and soul—on something greater than themselves. Once you’ve experienced that, it’s something you never forget.
The symbol is the ring.
In the NBA, rings symbolize status and power. No matter how gaudy or cumbersome a championship ring may be, the dream of winning one is what motivates players to put themselves through the trials of a long NBA season. Jerry Krause, the former general manager of the Chicago Bulls, understood this. When I joined the team as an assistant coach in 1987, he asked me to wear one of the two championship rings I’d earned playing for the New York Knicks as a way to inspire the young Bulls players. This is something I used to do during the playoffs when I was a coach in the Continental Basketball Association, but the idea of sporting such a big chunk of bling on my finger every day seemed a bit much. One month into Jerry’s grand experiment the ring’s centerpiece rock fell out while I was dining at Bennigan’s in Chicago, and it was never recovered. After that I went back to wearing the rings only during the playoffs and on special occasions like this triumphant gathering at the coliseum.
On a psychological level, the ring symbolizes something profound: the quest of the self to find harmony, connection, and wholeness. In Native American culture, for instance, the unifying power of the circle was so meaningful that whole nations were conceived as a series of interconnected rings (or hoops). The tepee was a ring, as were the campfire, the village, and the layout of the nation itself—circles within circles, having no beginning or end.
Most of the players weren’t that familiar with Native American psychology, but they understood intuitively the deeper meaning of the ring. Early in the season, the players had created a chant they would shout before each game, their hands joined together in a circle.
One, two, three—RING!
After the players had taken their places on the stage—the Lakers’ portable basketball court from the Staples Center—I stood and addressed the crowd. “What was our motto on this team? The ring,” I said, flashing my ring from the last championship we won, in 2002. “The ring. That was the motto. It’s not just the band of gold. It’s the circle that’s made a bond between all these players. A great love for one another.”
Circle of love.
That’s not the way most basketball fans think of their sport. But after more than forty years involved in the game at the highest level, both as a player and as a coach, I can’t think of a truer phrase to describe the mysterious alchemy that joins players together and unites them in pursuit of the impossible.
Obviously, we’re not talking romantic love here or even brotherly love in the traditional Christian sense. The best analogy I can think of is the intense emotional connection that great warriors experience in the heat of battle.
Several years ago journalist Sebastian Junger embedded himself with a platoon of American soldiers stationed in one of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan to learn what enabled these incredibly brave young men to fight in such horrifying conditions. What he discovered, as chronicled in his book War, was that the courage needed to engage in battle was indistinguishable from love. Because of the strong brotherhood the soldiers had formed, they were more concerned about what happened to their buddies than about what happened to themselves. Junger recalls one soldier telling him that he would throw himself on a grenade for any one of his platoonmates, even those he didn’t like all that much. When Junger asked why, the soldier replied, “Because I actually love my brothers. I mean, it’s a brotherhood. Being able to save their life so they can live, I think is rewarding. Any of them would do it for me.”
That kind of bond, which is virtually impossible to replicate in civilian life, is critical to success, says Junger, because without it nothing else is possible.
I don’t want to take the analogy too far. Basketball players don’t risk their lives every day like soldiers in Afghanistan, but in many ways the same principle applies. It takes a number of critical factors to win an NBA championship, including the right mix of talent, creativity, intelligence, toughness, and, of course, luck. But if a team doesn’t have the most essential ingredient—love—none of those other factors matter.
Building that kind of consciousness doesn’t happen overnight. It takes years of nurturing to get young athletes to step outside their egos and fully engage in a group experience. The NBA is not exactly the friendliest environment for teaching selflessness. Even though the game itself is a five-person sport, the culture surrounding it celebrates egoistic behavior and stresses individual achievement over team bonding.
This wasn’t the case when I started playing for the Knicks in 1967. In those days most players were paid modestly and had to take part-time jobs in the summer to make ends meet. The games were rarely televised and none of us had ever heard of a highlight reel, let alone Twitter. That shifted in the 1980s, fueled in large part by the popularity of the Magic Johnson–Larry Bird rivalry and the emergence of Michael Jordan as a global phenomenon. Today the game has grown into a multibillion-dollar industry, with fans all over the world and a sophisticated media machine that broadcasts everything that happens on and off the court, 24-7. The unfortunate by-product of all this is a marketing-driven obsession with superstardom that strokes the egos of a handful of ballplayers and plays havoc with the very thing that attracts most people to basketball in the first place: the inherent beauty of the game.
Like most championship NBA teams, the 2008–09 Lakers had struggled for years to make the transition from a disconnected, ego-driven team to a unified, selfless one. They weren’t the most transcendent team I’d ever coached; that honor belongs to the 1995–96 Chicago Bulls, led by Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Nor were they as talented as the 1999–2000 Lakers team, which was loaded with clutch shooters including Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Glen Rice, Robert Horry, Rick Fox, and Derek Fisher. But the 2008–09 Lakers had the seeds of greatness in their collective DNA.
The players looked hungrier than ever when they showed up for training camp in August 2008. At the end of the previous season, they’d made a miraculous run to the finals against the Celtics, only to be humiliated in Boston and lose the decisive game 6 by 39 points. Clearly the beating we’d received at the hands of Kevin Garnett and company—not to mention the torturous ride to our hotel afterward through mobs of Celtics fans—had been a brutal experience, especially for the younger players who hadn’t tasted Boston venom before.
