Book Review: ‘Eleven Rings’ by Phil Jackson & Hugh Delehanty

July 12, 2013 in Book Reviews, Reviews

eleven-rings

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.

Michael-Jordan-Kobe-Bryant-Chicago-Bulls-1998_2360518

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.

3.25/5

2009 NBA Finals Prediction: Lakers vs Magic!

May 31, 2009 in Basketball, NBA

Despite what I said in my last post, and notwithstanding the fact that my exams aren’t over yet, I nevertheless feel obliged to take a few minutes to predict the winner of the NBA Finals for 2009 between the Orlando Magic and the LA Lakers.

Will the Lakers dunk all over the Magic?

Will the Lakers dunk all over the Magic?

The road to the Finals

Orlando Magic vs Cleveland Cavaliers

Momentum can be a fickle thing in the playoffs.

Hours before this post, the Orlando Magic had just disposed of heavy favourites the Cleveland Cavaliers in 6 games (103-90 in the final game).  Like most people, I accurately predicted that the series would not be close, but I just got the teams the wrong way around!

Like the Magic’s Dwight Howard (who scored 40 points and grabbed 14 boards to finish off the Cavs) said, people were disrespecting the Magic by looking forward to a Lebron-Kobe final before the first game of the Conference Finals (or perhaps the first game of the entire playoffs).  I admit I was one of those people.  Instead of looking at the plethora of matchup problems the Magic presented to the Cavs, all I could remember was that the Cavs hadn’t even lost a game before this series, sweeping both Detroit and Atlanta, winning by double digits in all games.  The Cavs had the best record in the league (66-16), the best home record in the league (39-2) and had home court advantage in this series – plus Lebron James was on fire.  Conversely, Orlando had struggled through two lacklustre performances against Philadelphia (6 games) and Boston (7 games), were playing inconsistently and up to that point, seemingly doubting themselves.  It wasn’t hard to assume that the Magic didn’t stand a chance.  No ESPN analyst predicted the Magic to win.  Not a single one.  Not even those that predicted a tough series for the Cavs because of the matchup difficulties.  After all, they did have the ultimate mismatch in Lebron vs anyone else.

However, as it turned out, Lebron was still on fire, averaging over 38 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists in the series, but it didn’t matter in the end.  When matched up face to face, the Magic were simply the better team.  If it weren’t for Lebron’s buzzer beating 3-pointer in game 2, the series may have been a sweep.

So what happened?  All the momentum in the world could not have stopped Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis, the Magic’s two big, versatile forwards, from wrecking havoc on the Cavs’ defense.  The Cavs were supposed to be one of the best defensive teams in the league, but they couldn’t stop the drives, three-pointers and they couldn’t stop Dwight Howard in the middle.  Ilgauskas, the Cavs’ 7’3″ big man, was abused by Howard’s quickness.  Their other post defenders, Anderson Varejao and Ben Wallace (what the heck happened to him?), were dominated by Howard’s size and strength.  The supposed ‘Master of Panic’, coach Stan Van Gundy, did a calm job of allowing Lebron to get his and daring his teammates to beat them.  They couldn’t.

With the exception of the Cavs’ game 5 victory, Lebron’s supporting cast couldn’t find the basket.  When Lebron needed them the most, they started to choke, especially ‘Mr Prediction’ Mo Williams, who was the difference maker in the Cavs’ historic regular season but just couldn’t make a shot.  I suppose you could look at this in two ways – either that Lebron HAD to be this good this series because his teammates weren’t giving him enough help, or his greatness in this series actually turned out to be detrimental to his team’s success because they turned into a one man team again that had to rely on him for everything.

This devastating loss must be demoralising for the Cavs, who carried a swagger into these playoffs some considered bordering on arrogance.  Especially for Lebron, who thought he had all the pieces he needed to contend for the championship this year, only to be let down again.  Unlike last season, when Lebron was all smiles after losing to the eventual champs Boston in 7 games, he was less graceful this time, leaving the arena without uttering a word to anyone and skipping the post-game press conference.  I think this was because last season he didn’t genuinely believe the Cavs had what it took to win the championship, whereas this season he knows they blew a perfect opportunity.  I guess now he knows what Kobe felt like before the Lakers got Gasol.

As for the Magic, they go into the Finals knowing that they are once again the underdogs, but undoubtedly with a new sense of confidence that they can shock the world one more time.

Or will the Magic block the title from the Lakers?

Or will the Magic block the title from the Lakers?

LA Lakers vs Denver Nuggets

This series was another example of the illusion of momentum.

