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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Tex was a master at this. He had developed a whole series of drills to teach players how to execute fundamentals. He trained them to create the right amount of spacing between one another on the floor and to coordinate their movements according to a basic set of rules. As far as Tex was concerned, the genius was in the details, and it didn’t matter whether you were Michael Jordan or the lowest rookie on the team; Tex would badger you until you got it right.

Every year Tex, who loved inspirational sayings, would recite to the team his favorite proverb about the importance of learning the details:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.

For want of a shoe the horse was lost.

For want of a horse the rider was lost.

For want of a rider the message was lost.

For want of a message the battle was lost.

For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.

And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

One thing I liked about Tex’s system, from a leadership perspective, was that it
depersonalized criticism
. It gave me the ability to critique the players’ performance without making them think I was attacking them personally. Pro basketball players are highly sensitive to criticism because almost everything they do is judged on a daily basis by coaches, the media, and just about anyone who owns a TV set. The beauty of the system—and this applies to all kinds of systems, not just the triangle—was that it turned the whole team into a
learning organization
. Everybody from Michael on down had something to learn, no matter how talented or untalented he was. So when I came down hard on a player in practice, he understood that I was merely trying to get him to understand how to work the triangle offense. As I said earlier, the road to freedom is a beautiful system.

Another aspect of the system I liked was its reliability; it gave the players something to fall back on when they were under stress. They didn’t have to pretend to be like Mike and invent every move they made. All they had to do was play their part in the system, knowing that it would inevitably lead to good scoring opportunities.

The system also gave players a clear purpose as a group and established a high standard of performance for everyone. Even more important, it helped turn players into leaders as they began teaching one another how to master the system. When that happened, the group would bond together in ways that moments of individual glory, no matter how thrilling, could never foster.


Doug Collins wasn’t as enamored with the system as I was. When he took over the Bulls in 1986, he made an effort to implement it, but he soon abandoned it because it didn’t fit well with the defense he wanted to run. Collins was a strong believer in one of Hank Iba’s cardinal rules: The guards should be on their way to half-court for defensive purposes when the ball is rebounded or inbounded. The challenge with the triangle offense is that it often requires guards to move into one of the corners to create a triangle with two other players. That makes it harder for them to get back on fast breaks.

So Doug moved away from the triangle but didn’t replace it with another system. Instead he had the players learn a repertoire of forty to fifty plays that were constantly in flux. Then he would call plays from the sidelines as the game progressed, based on what he saw happening on the floor. This style of coaching, which is not uncommon in the NBA, was well suited to Doug. He had exceptional court vision and got energized by being actively involved in the game. The downside was that it made the players overly dependent on his minute-by-minute direction. It also turned everybody except Michael into a supporting actor, because many of the plays were designed to capitalize on his scoring genius. Too often the Bulls offense consisted of four players creating room for M.J. to work his magic, then watching him do it. The press had already started referring to the Bulls sarcastically as Jordan and the Jordanaires.

During training camp that first year, I told Doug I thought Michael was doing too much on his own and needed to emulate Magic and Bird in the way they worked with their teammates and transformed them into a team. I added that Red Holzman used to say that “the real mark of a star was how much better he made his teammates.”

“That’s great, Phil,” Doug replied. “You’ve got to tell Michael that. Why don’t you go tell him right now?”

I hesitated. “I’ve only been here a month, Doug. I’m not sure I know Michael well enough to tell him something Red told me.” But Doug insisted that I go explain to Michael “the mark of a star.”

So I went down to the media room where Michael was talking to reporters and pulled him aside. This was my first real conversation with Michael, and I was a little embarrassed. I told him Doug thought he should hear what Holzman had to say about being a star, and I repeated Red’s famous line. Michael studied me for a few seconds, then said, “Okay, thanks,” and walked away.

I’m not sure what Michael thought of my pronouncement at the time, but what I learned later was that he was much more coachable than other stars because he had such a deep respect for his college coach, Dean Smith. He also had a keen interest in doing whatever it took to win his first NBA championship.

