Read Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success Online

Authors: Phil Jackson,Hugh Delehanty

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

Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success (5 page)

BOOK: Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success
6.84Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

I put that search on a back burner during my early years in the NBA. But when I moved to Chelsea, I befriended a psychology grad student and devout Muslim named Hakim who reignited my interest in spirituality and inspired me to explore meditation.

One summer in Montana I recruited a neighbor, Ron Fetveit, who was an observant Christian, to help me fix my leaky roof. While we were repairing shingles, we got into a long conversation about spiritual matters, and I confessed that I had a difficult time relating to his faith because of my childhood experience. “I know where you’re coming from,” he said, “but you know, there is no such thing as a grandchild of God. You are not your parents. You need to develop your own personal relationship with God.”

At that point, I began quietly searching for spiritual practices that might work for me. One of my early discoveries was Joel S. Goldsmith, an innovative author, mystic, and former Christian Science healer who had founded his own movement, known as the Infinite Way. What attracted me to his work was his wholesale rejection of organization, ritual, and dogma. In his view, spirituality was a personal journey, period, and he designed his talks so that they could be interpreted from a wide range of perspectives. I was especially intrigued by Goldsmith’s take on meditation, which he saw as a way to experience inner silence and plug into your intuitive wisdom. I’d always thought of meditation as a therapeutic technique for quieting the mind and feeling more balanced. But Goldsmith showed me that it could also be a substitute for prayer, a doorway to the divine.

Over time I moved on to other practices, but the Infinite Way was eye-opening for me. It was a stepping-stone from the rigid spirituality I’d been raised on to a broader vision of spiritual practice. When I was young, my mother used to cram my head with biblical scriptures every day because she believed that an idle mind was the devil’s playground. But I thought that just the opposite was true. I wasn’t interested in filling my head with more noise. I wanted to rest my mind and allow myself to just be.

Around this time I met my future wife, June, at my regular pinochle game in New York. She was a warm, fun-loving woman who had graduated from the University of Connecticut with a social-work degree. Our romance blossomed during a summer motorcycle trip around the Northwest, and we were married in 1974. Our first child, Chelsea, was born the next year, and our daughter Brooke, and twin sons, Charley and Ben, followed soon after.

One summer shortly after Chelsea was born, June and I went to visit my brother Joe and his new partner—June’s sister, Deborah—who were living together in a commune in Taos, New Mexico. Joe had been a practicing Sufi for years and had recently left his teaching job in Buffalo to live at the Lama Foundation, a community dedicated to integrating spiritual practices from a wide range of traditions.

Sufism is a form of Islamic mysticism that focuses primarily on shifting consciousness from the personal to the divine. Sufis believe that you can’t free yourself from identifying with the small, individual self unless you give yourself over to the power of the sacred. That means surrendering to what Sufi master Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan calls “the magical spell of unconditional love—that ecstatic embrace that bridges the separation between lover and beloved.”

The Sufis at the Lama Foundation spent a good part of the day trying to connect with the divine through meditation, devotions, and an ecstatic form of chanting and bowing called
. Joe was attracted by the physicality of the practice, with its repetitive, dancelike movements designed to shift consciousness.

But after taking part in the rituals for several weeks, I decided that Sufism wasn’t the right path for me. I was looking for a practice that would help me control my hyperactive mind.

A few years later I hired Joe to help me build a new house on Flathead Lake in Montana. After completing the frame, we brought in a construction worker to help us finish the job. He’d been studying Zen at the Mount Shasta monastery in northern California and had a calm, focused manner, along with a no-nonsense approach to work. I’d been interested in learning more about Zen ever since I’d read Shunryu Suzuki’s classic,
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
. Suzuki, a Japanese teacher who played a key role in bringing Zen Buddhism to the West, talked about learning to approach each moment with a curious mind that is free of judgment. “If your mind is empty,” he writes, “it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”

Joe and I joined our friend’s group that summer and started sitting
—a form of meditation—with a group once a week. What appealed to me about Zen practice was its inherent simplicity. It didn’t involve chanting mantras or visualizing complex images, as had other practices I’d tried. Zen is pragmatic, down to earth, and open to exploration. It doesn’t require you to subscribe to a certain set of principles or take anything on faith; in fact, Zen encourages practitioners to question
. Zen teacher Steve Hagen writes, “Buddhism is about
. It’s about knowing rather than believing or hoping or wishing. It’s also about not being afraid to examine anything and everything, including your own personal agendas.”

Shunryu Suzuki’s instructions on how to meditate are simple:

  1. Sit with your spine straight, your shoulders relaxed, and your chin pulled in, “as if you were supporting the sky with your head.”
  2. Follow your breath with your mind as it moves in and out like a swinging door.
  3. Don’t try to stop your thinking. If a thought arises, let it come, then let it go and return to watching your breath. The idea is not to try to control your mind but to let thoughts rise and fall naturally over and over again. After some practice, the thoughts will start to float by like passing clouds and their power to dominate consciousness will diminish.

According to Suzuki, meditation helps you do things “with a quite simple, clear mind” with “no notion or shadows.” Most people have two or three ideas running in their heads whenever they do something, and that leaves “traces” of thoughts that cause confusion and are difficult to let go of. “In order not to leave any traces, when you do something,” he writes, “you should do it with your whole body and mind, you should be concentrated on what you do. You should do it completely, like a good bonfire.”

It took me years of practice to still my busy mind, but in the process I discovered that the more aware I became of what was going on inside me, the more connected I became to the world outside. I became more patient with others and calmer under pressure—qualities that helped me immensely when I became a coach.

Three aspects of Zen have been critical to me as a leader:


Suzuki writes, “If you want to obtain perfect calmness in your zazen, you should not be bothered by the various images you find in your mind. Let them come and let them go. Then they will be under control.”

The best way to control people, he adds, is to give them a lot of room and encourage them to be mischievous, then watch them. “To ignore them is not good; that is the worst policy,” he writes. “The second worst is trying to control them. The best one is to watch them, just to watch them, without trying to control them.”

This piece of advice came in handy later when I was dealing with Dennis Rodman.


Most of us spend the bulk of our time caught up in thoughts of the past or the future—which can be dangerous if your job is winning basketball games. Basketball takes place at such a lightning pace that it’s easy to make mistakes and get obsessed with what just happened or what might happen next, which distracts you from the only thing that really matters—
very moment.

Practicing Zen not only helped me become more acutely aware of what was happening in the present moment but also slowed down my experience of time because it diminished my tendency to rush into the future or get lost in the past. Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh talks about “dwelling happily in the present moment,” because that’s where everything you need is available. “Life can be found only in the present moment,” he writes. “The past is gone, and the future is not yet here, and if we do not go back to ourselves in the present moment, we cannot be in touch with life.”


One aspect of Buddhism that I found to be especially compelling was the teachings on compassion. The Buddha was known as the “compassionate one,” and according to religion scholars, his moral teachings bear a close resemblance to those of Jesus, who told his followers at the Last Supper: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” In a similar vein, the Buddha said, “Just as a mother would protect her only child at the risk of her own life, even so, cultivate a boundless heart towards all beings. Let your thoughts of boundless love pervade the whole world.”

In the Buddhist view, the best way to cultivate compassion is to be fully present in the moment. “To meditate,” said the Buddha, “is to listen with a receptive heart.” In her book
Start Where You Are
, Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron contends that meditation practice blurs the traditional boundaries between self and others. “What you do for yourself—any gesture of kindness, any gesture of gentleness, any gesture of honesty and clear seeing toward yourself—will affect how you experience the world,” she writes. “What you do for yourself, you’re doing for others, and what you do for others, you’re doing for yourself.”

This idea would later become a key building block in my work as a coach.

In the meantime I still had a job to do as a player.