The Lakers came into the Western Conference Finals having beaten Utah in 5 games but stretched to 7 difficult games by a seriously depleted Houston team, leaving people questioning whether they had improved mentally from last season’s disappointing finish when they lost to Boston in 6 games in the Finals.  On the other hand, Denver surprised a lot of people by devouring New Orleans and then Dallas in 5 games in both series.  Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups were both playing their best basketball and the supporting cast (in particular JR Smith, Nene and Kenyon Martin) were doing great in their respective roles.  While the odds still favoured the Lakers, no one would be overly shocked if Denver pulled an upset.

After the Lakers escaped in game 1 and lost game 2, doubts flared up as expected; it happened again when the Lakers returned to LA with the series tied 2-2.  The Lakers seemed uninterested in giving 100% effort for 48 minutes a night, Phil Jackson was being outcoached, and Kobe’s legacy was in doubt once again.  And then, the Lakers win both games 5 and 6 with relative ease, and all is forgotten.  It was as though no one had ever doubted them all along.  Such is the nature of the game.

The Nuggets go into the offseason no doubt disappointed, but in the eyes of many they have already overachieved.  They were already the second seed in the West this season, so the inevitable question would be whether they can take it to the next level and dethrone the Lakers’ stranglehold of the conference.  However, without some minor shifts in personnel or injury to the Lakers, it’s difficult to see that happening.

The Lakers?  They enter the Finals as favourites again, but can they finally start playing the way people expect them to play like game 6 against the Nuggets?

Match-ups

The Magic actually match up well with the Lakers, but not quite as well as they did against the Cavs.

Backcourt

Derek Fisher is a veteran point guard who has been on the big stage many times before, but was thoroughly manhandled by Aaron Brooks in the Houston series.  At 34, Fisher is not old, but he’s definitely lost a step or two, though he can still hit the big shot when called upon.  Rafer ‘Skip to My Lou’ Alston is perhaps not as tough as Jameer Nelson, the injured player he was brought in to replace, but he matches up well with Fisher because of his quickness and skills.  Alston will be a big key for the Magic.  If he can keep his sometimes erratic game in check and outplay Fisher, then at least that puts more pressure on Kobe Bryant to perform.

Speaking of Kobe, there’s not going to be anyone on the Magic that can stop him.  Of course, we said the same thing about Lebron, and look what happened there.  Kobe won’t have to put up numbers anywhere close to what Lebron produced because he won’t have to (and probably is incapable), but the Lakers will look to him with the game on the line, and there’s no one better in the clutch in the league right now.  Kobe’s game is also more varied than Lebron’s, so even with Dwight Howard in the middle he’ll be able to find ways to score.

The Magic will probably put Mickael Pietrus in the starting line up (instead of Courtney Lee) to guard Kobe, but regardless, he will need a lot of help.

No matter which way you look at it the Lakers have a significant advantage here.

Frontcourt

Orlando has a very impressive front court with 6’11” Dwight Howard anchoring the middle and versatile 6’10” forwards in Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu roaming the wings.  Both forwards can hit the three and they can drive, and as demonstrated in the Cavs series, they can both hit big shots when called upon.  It’s a frontcourt that will give any team problems.

However, the Lakers’ frontcourt is not too shabby either, with 7-footer Andrew Bynum, 7-footer Pau Gasol and the 6’8″ athletic forward in Trevor Ariza.  With the unimpressive way Bynum has been playing these playoffs, expect to see Lamar Odom play a lot of minutes off the bench.  Odom matches up well with both Lewis and Tukoglu, though that will leave Gasol trying to flop his way out of defending Dwight Howard straight up.

This is going to be where the series is won or lost for both teams.  There is definitely an opportunity for Orlando in the middle because Bynum hasn’t been playing well and is also prone to foul trouble.  Gasol is too lean to bang against Howard, though he is long and can cause problems at the other end of the floor.  Unlike the Cavs, however, the Lakers have a lot more big bodies to throw at Howard, such as DJ Mbenga and Josh Powell (who usually sit at the end of the bench).  If Howard can continue to hit his free throws at around 70% throughout the entire series and keep out of foul trouble himself, then Orlando has a decent chance.  It may mean that he will have to give up his defensive intensity on some plays to ensure that it happens.

Bench

On paper at least, the Lakers look like they have a strong bench, primarily because of Lamar Odom, who is definitely an X-factor in this series.  However, the rest of the Laker bench has been somewhat underused in these playoffs.  Odom has contributed a solid 12 points per game these playoffs, but the next highest bench scorer is Shannon Brown with 5.7.  Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic and Luke Walton round out the regular rotation, but none of these guys have been impact players in this year’s playoffs thus far.

