Read Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success Online

Authors: Phil Jackson,Hugh Delehanty

Tags: #Basketball, #Sports & Recreation, #Sports, #Coaching, #Leadership, #Biography & Autobiography, #Business & Economics

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BOOK: Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success
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Beyond that, I think it’s essential for athletes to learn to open their hearts so that they can collaborate with one another in a meaningful way. When Michael returned to the Bulls in 1995 after a year and a half of playing minor-league baseball, he didn’t know most of the players and he felt completely out of sync with the team. It wasn’t until he got into a fight with Steve Kerr at practice that he realized he needed to get to know his teammates more intimately. He had to understand what made them tick, so that he could work with them more productively. That moment of awakening helped Michael become a compassionate leader and ultimately helped transform the team into one of the greatest of all time.


Management guru Stephen Covey tells this old Japanese tale about a samurai warrior and his three sons: The samurai wanted to teach his sons about the power of teamwork. So he gave each of them an arrow and asked them to break it. No problem. Each son did it easily. Then the samurai gave them a bundle of three arrows bound together and asked them to repeat the process. But none of them could. “That’s your lesson,” the samurai said. “If you three stick together, you will never be defeated.”

This story reflects just how strong a team can be when each of its members surrenders his self-interest for the greater good. When a player isn’t forcing a shot or trying to impose his personality on the team, his gifts as an athlete most fully manifest. Paradoxically, by playing within his natural abilities, he activates a higher potential for the team that transcends his own limitations and helps his teammates transcend theirs. When this happens, the whole begins to add up to more than the sum of its parts.

Example: We had a player on the Lakers who loved to chase down balls on defense. If his mind was focused on scoring points at the other end of the floor instead of on making steals, he wouldn’t be able to perform either task very well. But when he committed himself to playing defense, his teammates covered for him on the other end, because they knew intuitively what he was going to do. Then, all of a sudden, everybody was able to hit their rhythm, and good things began to happen.

Interestingly, the other players weren’t consciously aware that they were anticipating their teammate’s behavior. It wasn’t an out-of-body experience or anything like that. But somehow, mysteriously, they just sensed what was going to happen next and made their moves accordingly.

Most coaches get tied up in knots worrying about tactics, but I preferred to focus my attention on whether the players were moving together in a spirited way. Michael Jordan used to say that what he liked about my coaching style was how patient I remained during the final minutes of a game, much like his college coach, Dean Smith.

This wasn’t an act. My confidence grew out of knowing that when the spirit was right and the players were attuned to one another, the game was likely to unfold in our favor.


In the strictest form of Zen, monitors roam the meditation hall, striking sleeping or listless meditators with a flat wooden stick, called a
, to get them to pay attention. This is not intended as punishment. In fact, the
is sometimes referred to as a “compassionate stick.” The purpose of the blow is to reinvigorate the meditator and make him or her more awake in the moment.

I haven’t wielded a
stick in practice, though there were times when I wished I’d had one handy. Still, I’ve pulled out some other tricks to wake players up and raise their level of consciousness. Once I had the Bulls practice in silence; on another occasion I made them scrimmage with the lights out. I like to shake things up and keep the players guessing. Not because I want to make their lives miserable but because I want to prepare them for the inevitable chaos that occurs the minute they step onto a basketball court.

One of my favorite ploys was to divide the players into two lopsided teams for a scrimmage, then not call any fouls on the weaker of the two. I liked to see how the players on the stronger team would respond when all the calls were going against them and their opponents were running up 30-point leads. This scheme used to drive Michael nuts because he couldn’t stand losing, even though he knew the game was rigged.

One of the players I came down especially hard on was Lakers forward Luke Walton. I sometimes played mind games with him so that he would know what it felt like to be stressed out under pressure. Once I put him through a particularly frustrating series of exercises, and I could tell by his reaction that I’d pushed him too far. Afterward I sat down with him and said, “I know you’re thinking about becoming a coach someday. I think that’s a good idea, but coaching isn’t all fun and games. Sometimes no matter how nice a guy you are, you’re going to have to be an asshole. You can’t be a coach if you need to be liked.”


Basketball is an action sport, and most people involved in it are high-energy individuals who love to do something—
—to solve problems. However, there are occasions when the best solution is to do absolutely nothing.

This is especially true when the media is involved. Reporters often made fun of me for not directly confronting my players when they acted immaturely or said something dumb in the press. The
Los Angeles Times
’s T. J. Simers wrote a funny column once about my propensity for inactivity and concluded wryly that “no one does nothing better than Phil.” I get the joke. But I’ve always been wary of asserting my ego frivolously just to give reporters something to write about.

