Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success by Phil Jackson gets inside the mind of one of the greatest sports coaches of all time.
He won more championships than any coach in professional sports and made sure players fit into his style, not the other way around. Tagged as the “Zen Master” by sportswriters he used this philosophy to inspire not goad, awaken not challenge, and talked to the players desire to win, not their egos.
There are a few points in the book that were extremely interesting. He opens the book by comparing a winning sports team to a tight-knit military unit, talking about, “the strong brotherhood the soldiers formed, they were more concerned about what happened to their buddies than about what happened to themselves.” He then puts in an important disclaimer, that basketball players do not risk their lives every day like soldiers in Afghanistan. His point being that both a sports team and a military team need trust, love for each other, an ability to perform at the highest levels, and going beyond the purely technical skill or physical talent to succeed.
Another interesting point is the description he gave of his coaching style. He never believed in forcing his will on his players or thinking for his players. “I’ve always been interested in getting players to think for themselves so that they can make difficult decisions in the heat of battle.” Jackson emphasized throughout the book that “selflessness was the holy grail of basketball,” and that winning has no superstars just great players willing to work together. The real indication of a star is how much better he makes his teammates. Jackson also invoked the cliché that there is no “I” in the word team only in the word win.
He also explained about his trademark triangle offense. “The triangle is a simpler offense than most NBA teams run today. Best of all, it automatically stimulates creativity and teamwork, freeing players from having to memorize dozens of set plays.” He liked the fact that it empowers the players where each one plays a vital role, “All five players must be fully engaged every second-or the whole system will fail. That stimulates an ongoing process of group problem solving in real time.” Michael Jordan had to be convinced of this offense’s value, first calling it “that equal opportunity offense,” until he saw how it helped to win championships.
In the book Jackson discusses the many players he coached, pointing out how he dealt with each personality. He compared and contrasted Michael Jordan with Kobe Bryant, noting that Jordan once commented that “Kobe is the only player who can be compared to him, and I have to agree.” The similarities include their extraordinary competitive drive, disregard of pain, playing some of their best games under crippling conditions, and incredible resilience. The differences include having different playing styles with Jordan using his power and strength while Bryant uses his finesse. Jordan was a more accurate shooter and more inclined to not overplay. Jackson stated, “When his shot is off, Kobe will pound away relentlessly until his luck turns. Michael, on the other hand, would shift his attention to defense or passing or setting screens to help the team win the game.” The big difference according to Jackson is that Jordan was a much better leader and knew how to work with his teammates to make sure they were all on the same page while at times Bryant had a self-serving style.
The book also explores Jackson’s philosophy from humanistic psychology, to the Native American thinking process, to Zen mediation. Unless a reader wants to learn about these techniques they might want to skip over them and concentrate on his anecdotes and descriptions of his championship seasons where he won six times with the Chicago Bulls and five times with the Los Angeles Lakers, not to mention the two he won as a player with the New York Knicks.
Eleven Rings is full of revelations about how he became the greatest coach in professional basketball, the players he coached, and his own motivations to winning. Anyone that enjoys the game of basketball will enjoy this book.