In the 1971–72 season Red Holzman, who was then general manager as well as head coach, made a number of moves that transformed the Knicks. First he traded Cazzie Russell to the San Francisco Warriors for Jerry Lucas, a strong, active big man who had a good twenty-five-foot shot but could also handle powerful centers like Dave Cowens and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Next, Red shipped Mike Riordan and Dave Stallworth to Baltimore for Earl “the Pearl” Monroe, probably the most creative ball handler in the game at that time. Red also drafted Dean “the Dream” Meminger, a quick, long-legged guard from Marquette who was a terror on defense.

With this new infusion of talent, we morphed into a more versatile team than we’d ever been before. We had more size and depth, a broader array of scoring options than the 1969–70 team, plus the perfect blend of individual skill and team consciousness. Some of us worried that Monroe might try to upstage Frazier in the backcourt, but Earl adapted himself to Walt’s game and added a dazzling new dimension to the offense. With Lucas, a passing magician, at center, we transformed from a power team into a multifaceted perimeter team, keying on fifteen-foot jump shots as well as layups. Red made me the prime backup to Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley—and I was energized in my new role. This was pure basketball at its finest, and I fit right in.

The only team we worried about in 1972–73 was the Celtics, who had dominated the Eastern Conference with a 68-14 record. In the four years since Bill Russell’s departure, GM Red Auerbach had re-created the team in the classic Celtics tradition, with a strong, active center (Dave Cowens), a sly outside shooter (Jo Jo White), and one of the best all-around players in the game (John Havlicek).

Holzman wasn’t a huge fan of Auerbach’s because he used every trick he could to give his team an edge. Auerbach was a master of gamesmanship. One of his trademark ploys was to light a cigar when he thought his team had won the game, which infuriated his opponents, especially when the score was still close.

But Auerbach outdid himself in the 1973 playoffs, and it ultimately backfired on him. We met the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals after beating Baltimore 4–1 in the first round. Boston had the home-court advantage in the series, and Auerbach took full advantage of it. Whenever we played in Boston, Auerbach made our lives miserable: He’d put us in locker rooms where the keys didn’t work, the towels were missing, and the heat was set at over one hundred degrees and we couldn’t open the windows. For this series, he put us in a different locker room for every game, and the last one—for game 7—was a cramped janitor’s closet with no lockers and a ceiling so low many of us had to stoop to get dressed. Rather than demoralize us, as Auerbach no doubt expected, the locker-room gambit made us so angry it galvanized us even more.

No one had ever beaten the Celtics at home in a game 7 before, but we were still confident, because we had dominated Boston with our full-court press early in the series. The night before the big game, we were watching film of game 6 and noticed that Jo Jo White was killing us coming off high screens. Meminger, who was covering Jo Jo, started to get defensive, and Holzman snapped back. “I don’t give a damn about the screen,” he said. “Find a way to get through the screen and stop this guy. Don’t bitch about the screen, just get the job done.”

The next day Dean was a man possessed. He went at Jo Jo early and shut him down, effectively short-circuiting the Celtics’ offensive game plan. Then Dean came alive on the other end, breaking through the Celtics’ press and igniting a decisive 37–22 run in the second half. After that, Boston never recovered. The final score was Knicks 94, Celtics 78.

I’ve never seen Red Holzman happier than he was that night in the Boston janitor’s closet. It meant a great deal to him to beat his nemesis, Auerbach, on his own turf. Beaming with joy, he came over to me and said with a wry smile, “You know, Phil, sometimes life is a mystery and you can’t tell the difference between good and evil that clearly. But this is one of those times when good definitely triumphed over evil.”

The championship series against the Lakers was anticlimactic. They surprised us in the first game, but we closed down their running game after that and won in five. The postgame celebration in L.A. was a fizzle: just a handful of reporters standing around looking for quotes. But I didn’t care. I finally had a ring I could call my own.

BOOK: Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success
6.84Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

08 - The Girl Who Cried Monster by R.L. Stine - (ebook by Undead)
Primal Heat 3 by A. C. Arthur
Francie by Emily Hahn
Fakebook by Dave Cicirelli
My Time in the Affair by Stylo Fantome
Lord Keeper by Tarah Scott
Together Alone by Barbara Delinsky
Gnomeo and Juliet by Disney Book Group
Yesterday's Echo by Matt Coyle