On a deeper level, I believe that focusing on something other than the business at hand can be the most effective way to solve complex problems. When the mind is allowed to relax, inspiration often follows. Research is beginning to prove the point. In a commentary on,
senior writer Anne Fisher reported that scientists have begun to realize “that people may do their best thinking when they are not concentrating on work at all.” She cites studies published in the journal
by Dutch psychologists who concluded, “The unconscious mind is a terrific solver of complex problems when the conscious mind is busy elsewhere or, perhaps better yet, not overtaxed at all.”

That’s why I subscribe to the philosophy of the late Satchel Paige, who said, “Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits.”


I hate losing. I always have. When I was a kid, I was so competitive I frequently burst into tears and broke the board into pieces if one of my older brothers, Charles or Joe, trounced me in a game. They loved teasing me when I threw a sore loser’s tantrum, which made me even more determined to win the next time. I’d practice and practice until I figured out a way to beat them and wipe the smug smiles off their faces.

Even as an adult, I’ve been known to act out on occasion. Once, after a particularly embarrassing loss to Orlando in the playoffs, I shaved off most of my hair and stomped around the room for nearly an hour until the anger subsided.

And yet as a coach, I know that being fixated on winning (or more likely, not losing) is counterproductive, especially when it causes you to lose control of your emotions. What’s more, obsessing about winning is a loser’s game: The most we can hope for is to create the best possible conditions for success, then let go of the outcome. The ride is a lot more fun that way. Bill Russell, the Boston Celtics great who won more championship rings as a player than anyone else (eleven), revealed in his memoir,
Second Wind
, that he sometimes secretly rooted for the opposing team during big games because if they were doing well, it meant he would have a more heightened experience.

Lao-tzu saw it another way. He believed that being too competitive could throw you out of whack spiritually:

The best athlete

wants his opponent at his best.

The best general

enters the mind of his enemy . . .

All of them embody

the virtue of non-competition.

Not that they don’t love to compete,

but they do it in the spirit of play.

That’s why at the start of every season I always encouraged players to focus on the journey rather than the goal. What matters most is playing the game the right way and having the courage to grow, as human beings as well as basketball players. When you do that, the ring takes care of itself.



The greatest carver does the least cutting.


y first impression of the NBA was that it was an unstructured mess.

When Red Holzman recruited me for the New York Knicks in 1967, I’d never seen an NBA game before, except for a few playoff games on TV between the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia Warriors. So Red sent me a film of a 1966 game between the Knicks and the Lakers, and I invited a bunch of my college teammates over to watch it on a big screen.

I was stunned by how sloppy and undisciplined both teams were. At the University of North Dakota, we prided ourselves on playing the game in a systematic way. In fact, in my senior year coach Bill Fitch had implemented a system of ball movement that I really liked, which I later learned was a version of the triangle that he’d picked up from Tex Winter.

There seemed to be no logic to the Knicks game we were watching. To me it looked like nothing more than a bunch of talented players running up and down the floor looking for shots.

Then the fight broke out.

Willis Reed, the Knicks’ imposing six-nine, 235-pound power forward got tangled up with forward Rudy LaRusso near the Lakers’ bench. Then there was a pause in the film, and when it started up again, Willis was shrugging several Lakers players off his back, before leveling center Darrall Imhoff and slugging LaRusso twice in the face. By the time they finally subdued him, Willis had also broken forward John Block’s nose and thrown center Hank Finkel to the ground.

Wow. We all jumped up in unison and shouted, “Run that back again!” Meanwhile, I’m thinking,
What have I gotten myself into? This is the guy I’m going to be going up against day in and day out in practice!

Actually, when I met Willis that summer, I found him to be a warm and friendly guy, who was dignified, bighearted, and a natural leader whom everyone respected. He had a commanding presence on the floor and he felt instinctively that his job was to protect his teammates. The Knicks expected Willis to be suspended for that incident in the game against L.A., but the league was more tolerant about fighting in those days and let it go. From that point on, big men around the league started thinking twice before getting into a tussle with Willis on the floor.

Reed wasn’t the only great leader on the Knicks. In fact, playing for New York during the championship years was like going to grad school in leadership. Forward Dave DeBusschere, who had been a player/coach for the Detroit Pistons before joining the Knicks, was an astute floor general. Forward Bill Bradley, the future U.S. senator, was gifted at building consensus among the players and helping them meld together into a team. Shooting guard Dick Barnett, who later earned a Ph.D. in education, used his biting wit to keep everyone from taking themselves too seriously. And Walt Frazier, my roommate during the first season, was a masterful point guard who served as the team’s quarterback on the floor.

But the man who taught me the most about leadership was the most unassuming of them all: Holzman himself.

