It’s hard to believe now, but in 1991 the Chicago Bulls were a talented young team that didn’t seem to have the mental toughness to close the deal. Each year Michael Jordan and his teammates were beaten up by the Detroit Pistons. Each year they fell short. Jordan was turning into a global superstar, sure, but by his seventh year in the NBA he still hadn’t won a ring.
In the ’91 finals, the Bulls faced the Lakers, led by the legendary Magic Johnson. The hypercompetitive Jordan had always been more talented than just about anyone else, but, according to his coach, Phil Jackson, he’d been hurt by his lack of trust in his teammates. In the finals, as Jackson writes in his new memoir, Eleven Rings, “Michael was reverting to his old habit of trying to win games by himself.”
In Game 5, Jackson noticed that Magic Johnson was leaving his man on defence, point guard John Paxson, to help guard Jordan. During a fourth-quarter time out, Jackson called the team together. “Who’s open, M.J.?” he asked, looking Jordan in the eyes. “Who’s open?”
“Paxson,” Jordan said.
“OK, so find him,” said Jackson.
With just over a minute to play and the Lakers within two, Jordan moved the ball up the court. “I expected him to make a move toward the basket, as he usually did in this kind of situation,” Jackson writes. “Instead, he was luring the defence in his direction and trying to create a shot for, yes, Paxson.” The guard nailed the shot and the Bulls won their first of six championships.
That ring was first of many—eleven, as the book’s title suggests—that Phil Jackson describes in his new memoir, written with former Sports Illustrated editor Hugh Delehanty. The lanky NBA benchwarmer-turned-coach has won more championships than any other, creating the kind of mythic stature that allows him to do whatever he likes—including, it seems, publishing yet another book about his philosophy on success.
With this, his seventh book, Jackson has managed to turn his blend of pseudo-spiritual management philosophy and sports memoir into a profitable little cottage industry. Jackson is like a sporty Jack Welch. He’s talks basketball, sure, but he’s also a management guru who appeals to people who would rather read about Scottie Pippen than MBA theory.
Being an NBA head coach is, at it’s core, a management position. There are plays and tactics, offensive systems and defensive schemes—and Jackson writes about some of his favourites—but in essence being a basketball coach is about taking a group of individuals and somehow figuring out how to make them work toward a common goal. It requires someone to communicate openly but assertively, to build connections with individuals while maintaining the integrity that comes with a little distance. How do you maximize Dennis Rodman’s productivity while minimizing his disruptions? How do you get Kobe Bryant and Shaq—big men with big egos—to work collaboratively? How do you convince the greatest player of all time to pass to John Paxson?
The famously philosophical Jackson has filled his book with a mishmash of pop leadership philosophy, Zen koans and basketball anecdotes. He writes about the five stages of tribal development and how to make a group of individuals unite. He quotes Chinese proverbs (“Fall down seven times. Stand up eight”), Lakota Warrior wisdom (his teams gathered in a circle because “everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle”) and creates his own aphorisms (“Leadership is not about forcing your will on others. It’s about mastering the art of letting go.”)
Watching basketball players perform under the bright lights in front of thousands of adoring fans, it’s difficult to appreciate that playing an entire NBA season can be as dull and stultifying as any desk job. The long season is an endless routine of repetitive workouts and practices interspersed with long hours spent on buses and planes and in hotel rooms in places like Salt Lake City and Milwaukee.
Jackson writes about creating events and switching around practices to break up that routine. One favourite trick was to show the players videos with some not particularly subtle messages, such as The Wizard of Oz (to let them know they were lacking brains, courage and heart) or the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” (to make them cherish the moment). Another was the famous Phil Jackson book report. Every year, on the team’s long West Coast road trip, Jackson would give each player a book with the aim of pushing him toward a particular way of thinking. Michael Jordan got Song of Solomon. Will Perdue got On the Road. Jackson gave Shaq a copy of Hermann Hesse’s Siddartha, a fictional account of the life of Buddha, with the hope that it might make the goofy young centre think about his relationship with material possessions, creating a spiritual change that would, in the end, make him a better player. Shaq’s book report revealed it had been less than transformative: “This is about a young man who has power, wealth, and women (much like me), and gives them all up to pursue a holy life (not so much like me).”
Written down between stories of his victories with the Lakers and Bulls, some of Jackson’s leadership gimmicks feel cheesy—the kind of leadership-seminar tactics espoused by the likes of The Office’s Michael Scott. Mostly, though, for all his Buddhist theories, Jackson’s management philosophy is fairly simple. He respects the people he works with. He maintains control. And he treats each worker as an individual, trying to find a way to make them work within the system rather than force them into a specific role.
“The art of transforming a group of young, ambitious individuals into an integrated championship team is not a mechanistic process,” Jackson writes. “It’s a mysterious juggling act that requires not only a thorough knowledge of the time-honored laws of the game but also an open heart, a clear mind, and a deep curiosity about the ways of the human spirit.”
It’s a curiosity that can be nurtured, sure, but it’s possible that the very best managers are like the best basketball players—hardworking, disciplined, but above all else blessed with a specific set of gifts. You can learn to be a good manager, but maybe the best ones are born that way.