The only other occasion when I had a personal exchange with M.J. while an assistant coach was at a season-ticket-holder luncheon in Chicago. My son, Ben, who was in grade school, was a huge Jordan fan. He had several pictures of Michael in his room and had told one of his teachers that his dream in life was to meet his idol. The year before, when we were living in Woodstock, I had taken Ben to see the Bulls play the Celtics in Boston and he had waited for a long time after the game to get Michael’s autograph. But when M.J. finally emerged from the locker room, he’d walked by without stopping. So now that I was with the Bulls I decided to take Ben to the season ticket holders’ luncheon and introduce him to Michael in person. When we were there, I told M.J. about Ben’s long wait in the Boston Garden. Michael smiled and was very gracious toward Ben, but I felt a little uncomfortable about putting him on the spot.

After that, I made a point of not asking M.J. for any special favors. I wanted our relationship to be squeaky clean. I didn’t want to be his tool. Later, when I took over as head coach, I made it a policy to give Michael a lot of space. I took care to create a protected environment for him where he could relate freely with his teammates and be himself without worrying about intrusions from the outside world. Even in those early days, the clamor of fans trying to get a little piece of Michael Jordan was mind-boggling. He couldn’t go out to restaurants without being hounded, and the workers at most hotels would line up outside his room looking for autographs. One night after a game in Vancouver, we literally had to peel dozens of Jordan worshippers off the team bus before we could pull out of the parking lot.

One of the players I worked with closely during my tenure as an assistant coach was Scottie Pippen. We both started with the team the same year, and I spent a lot of time helping him learn how to pull up and shoot off the dribble. Scottie was a quick learner and devoted time to absorbing how the triangle worked. He had been a point guard in college before becoming a small forward, and he had an innate sense of how all the pieces fit together on the floor. Scottie had long arms and excellent court vision, which made him the perfect person to spearhead our defensive attack.

What impressed me most about Scottie, however, was his development over time as a leader—not by mimicking Michael but by teaching his teammates how to play within the system and always offering a compassionate ear when they ran into trouble. This was critical because Michael wasn’t very accessible and many of the players were intimidated by his presence. Scottie was someone they could talk to, someone who would keep an eye out for them on court. As Steve Kerr says, “Scottie was the nurturer; Michael was the enforcer.”


The Bulls started to take off during my first season with the team, 1987–88. We won fifty games and finished tied for second in the tough Central Division. Michael continued to soar, winning his second scoring title and his first MVP award. The best sign was the 3–2 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of the playoffs. But the Pistons rolled over the Bulls in five games in the conference finals, en route to the championship finals, against the Los Angeles Lakers.

During the off-season Jerry Krause traded Charles Oakley to the Knicks for Bill Cartwright, a move that infuriated Michael because he considered Oakley his protector on the floor. Jordan made fun of Cartwright’s “butterfingers” and dubbed him “Medical Bill” because of his ongoing foot problems. But despite his small shoulders and narrow frame, Bill was a smart, rock-solid defender who could shut down Patrick Ewing and other big men. Once we ran a drill in practice that ended up pitting six-six Michael against seven-one Cartwright in a one-on-one battle of wills. Michael was determined to dunk over Cartwright, but Bill was equally determined not to let that happen. So they collided in midair and everyone held their breath while Bill slowly eased Michael to the floor. After that, Michael changed his tune on Cartwright.

Cartwright wasn’t the only weapon the team needed to move to the next level. Collins was pushing hard for Krause to find a strong, playmaking point guard who could orchestrate the offense like Isiah Thomas did in Detroit. But the team had already gone through several point guards—including Sedale Threatt, Steve Colter, and Rory Sparrow—trying to find someone who would meet Jordan’s expectations. The latest candidate was Sam Vincent, who had come over in a trade with Seattle, but he didn’t last long. So Doug decided to make Jordan the point guard, which worked fairly well but reduced M.J.’s scoring options and wore him down physically during the regular season.

