Book Review: ‘Eleven Rings’ by Phil Jackson & Hugh Delehanty
I’ve really been getting into sports books lately, so I decided to tackle Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success, the latest from the Zen master, Phil Jackson, the winningest coach in NBA history.
As the title suggests, Jackson has 11 NBA championship rings as a coach (does that make him…Sauron?), comprising the 6 he won with the Michael Jordan-led Bulls in two separate three-peats in the 90s, the three-peat he accomplished with the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers at the turn of the century, and the two more he added with Kobe and Gasol in 2009 and 2010. That doesn’t even include the two he won as a bench player with the Knicks in the 70s (though “13 Rings” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it).
There were a couple of reasons I became attracted to the book. First, Jackson is the only man to have guided both Jordan and Kobe to multiple titles and hence the only man who could give detailed and personal accounts of how these two ultra-competitive alpha dogs behaved on and off the court. I wanted those juicy, sordid details, dammit!
Secondly, I’ve become increasingly fascinated with how the minds of successful people operate and how they differ to us mere mortals. What is it that drives them to succeed? Why are they awesome and I’m not? How can I also be awesome?
The narrative structure of the book is straightforward and follows Jackson through each of his 11 title runs, plus a short history of his playing days. You would expect the seasons to get a little repetitive after a few years, but each one is surprisingly different and has its own set of unique challenges. As Jackson says, the second one (in each set of championships) is usually harder than the first because the egos start rising to the surface, and the third becomes even more difficult because players start thinking they know it all.
While Eleven Rings does provide some of the things I had expected, it was ultimately a bit of a disappointment because it lacked the depth and special insights I had hoped for. The book was “co-written” by Jackson and Hugh Delehanty (who previously worked with Jackson on Sacred Hoops), though I had a feeling while reading the book that Delehanty might have done most of the heavy lifting in the writing process. As a result, the narrative felt somewhat artificial in some respects.
Most readers would have an idea of the basic details such as who the Bulls beat for their first title (the Lakers), who they had to overcome to get there (the Pistons), and so forth, so what I was looking for was the added depth Jackson’s unique perspective could provide. Instead, the book ended up glossing over much of the stuff I wanted to learn about the most — the hardest-hitting stories, the unknown intimate details, the “real” behind-the-scenes anecdotes no one but Jackson and maybe his inner circle could divulge.
To be fair, the book did address some of the things I was curious about — such as Jordan’s gambling, how Jackson handled the antics of wild child Dennis Rodman, the Shaq-Kobe feud, the Kobe rape allegations. It was interesting to find out that the first thing Kobe said to Jordan when the two came face to face for the first time was: “You know I can kick your ass one on one.” Just as it was interesting to learn that Jackson could not stand Kobe for a long time after the Colorado rape allegations because his own daughter had been the victim of an assault at college.
A surprise for me was how Jackson made it a point to really emphasize Scottie Pippen’s greatness in this book. We knew he would rave on about Jordan, but Jackson repeatedly praised Pippen’s all-round game and touted him as the engine that drove the team, a true team player that at times even outshone his more famous teammate. On the other hand, Pippen didn’t exhibit any outward jealously because of Jordan’s success, but he did resent the general lack of appreciation he received and felt shafted by his low salary (he was basically the second best player in the league but about 100 guys were earning a lot more than him).
That said, I could still sense that the information I was reading was somehow restricted and carefully managed in a way that it felt like there was a wall separating Phil and his readers. Everything he was saying came across as too “sanitised” and made me wish he would just give it to us straight, no holds barred.
The most honest parts of the book, the parts I felt came closest to being completely honest, were the sections on Kobe Bryant, which even overshadowed the sections on Jordan. Jackson’s assessment of a young Kobe was brutal — he labeled him “selfish” and “uncoachable” — and basically painted the Black Mamba as an absolute a-hole. At least Jordan was an a-hole who listened to him. However, Jackson’s stance against Kobe would soften over time as both men grew together to form a tight bond, so much so that Jackson declared his final championship — the Lakers’ 7-game victory over the Celtics in 2010 — as the most rewarding of his career.
Jackson sure is a different breed of animal to any sports coach I have ever seen or read about. For a long time I thought all that Zen stuff he’s known for was just a gimmick, but Jackson really is a dude in tune with his spiritual side. Both his parents were Christian ministers, though his restrictive upbringing led him on a path which embraced all facets of spirituality. Jackson would give his players books to read based on what he thought they needed to take the mental aspect of their game to the next level, and the teams would often engage in meditation and other bonding sessions such as road trips. When things got out of control he would consult psychiatrists. All of it was to ensure that the players could become the best they could be — not for themselves but for the sake of the team.
As someone still trying to embrace his spiritual side, I must admit that the Zen stuff didn’t exactly rock my boat. Eleven Rings is threaded with spiritual teachings (some of which even I recognised) Jackson utilised to manage his teams. There were some profound passages I could relate to, but at the same time it usually stopped the narrative dead in its tracks and turned the story into a spiritualism text book.
Nevertheless, it does make you realise that winning championships in the NBA is really really hard, and that talent alone is insufficient. It genuinely takes a full team effort where each player knows his role, where egos are put aside, and things just click at the right time. Jackson’s critics have downplayed his 11 rings by pointing to the fact that he had Jordan and Pippen, then Shaq and Kobe, then Kobe and Gasol, but I strongly believe now that without Jackson’s guidance those teams might have never gotten over the hump.
Anyway, I would recommend Eleven Rings for those interested in any of Phil’s 11 coaching titles, but in my opinion there are much better written basketball books out there. It was engaging because it was Phil Jackson and he has accomplished so much, but I had expected a little more.