The first time Red saw me play was during one of the worst games of my college career. I got into foul trouble early and never found my rhythm, as Louisiana Tech knocked us out in the first round of the NCAA small-college tournament. I scored 51 points in the consolation game against Parsons, but Red missed that one.

Nevertheless, Red must have seen something he liked because he grabbed Bill Fitch after the Louisiana Tech game and asked him, “Do you think Jackson can play for me?” Fitch didn’t hesitate. “Sure he can play for you,” he said, thinking that Red was looking for players who could handle full-court defense. It was only afterward that he realized that what Red really wanted to know was: Can this hick from North Dakota handle life in the Big Apple? Either way, Fitch says, his answer would have been the same.

Fitch was a hard-nosed coach—and ex-Marine—who ran practices as if they were Parris Island drills. He was a far cry from my mild-mannered Williston (North Dakota) high school coach, Bob Peterson, but I liked playing for him because he was tough, honest, and always pushing me to do better. Once, in my junior year, I got drunk during pledge week and made a fool of myself trying to lead a bunch of students in school cheers. When Fitch heard the story, he told me I would have to do push-ups every time I saw him on campus.

Still, I flourished in Fitch’s system. We played full-court pressure defense, and I loved it. At six-eight I was big enough to play center, but I was also quick and energetic and had a large wingspan, which made it easy for me to harass playmakers and pick off steals. My arms were so long, in fact, that I could sit in the backseat of a car and open both front doors at the same time without leaning forward. In college, my nickname was “the Mop” because I was always falling on the floor, chasing after loose balls.

During my junior year, I came into my own, averaging 21.8 points and 12.9 rebounds per game, and was named first team All-American. We won the conference title that year and made the small-college Final Four for the second year in a row, losing in a tight semifinal game to Southern Illinois. The next year I averaged 27.4 points and 14.4 rebounds and scored 50 points twice on the way to making the All-American first team again.

At first I thought that if I was going to be drafted by the NBA, I would be picked by the Baltimore Bullets, whose head scout, my future boss, Jerry Krause, had been eyeing me. But the Bullets were outmaneuvered by the Knicks, who picked me early in the second round (seventeenth overall), leaving Krause, who’d gambled that I wouldn’t go until the third round, kicking himself for years.

I was also drafted by the Minnesota Muskies in the American Basketball Association, which was attractive to me because it was closer to home. But Holzman wasn’t going to let the Muskies win. He visited me that summer in Fargo, North Dakota, where I was working as a camp counselor, and made me a better offer. He asked me if I had any reservations about signing with the Knicks, and I replied that I was thinking about going to graduate school to become a minister. He said that there would be plenty of time after I finished my pro career to pursue whatever else I wanted to do. He also reassured me that I could turn to him if I had difficulty dealing with New York City.

As it turned out, John Lindsay, New York’s mayor at the time, was in Fargo giving a speech at the organization where I was working. Red found the synchronicity of it all amusing. While I signed the contract that day, he said, “Can you imagine? The mayor of New York is here and everybody knows it. And you’re here getting signed and nobody knows it.”

That’s when I knew I’d found my mentor.

When I arrived at training camp in October, the Knicks were in a holding pattern. We were still waiting for our new star forward, Bill Bradley, to show up after finishing Air Force Reserve boot camp. In fact, we were conducting training camp at McGuire Air Force Base in the hope that he would be able to break away at some point and start practicing with the team.

Although our roster was loaded with talent, the leadership structure hadn’t yet been established. The putative top man was Walt Bellamy, a high-scoring center and future Hall of Famer. But Walt was constantly battling with Willis, who was much better suited for the lead role. At one point in the previous season, the two of them had run into each other and literally knocked themselves out fighting to establish position in the post. Dick Van Arsdale was the starting small forward, but many thought that Cazzie Russell was more talented. Meanwhile, Dick Barnett and Howard Komives made up a solid backcourt, but Barnett was still recovering from a torn Achilles tendon the year before.

On top of all that, it was clear that the players had lost confidence in coach Dick McGuire, whose nickname, “Mumbles,” said a lot about his inability to communicate with the team. So it wasn’t surprising when Ned Irish, president of the Knicks, moved McGuire to a scouting position in December and appointed Red head coach. Holzman was a tough, reserved New Yorker with a wry sense of humor and a strong basketball pedigree. A two-time All-American guard at City College of New York, he played for the Rochester Royals as a pro, winning two league championships, before becoming head coach of the Milwaukee/St. Louis Hawks.

