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.
BOOK REVIEW | "COACH WOODEN AND ME: OUR 50-YEAR FRIENDSHIP ON AND OFF THE COURT" BY KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR
photo & text by nacrowe
our world is one that is obsessed with outcomes. profits. awards. medals. statistics. you understand.
legendary former UCLA basketball coach JOHN WOODEN had his share. he coached a record 10 NCAA championship teams (7 of which were in a row). for some perspective, the nearest rival to that record (MIKE KRZYZEWSKI of DUKE UNIVERSITY) has only has 5. WOODEN as a college player was a three time ALL-AMERICAN and later played professionally in the NBL (a predecessor to the modern NBA) some well that he was the first inductee into the NAISMITH BASKETBALL HALL OF FAME as both a player and a coach.
to this day he is routine heralded as the greatest coach in modern western sports. end stop.
but those accomplishments are not where his success lies, as lovingly argued by his former player, NBA legend KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR in his recent book COACH WOODEN AND ME: OUR 50-YEAR FRIENDSHIP ON AND OFF THE COURTE (GRAND CENTRAL, 2017) written several years after WOODEN's passing in 2010. for KAREEM, the success of his coach was in his ability to model an almost antiquated sense of morality, compassion and dignity through his actions and interactions with others.
that is not to say that this went without some friction, as KAREEM's playing days at UCLA were in the back half of the tumultuous 1960s, when the CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT was in full swing. WOODEN was 37 years KAREEM's senior and was born and grew up a HOOSIER in southern INDIANA, intriguingly at the same time of the INDIANA variant of the KLU KLUX KLAN emerged. luckily his parents raised him to not buy into their racist views but that was part of the cultural milieu he was raised in. KAREEM mentions several times how this generational and cultural divide rendered WOODEN a bit naive regarding the realities of being BLACK in AMERICA. when confronted with such, it crushed and deeply wounded his sense of optimism in his fellow man. but it is to WOODEN's credit, as well as KAREEM's, that they had patience enough for each other to learn from one another and ultimately support each other as lifelong friends.
for me the essence of WOODEN's philosophy regarding team sports, as well as life in general, is the aim of "adapting to each circumstance to achieve the desired outcome - doing good." the game is an afterthought, instead the work and effort you put in and the relationships you develop are of sole value in this equation. and that example was his true impact on his players, not the winning streaks or banners in the rafters.
its a deeply personally and almost spiritual example to set. that of doing good. the KAREEM/WOODEN relationship transcends generational, racial and even religious lines, which is beyond interesting to learn about. i can only imagine what it was like for KAREEM to leave his native NYC a national sports figure as a teenager, especially during that period in AMERICAN history, and needing to lose himself in basketball. in finding a purpose in sports.
it seems that WOODEN allowed him to get outside of himself, find a deeper focus that was not entirely achievement based in nature. it was about developing an identity that was internally strengthened and self-affirmed rather than the result of transitory exterior praise. coach would tell him the futility of seeking outside validation since "if you get yourself too engrossed in things over which you have no control, it's going to adversely affect the things over which you have control." there is no being better than others, there is only trying your best. and that has value.
later in life KAREEM found that "the process of trying my hardest was joyful [and] what happened afterward to the work, whether triumph or disaster, didnt matter as much." to me this type of philosophy would seem almost cliche and antiquated except for who is saying it. you would be hard pressed to find two individuals that have achieved more on the court than these two, and for them those successes are a distant concern to their own development as compassionate, open and helpful individuals. and all of this would ring hollow if WOODEN didn't walk this walk. even to those he argued and even got angry at in pressure moments, which KAREEM only recounts happening once. after cooling off he considered what was said by a player that called him out the night before in a flight of insubordinate passion, and he realized his player had a point. at the team breakfast he let everyone know to jaws dropped that he thought about what was said and agreed, and further appreciated having said player on his team. it was that type of accountability and self-discipline to self-assess and not let his passions overtake him that won over his players.
KAREEM states upon reflection of his relationship that his playing days "Coach was laying the foundation for lifelong lessons that I interpreted as merely practical information on how to become a better basketball player." this is telling because he wasn't pedantic or overbearing with his lessons. he was instead patient and led by example. as KAREEM sagely writes, it is important to "focus less on following the words and more on being the words."
i love this book not just because it is BASKETBALL, which since childhood has long been my RELIGION, but also just literary aspects of the book. WOODEN was a former ENGLISH teacher, so the fact that he apparently regularly tossed around verses from ROMANTIC POETS during intense practices makes my heart quiver. i also particularly enjoyed KAREEM's metaphor about JAZZ being a broader metaphor for basketball, something WOODEN agreed with when he asserted that "certainly doing anything well requires that first individuals master the fundamentals, then learn to react as a group without thinking about it." the idea that there is sense of play that comes out of preparation and a sense of loosing oneself in a group of individuals seems like as good a recipe as any for success in life.
i am not one for feeling positive about circumstances or mankind in general, especially given the political, economic, environmental, and especially racial problems our country has been dealing with in the past few years. but the idea that a friendship was born out of this odd couple at an equally fraught period in our history does give me pause. and secretly even a little optimistic.
