By Bruce Andriatch
nEWS bOOK rEVIEWER
The stereotypical version of the successful professional sports coach tends to fall into two camps: the fire-and-brimstone, my-way-or-the-highway authoritarian (see Vince Lombardi) or the quiet, cerebral, master tactician and innovator (see Bill Walsh).
Phil Jackson, the man who has won more championships than any other head coach in the relatively brief history of the National Basketball Association, is closer to the latter than the former.
In truth, he is neither. The fact that he defies easy comparison to others who came before and cannot be pigeonholed into this kind of coach or that kind of leader is part of what makes him fascinating. And not just to basketball fans.
But it’s only a small part.
In “Eleven Rings,” co-written with Hugh Delehanty – the book title refers to the 11 NBA titles Jackson won, six as coach of the Chicago Bulls and five with the Los Angeles Lakers – Jackson attempts to explain how a boy who seemed destined for a life of Bible-thumping following a deeply religious childhood as the son of Protestant ministers would one day be regarded as one of the greatest coaches ever to prowl a hardwood sideline.
What the reader gets instead is his autobiographical account of a long and winding spiritual journey interwoven with his recollection of his years as a player, mostly for the New York Knicks (with whom he won another championship); the start of his coaching career; and the 11 seasons that ended with him earning the right to wear rings that tell the world that for that one year, no NBA team was better than the one that he led.
Phil Jackson’s story is a compelling one, worthy of the kind of in-depth examination that would allow readers to understand and perhaps even emulate him. But “Eleven Rings” is shallow. Interesting, certainly, as would any good story told by the person who experienced it, but it left this reader wanting more.
It’s his first-person account of the parts of his life he wants to share: basketball and spirituality, not necessarily in that order. But the other key moments in his life that affected how he lived and coached get short shrift: his marriages and the subsequent break-ups; how being a pro basketball coach affected his relationship with his children; how his shift from traditional religion to a more holistic approach affected his relationship with his much more traditional parents; how his prostate cancer diagnosis changed him, unless it didn’t.
If you read this book in the hopes of finding out what makes Phil Jackson tick, you’re going to have to take Phil Jackson’s word for it. If you’re looking for the complete Phil Jackson story, you will have wait for another day and another author.
Having said that, this is not – as Diane Chambers said on the TV show “Cheers” many years ago – “another thick-headed jock epic.” The main reason it is not is because Jackson’s coaching philosophy – including his near perfection along with longtime assistant Tex Winter of the “Triangle Offense” that brought him all those titles – is gleaned not just from studying the intricacies of the game but on his lifelong quest to understand his place in the world and how best to relate with the other people who live in it.
That’s not something we’re accustomed to seeing from our modern sports idols, who largely seem content to mouth platitudes and sound bites suitable for ESPN while collecting huge paychecks.
Jackson is as close to a renaissance man as we get in sports today. He is as comfortable writing about poetry and literature as he is the benefits of a man-to-man versus a zone defense. He knows as much about jazz the music as he does about The Jazz the team from Utah, sprinkling the book with references to – and the words of – such giants as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Thelonius Monk.
“I’ve always felt that there is a strong connection between music and basketball,” he writes. “The game is inherently rhythmic in nature and requires the same kind of selfless, nonverbal communication you find in the best jazz combos.”
He then quotes Steve Lacy, who played with Monk, and wrote a list of Monk’s advice. Among the words to live by:
• Just because you’re not the drummer doesn’t mean you don’t have to keep time.
• Don’t play everything (or every time); let some things go by … What you don’t play can be more important than what you do.
• Whatever you think can’t be done, someone will come along and do it.
But while music provides the soundtrack playing in the background, religion is the theme that weaves its way through Jackson’s life. As a child, feeling constrained by the limitations placed on him by his parents, he sought out basketball as a way to escape “my nearly 24-7 life at church.” He began exploring other spiritual approaches in college.
“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,” he wrote. “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.”
His quest eventually led him to Zen Buddhism and meditation, a discovery that helped him develop a temperament and management style that aligned perfectly with what the superstar-laden Bulls, including the greatest player in the game’s history, Michael Jordan, and later the Lakers, with future Hall of Famers Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, would need to reach the (lowercase) promised land of NBA glory.
The three Zen aspects he lists as being critical to his success are: giving up control; trusting the moment; and living with compassion.
(Watch any NBA game any day and decide for yourself if any other coaches are practicing what he preaches. Hint: They’re not.)
The majority of the book is taken up by Jackson’s account of his championship years, from the 1990-91 Bulls who finally figured out a way to get past their nemeses on the Detroit Pistons on the way to the title, to the 2009-2010 Lakers, who became Bryant’s team when he finally accepted that he needed Jackson, not the other way around.
Anyone looking for the inside story of those teams and those years will enjoy reliving them through the eyes of the man responsible for the success. Anyone looking for more will have to take another lesson from Jackson and continue searching.
Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success
By Phil Jackson
368 pages, $27.95
Bruce Andriatch is the assistant managing editor of The News in charge of the Features Department.