photo & text by nacrowe
no doubt there was a healthy bit of mischief involved when NBA coaching legend PHIL JACKSON (or the publisher) decided to entitle his book regarding leadership philosophy ELEVEN RINGS: THE SOUL OF SUCCESS (PENGUIN, 2014). its funny because ironically the championship hardware was never the point of his process, more just the fortunate outcome of a successful realigning of egos within his massively talented set of rosters over the years.
and i think that point is missed in the greater discussion of JACKSON. sure, he had transcendent stars like MICHAEL JORDAN and KOBE BRYANT along with supreme talents such as SCOTTIE PIPPEN, SHAQUILLE O'NEAL, DENNIS RODMAN, PAU GASOL and others. but BASKETBALL is a team sport and the focus of this book is how JACKSON went about creating a team that played like a cohesive tribe and not an assemblage of players. his unique gift was the ability to model and communicate an authentic sense of compassion and empathy upon his players, who in turn doted such on their fellow teammates. this provided a foundational mindset that helped establish in both CHICAGO and LOS ANGELES dynasties built upon a shared sense of common purpose and interdependence.
raised in a strict pentecostal household in NORTH DAKOTA by two parents who were fervent ministers, JACKSON shed the religiosity aspects of his upbringing but not the curiosity to explore alternative spiritual practices, rituals and ideas including that of BUDDHIST and NATIVE AMERICAN traditions. this would prove instrumental in his leadership approach.
the culture around the NBA is pretty good analogue for AMERICAN culture in general in that there is an intense, out-of-proportion celebration of the individual with lip-service allocated to more essential notions of group collaboration or teamwork. you can see this in the insatiable appetite for gossip and clickbait within our digital culture and a total utter dearth of basic understanding of notions of civic duty and responsibility. maybe it is a generational thing, but the emphasis in the NBA, much like in the broader culture since the 1980s has been squarely on me as opposed to we. i would argue that this focus on group dynamics seems very in keeping with the mission of his parents, albeit to secular ends.
his method is less about the techniques and more about the mindset he was trying to engender in his players. that mindset was transforming them into a selfless, ego-less whole who used the fluidity of the TRIANGLE OFFENSE to suss out weaknesses in the their opponents defense and exploit it as a single entity. he was attempting to get them to play as a single unit, not a collection of players seeking to increase their stats (and thus future paydays). it is an approach that is antithetical to the marketing and popular influence of the NBA. JORDAN is celebrated for his individual achievements and records, as seen in his ubiquitous endorsement deals, movies, apparel, documentaries that still hold a firm grip on the AMERICAN psyche nearly two decades later, but his real achievement was one of self-sacrifice to the team concept. not just him, all his teammates tirelessly focused on improving weaknesses in their team identity at the expense of satiating those of the sycophants (agents, fans, partners, family, etc) that no doubt had their ear at the time. the fact that JORDAN recognized the structural benefit of self-sacrifice and playing with intention not ego is a testament to his greatness as a competitor, ironically.
by submitting the wants of their individual egos to the collective needs of the team, the CHICAGO BULLS as well as the LAKERS succeeded in winning multiple titles under JACKSON. this success, again, is not the focus of the book. instead the very BUDDHIST notion of being present and controlling your thoughts and actions now in this moment is the key to success. winning is just an outcome, but being able to appreciate the fluidity of life and not being caught up in the disappointments of the past or anticipatory anxiety about the future frees one to be present and be truly awake and able to tackle problems as they arise in the present. and BASKETBALL is nothing but a set of problems arising that need to be settled within a group construct. a group synchronized with a sense of intention to adapt effectively as a cohesive unit. compelling stuff.
what is also interesting is how this book ends. JACKSON accepts a job with the NEW YORK KNICKS as president of BASKETBALL operations with the goal of transforming the culture along the precepts outlined in this book. of course with hindsight this endeavor was destined to be a failure as owner JAMES DOLAN has no appetite for a cultural shift and his entire operation is the very embodiment of futility, nepotism and everything that is wrong with AMERICAN culture and capitalism writ large. but it was worth a shot. if anyone could pull it off it was JACKSON.