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.
and DENNIS RODMAN has been my favorite basketball player since childhood.
i know now in this "anything goes" TRUMP-era people, rightly so, criticize him for his naive efforts at international diplomacy and "friendship" with north korean dictator KIM JONG UN, but my reasons are wholly based on his performance on the court. at least mostly.
i'd be lying if i didn't say that one of the sports highlights of my childhood was watching him curse out MORMONS in an interview on live tv during the 1998 NBA FINALS. and he did it in the arena in SALT LAKE CITY. that was classic. and don't get it twisted, thats not me condoning hate speech. MORMONS have a complicated history with their racist beliefs regarding AFRICANS and NATIVE AMERICANS and their "missionary" efforts in AFRICA. so sue me.
what impresses me most about RODMAN was his work ethic and ability to make a career out of doing the unglamorous things that win games: rebounding and playing defense. raised in DALLAS by a single-mother, growing up he was anything but an athletic standout and often battled depression. he did not know his father (they wouldn't meet until his 30s) and he was even homeless at one point during his late teens, so battled sever issues regarding identity and attachment during a key developmental stage. in a league that was and still is star-driven, RODMAN was picked in the second round by the DETROIT PISTONS after attending a backwater, no-name NCAA DIVISION II school SOUTHEASTERN OKLAHOMA STATE. the fact that he willed himself to be a dominant player in the league is a testament to his drive and work ethic. in my mind his play, garnering him accolades (5x champion, 7x rebounding champion, 7x all-defensive first team, 2x defensive player of the year, 13.12 rebounds game/career average, hall of fame induction, no. 10 retired by DETROIT PISTONS) , spoke louder than his wedding dresses, dyed hair, tattoos and publicity stunts which in mind were his misguided way of seeking the love and affection he so desperately sought as a child.
he is a flawed, but so are the rest of us. and again, i respect that hell of out the guy. a HALL OF FAME career doing the unglamorous hard work on the floor that others don't want to do.
can't help but admire that.
full disclosure: i'm a diehard LOS ANGELES LAKERS fan.
my youth in SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA was spent in the strange im-between doldrum years that marked the post-MAGIC JOHNSON era and the pre-KOBE BRYANT era. i grew up idolizing players like NICK VAN EXEL and TERRY TEAGLE, although i always disliked ELDEN CAMPBELL. that last bit is probably due to the fact that as a 3rd grader at a charity auction i asked him for an autograph and he asked me for $50. wasn't worth it then and its still not worth it. BYRON SCOTT, CHICK HEARN (R.I.P.) and all the previously mentioned players were cool and signed willingly which totally made my year.
so that's just some context. back in the mid 90s i played in a league called NJB that was geographically covered (i believe) HAWAI'I, CALIFORNIA (southern and the central valley), NORTHERN ARIZONA and parts of NEVADA. needless to say i was pretty good and was an all-star center and prospect going into middle school. now spoiler alert: i ended up moving to NIGERIA for middle school and never returned, basically abandoning any chance of playing southern california basketball, a decision i am still very comfortable with.
i was at an NJB conference with my dad when i ran into KURT RAMBIS and spoke with him for a few minutes. first off, totally nice guy and i knew who he was immediately by his thick horned-rim glasses, plus he played with my man MAGIC a few years earlier. basically i talked to him about the fact that i loved basketball but that i wasn't digging all the parents living through their kids, that basically that outside pressure (not from my family) was making it not fun anymore. essentially i was describing LAVAR BALL before he was a thing. for me i had a hard time with the idea that my identity was wrapped around my being an athlete and that teammates had parents that would make them cry after games we lost. the whole thing had an air of desperation and was pathetic looking back on it.
RAMBIS said he totally understood. funny thing was that he was there to address a roomful of THOSE PARENTS shortly thereafter. being a former teacher i still cringe at the way parents take over their kid's games. this AAU circuit that has taken over competitive youth sports is next-level exploitation and make me depressed to consider how much they are crushing kids love of the game. it all just strikes me of ego, hubris and misplaced love of self. coaches and parents need to get over themselves.
then again i don't have kids so what do i know.