Courtside Chemistry: How NBA's Phil Jackson Won 'Eleven Rings'

May 21, 2013
Originally published on May 21, 2013 8:13 am

Phil Jackson is famous not only for coaching stars — Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen with the Chicago Bulls, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal with the L.A. Lakers — but also for his distinctive "zen" approach to basketball. He introduced his teams to yoga and meditation, and regularly assigned his players books to read.

Jackson once gave O'Neal a copy of Siddhartha, a novel about a man's search for enlightenment. He joked that O'Neal should give him a book report — and then the star actually did. His report? "Story about a young man who's rich, famous, good-looking and has a lot of women — just like me."

A focus on philosophy and fundamental skills pervades Jackson's new book, Eleven Rings, which was co-written with a man who once interviewed him for a Buddhist magazine. Revealingly, the 11 rings of the title are the ones his teams won under his leadership; Jackson doesn't include the two rings he won as a player for the New York Knicks.

Jackson joins NPR's Steve Inskeep to talk about a 3-pointer he'll never forget, how to coach superstars while also cultivating team chemistry, and how he incorporated a lesson from a cellist on the court.


Interview Highlights

On Knicks coach Red Holzman's rules (see the ball; and hit the open man — that is, pass the ball)

"Defensively ... you have to be in a position so that you see the ball and your man. And in that process you can see if someone gets beat. You can see where the ball's at; if the ball's passed, you have a chance to intercept it. You're alert enough to get there.

"The offensive end, rather than force things ... or try to beat your own man individually, if you hit the open man, good things are going to happen in this game. ... That seems to be a premise that still holds true."

On a memorable last-minute shot

"That was in the finals, Chicago Bulls in 1993 versus the Phoenix Suns. And I'd rested Michael [Jordan] a considerable amount in the third quarter — kind of led to a slump in our offense — and we got him back in there and he scored a couple times, but Phoenix kept coming back after being down all game. At the end of the game we called a timeout; it was inside of probably about 18 seconds or so. ...

"All five players touch the ball. The ball goes to Michael, it goes ... to Scottie Pippen, and as Scottie starts to penetrate he hits Horace Grant, who's the open man. And Horace makes the penetrating move, and the defense collapses, and he hits John Paxson, who has been our most steady shooter over the course of these three championships, and he knocks down a 3-point shot.

"It was a beautiful thing. It was a wonderful way to end an attempt to win three championships in a row. And that third one is always a difficult one to win."

On why he writes that basketball is not a game of superstars

"You have to have a superstar on your team to win a championship in this day and age. You may have to have two terrific players to do so. But the reality is, is that they have to incorporate all of their other teammates. We get very focused on that. The NBA has made a real issue about really making these superstars the premium that everybody wants to go to. That's their calling card and their marketing tool. But the coaches at the other end of the sphere are trying to make everyone on the team — even nine, 10, 11, 12[th-best players] — just as important, and have a real role that's meaningful.

"[Those players] are what make the atmosphere, and they are what make the esprit de corps what it has to be to be a genuine team effort. Because if they're pulling the wrong direction, if there's jealousy or there's just not the right attitude, it will eventually work its way into the group. And it's a cancer."

On managing egos and emphasizing fundamental skills

"I think once you're inside the room, you're on the court, you know, everything seems to work out quite OK. I think these players have been brought up in basketball, especially in America right now, where AAU basketball is becoming a dominant force, where they have just an accumulation of talented players — not a whole lot of practice time and not a whole lot of skill as far as fundamentals go, but a whole lot of talent and skill as far as shooting and scoring and driving. So this is a different generation that's learned that game, and so, as a consequence, a lot of my practices start out with just fundamental work. Learn how to stop with the ball and pivot with the ball and make passes, because that's basically the nuts and bolts of the offense that I worked with."

On how he used a lesson from cellist Pablo Casals to motivate players

"I used to tell the players, 'There's a great musician called Pablo Casals. He was a cello player but he was also a concert conductor. And when asked about, you know, going through a certain piece of music, they said, you know, 'How do you play that?' He said, 'No, no, I don't do that. I start out with the fingering and I go through my fingering for an hour before I start playing a piece of music.'

"And I used to tell players, 'We're going through our fingering. We're going to do our fundamental drills and get ourselves talking basketball language with our body.' "

On whether players rolled their eyes when he mentioned Buddhism or Casals

"They never rolled their eyes, but I know they were going, 'Oh, here he goes again' type of thing. I never saw them rolling their eyes. I got a lot of latitude. The guys gave me a lot of space to work with them, and I'm very fortunate for that."

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We're going to hear next from a man who coached some of the greatest players in the history of pro basketball. Phil Jackson coached Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen with the Chicago Bulls.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

He later coached an L.A. Lakers team that included Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. It is characteristic of Jackson's coaching style that he was regularly assigning his stars books to read while on the road.

GREENE: He gave O'Neal a copy of "Siddhartha," the story of a man seeking enlightenment.

PHIL JACKSON: And I kept kidding him about giving me a book report. He did. The book report said: Story about a young man who's rich, famous, good-looking and has a lot of women, just like me.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: Jackson's new book also says something about his style. His co-author is a man who once interviewed Jackson for a Buddhist magazine called Tricycle. Phil Jackson introduced his teams to yoga and meditation. An even more revealing thing is what Jackson left out of the book title. Because you called the book "Eleven Rings," referring to your 11 championship rings, and a couple of people around the office here noticed that and said, wait a minute, he undercounted.

(LAUGHTER)

JACKSON: Yeah. I...