That might not matter too much because Orlando does not have a strong bench either. If they start Pietrus, then Courtney Lee will be the first man off the bench, and he has averaged 8.8 points per game these playoffs.  Guys like JJ Reddick and Anthony Johnson are solid, but they won’t be asked to do more than just hit the open shot when the opportunity arises.

If either bench can produce a breakout series then that will definitely shift the advantage in their favour, but it appears the starters + Odom will be the key.

Coaching

Stan Van Gundy vs Phil Jackson.  One guy constantly seems like he’s about to have a heart attack, whereas the other looks like he might fall asleep any minute.  It’s a very interesting clash of styles.

No one is going to argue that Jackson, with 9 ‘coaching’ championship rings (and 11 total), can’t coach.  And while Van Gundy has been criticised in the past (including by Howard), he has done a very commendable job in first getting Orlando past a 3-2 deficit against Boston and then knocking off the Cavs.

It will be interesting to see whether Jackson will be ruffled if Orlando wins one of the first 2 games in LA, and whether Van Gundy will implode if Orlando loses both.

Intangibles

Orlando won both meetings against the Lakers in the regular season, 106-103 in Orlando in December, and 109-103 in LA in January.  Both games were a while ago, so they don’t necessarily mean much, but it does demonstrate that Orlando has the fire power to match up against the Lakers.  What is notable though is that Jameer Nelson, who is out injured, dominated both games, scoring 27 and 28 respectively in the games.  Accordingly, the pressure must fall on the shoulders of his replacement, Rafer Alston, and to a lesser extent, his backup Anthony Johnson.

Many players who have been to the Finals talk about the importance of championship experience.  They say until you’ve played in the Finals, you can’t possibly imagine what it’s like.  In this case, all the key players on the Lakers squad experienced the Finals last year, and Jackson, Fisher and Bryant all have championship rings.  That said, the experience didn’t help much against the Boston Celtics last season.  Personally, I believe it will be a factor, but probably only in the first and last games of the series.

Also of importance is the different game structure of the Finals, which is played 2-3-2 as opposed to the normal 2-2-1-1-1 in the preceding rounds.  I think this benefits the team with home court advantage, which in this case is Los Angeles.  The playoffs are about adjustments, and giving another team 3 consecutive chances to crack you on your home floor may prove to be decisive.  Then again, who can forget when the Detroit Pistons crushed the LA Lakers in the 2004 Finals where they swept the middle 3 games?

Lastly, there is the motivation factor.  The Lakers lost a series many thought they would win in last year’s finals, so it’s safe to assume they would be hungry for redemption and would not take Orlando lightly.  Kobe is still seeking that first elusive title (and Finals MVP) without Shaq by his side, and Jackson will be trying again to overtake Red Auerbach for the most coaching rings.  On the other hand, Orlando must know that this is a rare opportunity for them.  Unlike the Lakers, who will continue to be favourites for the NBA title as long as their core team is in tact, Orlando knows they might not get back here again if Boston is fully healthy and Lebron gets more support.  Hence it’s hard to say the Lakers will be more motivated.

Prediction

After getting burned by my prediction for the Cleveland-Orlando series (where I pathetically predicted the Cavs would win in 5), I’m going to place less emphasis on momentum and the big picture and focus more on the matchups and intricacies of the teams.

I see the series comes down to a number of key factors.  The first is whether Dwight Howard can stay out of foul trouble.  The second is whether he can hit his free throws.  The third is whether the Magic can continue to hit their open 3-pointers as they have all playoffs.  If so, then the Magic can definitely pull off the upset.  They are a good road team, having disposed of both Philadelphia and Boston on the road, and contributed to 2 out of the 3 home losses for Cleveland all season and playoffs.  Therefore, if they head back to LA for the final 2 games up 3-2, they have a good chance of winning.

However, ultimately the Lakers look too strong on paper, so I’ll have to go with them in 6 games.  I hope the Magic prove me wrong.

2009 NBA Playoff Predictions: Conference Finals

May 19, 2009 in Basketball, NBA

Can’t believe there are only 4 teams left still battling it out for the 2009 NBA Championship – Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic, LA Lakers and Denver Nuggets.  The majority of people probably picked these 4 teams to be here when the playoffs first started, but the dynamics and expectations have changed somewhat.

So, what do I expect to happen?

EAST

(1) Cleveland Cavaliers (66-16) vs (3) Orlando Magic (59-23)

Can Dwight Howard and the Magic give Lebron and the Cavs more than a tickle this series?