Red was a master of simplicity. He didn’t espouse any particular system, nor did he stay up all night inventing plays. What he believed in was playing the game the right way, which to him meant moving the ball on offense and playing intense team defense. Red learned the game in the pre–jump shot era when five-man ball movement was far more prevalent than one-on-one creativity. He had two simple rules, which he shouted from the sidelines during every game:

See the ball.
Red focused much more attention on defense in practice because he believed that a strong defense was the key to everything. During one practice, Red, who could be extremely graphic when he needed to be, took copies of our plays and pretended to wipe his butt with them. “This is about how much good these things are,” he said, dropping the pages on the floor. That’s why he wanted us to learn to play defense together better, because once you did that, he believed, the offense would take care of itself.

In Red’s view, awareness was the secret to good defense. He stressed keeping your eye on the ball at all times and being acutely attuned to what was happening on the floor. The Knicks weren’t as big as other teams; nor did we have an overpowering shot blocker like the Celtics’ Bill Russell. So under Red’s direction, we developed a highly integrated style of defense that relied on the collective awareness of all five players rather than one man’s brilliant moves under the basket. With all five men working as one, it was easier to trap ball handlers, cut off passing lanes, exploit mistakes, and launch fast breaks before the other team could figure out what was going on.

Red loved using full-court pressure to throw opponents off their games. In fact, in my very first practice, we implemented a full-court press for the whole scrimmage. That was perfect for Walt Frazier, Emmett Bryant, and me, because we’d played full-court defense in college. My teammates dubbed me “Coat Hanger” and “Head and Shoulders” because of my physique, but I much preferred the name broadcaster Marv Albert gave me: “Action Jackson.” I knew that by playing forward instead of center, I was giving up my biggest strength—post play—but I could help the team out and get more time on the court by concentrating on defense. Besides, I didn’t possess a fifteen-foot jumper yet and my ball-handling skills were so sketchy that Red later gave me a two-dribble rule.

Hit the open man.
If Red were coaching today, he would be appalled at how self-absorbed the game has become. For him, selflessness was the holy grail of basketball. “This isn’t rocket science,” he would proclaim, adding that the best offensive strategy was to keep the ball moving among all five players to create shooting opportunities and make it hard for the other team to focus on one or two shooters. Even though we had some of the best shot creators in the game—notably Frazier and Earl “the Pearl” Monroe—Red insisted that everybody work together in unison to get the ball to the player with the best shot. If you decided to go solo, which few players ever attempted, you’d soon find yourself exiled to the end bench.

“On a good team there are no superstars,” Red insisted. “There are great players who show they are great players by being able to play with others as a team. They have the ability to be superstars, but if they fit into a good team, they make sacrifices, they do things necessary to help the team win. What the numbers are in salaries or statistics don’t matter; how they play together does.”

Few teams in the NBA have ever been as balanced offensively as the 1969–70 Knicks. We had six players who consistently scored in double figures and none who averaged much higher than 20 points a game. What made the team so hard to defend was that all five starters were clutch shooters, so if you double-teamed one man who happened to be hot, it would open up opportunities for the other four—all of whom could hit big shots.

One thing that fascinated me about Red was how much of the offense he turned over to the players. He let us design many of the plays and actively sought out our thinking about what moves to make in critical games. Many coaches have a hard time giving over power to their players, but Red listened intently to what the players had to say because he knew we had more intimate knowledge of what was happening on the floor than he did.

Red’s singular gift, however, was his uncanny ability to manage grown men and get them to come together with a common mission. He didn’t use sophisticated motivational techniques; he was just straightforward and honest. Unlike many coaches, he didn’t interfere in players’ personal lives unless they were up to something that would have a negative effect on the team.

When Red took over as coach, practices were laughably chaotic. Players often arrived late and brought their friends and relatives as spectators. The facilities had broken floors, warped wooden backboards, and showers without any hot water, and the practices themselves were largely uncontrolled scrimmages without any drills or exercises. Red put a stop to all that. He instituted what he called “silly fines” for tardiness and banished from practices everybody who wasn’t on the team, including the press. He ran tough, disciplined practices focused primarily on defense. “Practice doesn’t make perfect,” he used to say. “Perfect practice does.”

On the road, there were no curfews or bed checks. Red had only one rule: The hotel bar belonged to him. He didn’t care where you went or what you did as long as you didn’t interrupt his late-night scotch with trainer Danny Whelan and the beat writers. Although he was more accessible than other coaches, he felt it was important to maintain a certain distance from the players because he knew that someday he might have to cut or trade one of us.

If he needed to discipline you, he rarely did it in front of the team, unless it was related to your basketball play. Instead he would invite you to his “private office”: the locker-room toilet. He usually called me in to the toilet when I’d said something critical in the press about the team. I had good rapport with the reporters after years of playing cards together, and sometimes I had a tendency to be overly glib. Red was more circumspect. “Don’t you realize,” he’d say, “that these newspapers are going to be lining somebody’s birdcage tomorrow?”

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