Some teams get demoralized after losses like that, but this young, spirited team was energized by getting so close to the prize only to have it batted away by a tougher, more physically intimidating opponent. Kobe, who had been named the NBA’s most valuable player that year, was particularly laser focused. I’ve always been impressed by Kobe’s resilience and ironclad self-confidence. Unlike Shaq, who was often plagued by self-doubt, Kobe never let such thoughts cross his mind. If someone set the bar at ten feet, he’d jump eleven, even if no one had ever done it before. That’s the attitude he brought with him when he arrived at training camp that fall, and it had a powerful impact on his teammates.
Still, what surprised me the most was not Kobe’s ruthless determination but his changing relationship with his teammates. Gone was the brash young man who was so consumed with being the best player ever that he sucked the joy out of the game for everyone else. The new Kobe who had emerged during the season took his role as team leader to heart. Years ago, when I’d first arrived in L.A., I’d encouraged Kobe to spend time with his teammates instead of hiding out in his hotel room studying videotape. But he’d scoffed at the idea, claiming that all those guys were interested in were cars and women. Now he was making an effort to connect more closely with his teammates and figure out how to forge them into a more cohesive team.
Of course, it helped that the team’s other cocaptain—Derek Fisher—was a natural leader with exceptional emotional intelligence and finely tuned management skills. I was pleased when Fish, who had played a key role as a point guard during our earlier run of three consecutive championships, decided to return to L.A. after free-agent gigs with the Golden State Warriors and the Utah Jazz. Though Fish wasn’t as quick or as inventive as some of the younger point guards in the league, he was strong, determined, and fearless, with a rock-solid character. And despite his lack of speed, he had a gift for pushing the ball up court and making our offense run properly. He was also an excellent three-point shooter when the clock was running down. Most of all, he and Kobe had a solid bond. Kobe respected Derek’s mental discipline and dependability under pressure, and Derek knew how to get through to Kobe in a way that nobody else could.
Kobe and Fish kicked off the first day of training camp with a speech about how the upcoming season would be a marathon, not a sprint, and how we needed to focus on meeting force with force and not allowing ourselves to be intimidated by physical pressure. Ironically, Kobe was beginning to sound more and more like me every day.
In their groundbreaking book, Tribal Leadership, management consultants Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright lay out the five stages of tribal development, which they formulated after conducting extensive research on small to midsize organizations. Although basketball teams are not officially tribes, they share many of the same characteristics and develop along much the same lines:
STAGE 1—shared by most street gangs and characterized by despair, hostility, and the collective belief that “life sucks.”
STAGE 2—filled primarily with apathetic people who perceive themselves as victims and who are passively antagonistic, with the mind-set that “my life sucks.” Think The Office on TV or the Dilbert comic strip.
STAGE 3—focused primarily on individual achievement and driven by the motto “I’m great (and you’re not).” According to the authors, people in organizations at this stage “have to win, and for them winning is personal. They’ll outwork and outthink their competitors on an individual basis. The mood that results is a collection of ‘lone warriors.’”
STAGE 4—dedicated to tribal pride and the overriding conviction that “we’re great (and they’re not).” This kind of team requires a strong adversary, and the bigger the foe, the more powerful the tribe.
STAGE 5—a rare stage characterized by a sense of innocent wonder and the strong belief that “life is great.” (See Bulls, Chicago, 1995–98.)
All things being equal, contend Logan and his colleagues, a stage 5 culture will outperform a stage 4 culture, which will outperform a 3, and so on. In addition, the rules change when you move from one culture to another. That’s why the so-called universal principles that appear in most leadership textbooks rarely hold up. In order to shift a culture from one stage to the next, you need to find the levers that are appropriate for that particular stage in the group’s development.
During the 2008–09 season the Lakers needed to shift from a stage 3 team to a stage 4 in order to win. The key was getting a critical mass of players to buy into a more selfless approach to the game. I didn’t worry so much about Kobe, even though he could go on a shooting spree at any second if he felt frustrated. Still, by this point in his career I knew he understood the folly of trying to score every time he got his hands on the ball. Nor was I concerned about Fish or Pau Gasol, who were naturally inclined to be team players. What concerned me most were some of the younger players eager to make a name for themselves with the ESPN SportsCenter crowd.
But to my surprise, early in the season I noticed that even some of the most immature players on the team were focused and single-minded. “We were on a serious mission, and there wasn’t going to be any letup,” says forward Luke Walton. “By the time we got to the finals, losing just wasn’t going to be an option.”
We got off to a roaring start, winning twenty-one of our first twenty-five games, and by the time we faced the Celtics at home on Christmas, we were a far more spirited team than we’d been during the previous year’s playoffs. We were playing the game the way the “basketball gods” had ordained: reading defenses on the move and reacting in unison like a finely tuned jazz combo. These new Lakers beat the Celtics handily, 92–83, and then danced through the season to the best record in the Western Conference (65-17).
The most troubling threat came in the second round of the playoffs from the Houston Rockets, who pushed the series to seven games, ...
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