Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Eleven Rings by Phil Jackson (Book Review #88 of 2015)

Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success
There was much less about practical coaching and management wisdom than I hoped for in this book. It's not evident that Jackson is reading and learning from other management and leadership works himself, or other coaches other than those who have already been with him for years. He quotes a few Buddhist works or proverbs but that's about it, so I found him to be pretty intellectually shallow despite being famous for giving his players books. "The soul of success is surrendering to what is" is supposed to mean something. Rather late in his career, after a few seasons with Kobe Bryant, Jackson writes he contacted a psychologist for advice. The advice seemed superficial at best "focus on positive reinforcement" and Jackson didn't use it long. This kind of helter skelter application of shallow psychology doesn't strike me as very well-educated or thoughtful.

Jackson learned a lot of his coaching from Red Holzman while playing for the Knicks. One lesson from Holzman was when asked the difference between winning and losing: "I go home, drink a scotch, and enjoy the delicious meal my wife is cooking." Jackson returns back to the Zen proverb of what one does both before and after enlightenment: Chop wood, carry water. Jackson revels in breaking Holzman rival Red Auerbach's championship record.

There are a few points Jackson makes up front about how he tried to instill teamwork into the Bulls and Lakers. One that stood out was: "Turn the mundane into the sacred." Rituals build unity, this is reminiscent of Charles Duhig's The Power of Habit. For example, Jackson has his teams stand in a circle before and after practice, everything in a circle. He calls the team area the "tribal room," etc. Sometimes he even led tense Laker teams in silent moments to synchronize their breath. He is famous for giving his players books on road trips, and he recounts which books he gave which players. This practice has earned Jackson the reputation as being somehow book smart, whereas as I point out elsewhere that doesn't really seem to be the case.

Generally, there doesn't appear much that sets apart Jackson from other coaches other than the rings. Having read books by other championship coaches I was interested to see if there were any lessons or daily principles they follow. The only constant with Jackson appears to be meditation for stress relief and emotional regulation. But the meditation doesn't help his anger issues and he deals with years of repressed anger after his daughter is assaulted and Kobe Bryant is arrested on similar charges. His parents were Pentecostals who erroneously taught him that "anger was wrong" (Jesus got angry plenty, after all), and this had harmful consequences for him. Given some of his other behavior, I find his method of zen meditation rather unappealing and incomplete. He's had broken marriage, a range of ups and downs with his players and management, and I don't see any particular reason for his success other than acquiring big-market talent. Sometimes that talent agreed to work together and with him, at other times it didn't. He had issues with management at every stop.

One omission that stands out is any praise for other coaches like Gregg Popovich of the Spurs who consistently beat the Lakers with the non-flashy, team basketball that Jackson apparently espouses. But Popovich and co. don't get nearly the media attention or the book deals. The only coaches Jackson praises are those on teams that he beats, like the staff of Larry Bird's Pacers. He clearly dislikes Pat Riley. He doesn't praise any of the teams that beat the ego-driven Lakers, or admit the contradiction of humbler teams dismantling his own.

Last year I listened to Ronald Lazenby's biography of Michael Jordan, so I had a vivid picture in my mind of Jackson's years with the Bulls and was eager to hear his own take. Jackson's version of those years is pretty scrubbed or wasn't much I hadn't heard before. Jackson inherited a Bulls team that was peaking under the greatest and most competitive player who ever lived. He doesn't have much negative to say about anyone in Chicago other than Jerry Krauss. In Lazenby's book, he claims (from one of Phil's other books?) that Jackson leaked dirt on Jordan for Sam Smith's book The Jordan Rules. The book infuriated Jordan and Jackson apparently had done so to motivate him. An assistant coach took the heat and got fired. Jackson simply writes in Eleven Rings that he tried to save the assistant coach. Contra Lazenby's account, Jordan isn't found on the back of the team bus drinking beer with Ron Harper while relentlessly haranguing Krauss after games. In Eleven Rings, it's Scottie Pippen who once gets drunk and tells off management. Jordan comes across as somewhat selfish, but is contrasted later as much more selfless than Kobe Bryant, who Jackson had a real feud with. Jackson recounts a funny story of a team manager assigned to watch Rodman during a road trip and the cross-country adventure he took him on. In the end, the Bulls players hated their management and the management couldn't afford to pay them all.

Jackson seems to have a difficult time communicating with his players, and on at least one occasion in the book an assistant pulls him aside to correct him. Jackson provides no insights on how he chose his assistants (other than Tex Winter), mentors them, delegates tasks, etc. They just exist in the background. Jackson plays the media against his players sometimes, leaking things or making side remarks to the media that enrage his players; Kobe made it a condition of playing for him in his last stint with the Lakers that he "be more discreet with the media." Then Jackson reacts incredulously when a player gives an interview blasting his teammates and angst ensues.

Jackson's attempt to "bring the Buddha" to the Lakers for a championship is somewhat amusing but definitely not a magical experience. Kobe Bryant is vilified as an immature, selfish jerk. Then, later noted for being a good teammate and talking like someone who meditates and has found his inner self. Kobe admits that Phil is right and that he grew as a person. Then, we go back to Kobe the selfish jerk who yells at teammates to "give me the damn ball" and causes the team to self-destruct.

Jackson makes no secret of favoring Shaq, creating a rift between himself and Jerry Buss and Kobe Bryant by demanding they trade Kobe. This despite the fact that Shaq shows up overweight and out of shape every fall and takes half the season to get back to form every year, something Kobe couldn't stand. After one year of working together, Shaq and Bryant decide they can't coexist. Jackson introduces Shaq to Sidartha to warn him away from materialism; an unrepentant Shaq writes a book report.

Maybe as the last dig at Kobe, Jackson writes a paragraph comparing him with Michael Jordan. Jordan was stronger, making him a better defender and rebounder. He was a less-selfish teammate and found other ways to help his team when his shot wasn't falling. He shot a higher FG% (partly by driving more to the basket) at his peak and only relied on his fadeaway in the later years. Kobe, on the other hand, relies on his jumper more and shoots a lower FG%. He famously doesn't pass the ball if he wants his shot and doesn't play defense with any great intensity. Rick Fox apparently wrote that Kobe competes with himself and didn't behave the same way off the court as on, while MJ was competitive in everything non-stop.

I give this book 2 stars out of 5. If you're an avid Lakers and Bulls fan you might want this book, but you've probably already read what's in it. There are no great insights into managing a coaching staff or finding a way to maximize the strengths of your team to win if you don't have Hall of Fame talent on it.

No comments: