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.
photo manipulation by nacrowe
i wrote this the day after the untimely passing of KOBE BRYANT and his daughter to be published at some undecided point in the future:
i have written before here on this blog about my formative experiences playing basketball at a young age and the undue pressures i saw being placed on my peers. i even had the opportunity in 6th grade to relate such to KURT RAMBIS at a league event (link to that entry HERE).
one of the aspects of BRYANT's post-playing career i admired was his advocacy against the growing tracking of young athletes. more and more for promising young athletes they are put in high pressure situations with coaches and leagues designed to garner attention of prominent college coaches and thereafter a route to the NBA. it was BRYANT's belief that such a system was destructive to the players and the game as a whole as it deprived the ability to experience being a kid and growing up in a non-professional environment.
as a THIRD CULTURE KID growing up in ITALY, BRYANT was lucky enough to experience basketball from his father, a journeyman professional basketball player, as well as take in the native soccer/football. these experiences informed his preparation and view of possible moves (especially footwork) down the line and in turn, his legacy crosses over into the realm of EUROPEAN FOOTBALL as well. its quite incredible.
i guess the point is that being a child means being given the opportunity to develop and be nurtured and given the opportunity to try different things. that seemed from what i read, to be the point of his academy. it wasn't so much a basketball camp as it was a leadership academy, where participants could develop the discipline and curiosity needed to excel at anything, basketball included.
the fact that he was using his name and legacy to help combat and transform children's athletics in southern CALIFORNIA is something i respect immensely. it very much reminds me of how my own parents navigated my early forays into competitive sports, they taught me that lessons learned in games were transferrable to real life. and i know for a fact that message was lost on my peers and their parents growing up.
safe travels KOBE. rest in peace.