Can Dwight Howard and the Magic give Lebron and the Cavs more than a tickle this series?

Cleveland has been cruising these playoffs, sweeping Detroit and then Atlanta.  Both opponents had issues but neither were strolls in the park, and yet Cleveland crushed them with ease, not one game coming within single digits.  With newly crowned MVP Lebron James leading the way and playing better than ever and the supporting cast stepping up, right now the Cavs are the clear favourites to make the finals, if not win it.

On the other hand, Orlando has been up and down, first going through an uneven 6-game series against Philadelphia and then coming back from 3-2 down to overcome the defending champs Boston in 7.  Many say they should have disposed of the ailing Celtics (missing both Kevin Garnett and Leon Powe) much earlier, but I think they deserve a lot of credit for pulling through (because I picked against them!) in a game 7, in Boston, against the resilient defending champions.

Further, Orlando matches up well with Cleveland as well as any other team in the East.  The Cavs can probably contain Dwight Howard to some degree with their bigs, but I think the Cavs’ perimeter defense will be tested by the shooters camping out by the 3-point line.  Turkoglu and Lewis both pose matchup problems for the Cavs.  The big game 7 win against the Celtics will give them more confidence that they can upset the favourites.

Nevertheless, the Cavs have the biggest mismatch in the league in Lebron, so it’s hard to bet against them.  If Orlando wants to stand a chance they have to steal at least one of the first 2 games in Cleveland, where the Cavs have only lost twice all season.  As much as I want to see the Cavs tested in these playoffs, I just can’t see that happening.  Despite Orlando winning the season series 2-1, I still say Cleveland in 5.

WEST

(1) Los Angeles Lakers (65-17) vs (2) Denver Nuggets (54-28)

LA vs Denver is shaping up to be an intiguing series

LA vs Denver is shaping up to be an intiguing series

The Lakers were supposed to be the Cavs of the West, annihilating all opposition on their way to a finals the majority believe they will win.  Many people thought after last year’s collapse against the Celtics the Lakers would have learned their lesson and developed the toughness and killer instinct lacking before, but it doesn’t appear as though they’ve quite gotten there yet.  Instead, after disposing of Utah in 5, the Lakers were taken to 7 games by a hobbling Houston Rockets squad that didn’t have Yao Ming for half the series (and Tracy McGrady for the entire series).  I had predicted that the Rockets would give the Lakers a tougher test than most anticipated, but even I didn’t expect them to be that tough, especially after losing their big man.  So now, instead of everyone thinking the Lakers are the sure thing to win the championship this year, people are starting to wonder again whether they have what it takes.  And despite known as a clutch performer almost all his career, Kobe’s 14-point performance in the game 7 against the Rockets also raises questions about his ability to deliver when it matters most.

Conversely, the Nuggets have been a revelation for me.  I honestly didn’t think they were that good, and for most of the regular season they flew under my radar.  Denver was one of 3 teams that finished with a 54-28 record, but they have now established themselves as the clear No.2 team in the West.  They brushed aside both New Orleans and Dallas in 5 games (while I thought both would go to 7), never appearing to be in danger of losing either series.  Carmelo ‘Carmelengo’ Anthony (sorry, couldn’t help it) has been in sublime form, and Chauncey Billups is playing even better than his championship days in Detroit.  Guys like JR Smith, K-Mart and Nene are also contributing in significant ways.  Confidence-wise, you could even say they may have an edge on the Lakers right now.

Consequently, a series that pundits initially thought would be just another formality in the Lakers’ ascension to the NBA throne has become a toss up.  I don’t care much for either squad but I would prefer to see the Nuggets win, simply because the Lakers have, at times, acted like it’s their God-given right to win the championship this season.  However, the things I can’t ignore are the facts that: (1) LA has home-court advantage; (2) they won the season series 3-1; (3) they won 9 more games than the Nuggets during the regular season; and (4) the media went overboard with the Lakers’ premature demise just because the Rockets took them to 7.  Perhaps the Rockets series was the final wake-up call this team needed.  Lakers in 7.

Bring on Lebron vs Kobe!

Recapping my 2nd Round predictions

I sucked.  I got the winner correct 3 out of 4 series (the exception being my prediction of the Celtics over the Magic), but I got the number of games all messed up.  I said Cavs in 5 (they won in 4), Lakers in 6 (they won in 7) and Nuggets in 7 (they won in 5).  I was right that the Celtics and Magic would go 7, but I got the winner wrong!