INSKEEP: He left out two more rings he won as a play for the New York Knicks. And yet those early playing days shaped Phil Jackson. He writes that he was on a team with huge stars - Willis Reed, Bill Bradley, Walt Frazier. He watched those stars adroitly managed by Coach Red Holzman, who avoided drama and focused on smart basketball.

JACKSON: I think it's summed up in a retirement for Bill Bradley's uniform at Madison Square Garden. His number was retired. And Selma Holzman came over and was talking to me and she said, you know, people don't understand that this is a once in a lifetime experience to have the number of players that we had on this team that were not only really good players, but also very intelligent people.

And I think that was the highlight of being on that New York Knickerbocker team, that, you know, I used to say that I was the guy that was kind of, you know, berated, if anybody's going to be berated in the locker room to inspire the team, because I was the only guy that wasn't going to be an all-star or a hall of fame player.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: Well, you got to the top another way, it would seem.

JACKSON: Yeah, that's true.

INSKEEP: But part of the Red Holzman's system was to just focus on fundamentals rather than plays, and you talk about these two rules that he had - see the ball, hit the open man. What do those rules mean? Why are they so important?

JACKSON: Well, defensively, if you're going to be a person that assists, aids or, you know, is alert enough, you have to be in position so that you see the ball and your man. And in that process you can see if someone gets beat. You can see where the ball's at; if the ball's passed, you have a chance to intercept it. You're alert enough to get there.

The offensive end, rather than force things and make things an issue or try to beat your own man individually, if you hit the open man, things good are going to happen in this game. And it usually does, and we can watch it today and that seems to be a premise that still holds true.

INSKEEP: Hit the open man just basically means be ready to pass the ball. Give it up. Play as a team.

JACKSON: Yeah, that's it.

INSKEEP: And later in the book, you describe a particular play, a dramatic last moment shot to win a third NBA championship. It's a team with Michael Jordan. It's a team with Scottie Pippen. And the surprise here is who ends up taking the shot to win the game. Would you describe what happened on that evening?

JACKSON: That was in the finals, Chicago Bulls in 1993 versus the Phoenix Suns. And I'd rested Michael a considerable amount in the fourth quarter, kind of led to a slump in our offense, and we got him back in there and he scored a couple times, but Phoenix kept coming back after being down all game. At the end of the game we called a timeout. It was inside of probably about 18 seconds or so.

INSKEEP: I can tell you - 14.1. I was just watching the video. But go ahead.

JACKSON: Well, that's good. In the course of this play, all five players touched the ball. The ball goes to Michael, it goes in an automatic to Scottie Pippen, and as Scottie starts to penetrate, he hits Horace Grant, who's the open man. And Horace makes a penetrating move, and the defense collapses, and he hits John Paxson, who has been our most steady shooter over the course of these three championships.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAME BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: There's Paxon for three. Yes!

JACKSON: And he knocks down a three-point shot.

INSKEEP: That's a beautiful thing.

JACKSON: It was a beautiful thing. It was a wonderful way to end an attempt to win three championships in a row. And that third one is always a difficult one to win.

INSKEEP: It is kind of amazing, considering the various players you've coached, including Michael Jordan, that you would write that basketball is not a game of superstars.

JACKSON: You have to have a superstar on your team to win a championship in this day and age. You may have to have two terrific players to do so. But the reality is, is that they have to incorporate all of their other teammates. We get very focused on that. The NBA has made a real issue about really making these superstars the premium that everybody wants to go to.

That's their calling card and their marketing tool. But the coaches at the other end of the sphere are trying to make everybody on the team, even nine, 10, 11, 12, just as important, and have a real role that's meaningful.

INSKEEP: You're saying that's not to be nice to the number nine player, that's because you have to have them.

JACKSON: They are what make the atmosphere, and they're what make the esprit de corps what it has to be to be a genuine team effort. Because if they're pulling the wrong direction, if there's jealousy or there's just not the right attitude, it'll eventually work its way into the group. And it's a cancer.

INSKEEP: It must have been hard, though, to manage all those egos.

JACKSON: You know, I think once you're inside the room, you're on the court, you know, everything seems to work out quite OK. I think these players have been, you know, brought up in basketball, especially in America right now, where AAU basketball is becoming a dominant force, where they have just an accumulation of very talented players, not a whole lot of practice time and not a whole lot of skill as far as fundamentals go, but a whole lot of talent and skill as far as shooting and scoring and driving.

So this is a different generation that's learned that game, and so, as a consequence a lot of my practices start out with just fundamental work. Learn how to stop with the ball and pivot with the ball and make passes, because that's basically the nuts and bolts of the offense that I work with.

INSKEEP: That was even true of NBA players, players at the highest level, go back to the fundamentals.

JACKSON: Oh, yeah. I used to tell players there's a great musician called Pablo Casals. He was a cello player, but he was also a concert conductor. And when asked about, you know, going through a certain piece of music, they said, you know, how do you play that? He said, no, no. He said, I don't do that. I start out with the fingering and I go through my fingering for an hour before I start playing a piece of music.

And I used to tell players, we're going through our fingering. We're going to do our fundamental drills and get ourselves talking basketball language with our body.

INSKEEP: I'm curious, when you started quoting Pablo Casals or talking about Buddhist philosophy, did your players sometimes roll their eyes?

JACKSON: They never rolled their eyes, but I know they were going, oh, here he goes again type of thing. But I never saw them rolling their eyes. I got a lot of latitude. The guys gave me a lot of space to work with them, and I'm very fortunate for that.

INSKEEP: Phil Jackson is author of "Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success." Thanks very much for talking with us.

JACKSON: It's a pleasure, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.