At one point, Doug got into a heated argument with Tex about the point-guard dilemma. Tex suggested that if Doug instituted a system of offense—not necessarily the triangle but any system—he wouldn’t have to rely so heavily on a point guard to run the offense. By this time, Doug had grown weary of listening to Tex’s constant stream of criticism, so he decided to banish him to the sidelines and reduce his role as a coach.

When Krause heard about this move, he began to lose faith in Collins’s judgment. Why would anyone in his right mind exile Tex Winter to Siberia? The players seemed to be losing faith in Doug as well. He changed plays so frequently—often modifying them in the middle of games—that team members began to refer to the offense flippantly as “a play a day.”

A critical point came during a game in Milwaukee right before Christmas. Doug got into a battle with the refs and was tossed out late in the first half. He turned the team over to me and handed me his play card. The Bulls were so far behind, I decided to run a full-court press and give the players a free hand running the offense, rather than calling Doug’s plays. The team quickly turned the game around and we won handily.

What I didn’t realize until later was that toward the end of the game the Chicago TV broadcast showed my wife, June, sitting next to Krause and his wife, Thelma, in the stands. That, as much as anything else, created a great deal of tension between Doug and me over the next few months.

A few weeks later, I was in Miami planning to scout a game when I got a call from Krause telling me that he didn’t want me to be away from the team anymore. Doug and Michael, I learned later, had gotten in an argument of some kind, and Jerry wanted me available to step in if there was more friction on the team. Soon after, Jerry began to take me into his confidence.

Eventually things settled down, and the Bulls stumbled through the rest of the season, finishing fifth in the conference with three fewer wins than the previous year. But the addition of Cartwright and the rise of Pippen and Grant made the team much better positioned than before to make a strong run in the playoffs.

The first round against the Cavaliers went all five games, but Michael was bursting with confidence when he boarded the bus for the finale in Cleveland. He lit a cigar and said, “Don’t worry, guys. We’re going to win.” Cleveland’s Craig Ehlo almost made him eat his words when he put the Cavs ahead by one with seconds left. But Michael responded with a balletic double-clutch shot, with Ehlo draped all over him, to win the game, 101–100. Afterward Tex said to me, “I guess now they won’t be changing coaches anytime soon.” I had to smile. I didn’t care, because we were on our way to the Eastern Conference finals. The Bulls had come a long way from their 40-42 record the year before I’d joined the team.

Next we faced the Pistons, and, as usual, it was an ugly affair. Chicago won the first game at the Silverdome, but after that the Pistons overpowered the Bulls with their intimidating defense and won the series, 4–2. Krause told me later that midway through that series he told owner Jerry Reinsdorf that the team needed to replace Collins with someone who could win a championship.

After the playoffs I attended the NBA’s talent showcase in Chicago, an event organized by the league for draft-eligible players to show off their skills to coaches and scouts. While I was there, Dick McGuire, my first coach with the Knicks, asked me if I would be interested in replacing New York’s head coach, Rick Pitino, who was leaving to coach the University of Kentucky. I said I would, and suddenly the wheels were in motion.

Shortly after that, Reinsdorf invited me to meet him at O’Hare Airport. I’d always liked Jerry because he had grown up in Brooklyn and was a big fan of the Knicks’ selfless style of basketball. He’d gotten wind of my interest in the New York job and asked me if I could choose, which team I’d rather coach, the Bulls or the Knicks. I said I had a lot of affection for New York, having played there, but I also thought the Bulls were poised to win multiple championships, while the Knicks would be lucky to win one. In short, I said I’d rather stay with the Bulls.

A few weeks later Krause called me in Montana and asked me to go to a secure phone. So I drove my motorcycle into town and called him back from a pay phone. He told me that he and Reinsdorf had decided to make a coaching change, and he offered me the job.

BOOK: Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success
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