The Philippines is undeniably a basketball-crazy country, and the recently concluded NBA season, where Kevin Durant’s Golden State Warriors reigned anew over LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers, only proves how crazy we are for the sport. Even if you are not into basketball, you couldn’t completely evade or disregard some of your friends’ social media posts on which team they were rooting for. What’s more is that nightly news programs kept us on the loop on this annual event of national importance. That shows how basketball is deeply ingrained in our society and culture. (Read “Why Filipinos Should Read: Pacific Rims by Rafe Bartolomew” here.)
However, this article will not touch that much on basketball as the game per se. So you don’t have to worry if you’re not really into basketball because while Phil Jackson’s Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success is primarily a sports book, the subjects discussed in the book go beyond just the game. I’m quite sure anyone from any walk of life can learn something noteworthy from the “Zen Master.”
Phil Jackson, a player and an NBA champion with the 1970s New York Knicks, has the most championships than any coach in the history of American professional sports. His book, Eleven Rings, tells the little-known tales and details of the 1990s Jordan-led Chicago Bulls and the 2000s Shaq-Kobe Los Angeles Lakers which total to 11 championship rings.
What does it take to win multiple championships in the world’s premier and highly competitive basketball league? How did Phil Jackson handle strong and difficult personalities like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant and blend them with the team culture? What’s the secret to success? Well, let the Zen Master and author Hugh Delehanty welcome and guide you to the realm of psychology, spirituality, and philosophy, and how they are enmeshed to achieve the ultimate goal of NBA championship.
1. More than just a game
For the laymen, basketball is just a fast-paced game where you have to put the ball through the hoop while trying to stop the opposing team to do the same. Plain and simple. For some of the kids in the neighborhood, it is their pastime where they get to bond with friends. For the fans, it is an entertainment. For league executives and media corporations, it is a multi-billion dollar business. For basketball pros, it is their career. But for some of the greatest of all-time, basketball is more than just a career—it is their passion, their calling, their life.
We often see basketball as a physical sport, but it is also mental as it is physical. Basketball requires more than just being athletic. It is more than just running and jumping. In sports, we always hear the cliche “There is no ‘I’ in ‘team.’” Collective goal should transcend individual goal. Hence, apart from being skilled, there should also be harmony among teammates. Everyone should know their roles and perform them to the best of their abilities.
As in any workplace, teamwork, team chemistry and leadership are essential elements to achieve a goal. In professional basketball, there are a lot of things going on on and off the court than just grown men trying to put the ball through the hoop. The ultimate goal of winning a championship entails tenacity and sacrifice. Indeed, winning it all is much easier said than done.
2. Zen101 with Phil
There is no better person to learn how to win championships than Phil Jackson, who holds the record of 11 championships, winning three three-peats in the process. Winning a single championship in the NBA is a difficult task. It requires a great deal of discipline, sacrifice and physical and mental toughness. Playing 82 games a season, competing in the playoffs, plus dealing with constant pressures from the team management, team mates, fan base and the media, are some of the grueling challenges professional athletes face. Imagine how taxing it is to win multiple championships. And so we now ask: What’s the secret, Phil?
One of my favorite locker room stories is how Jackson’s teams meditate together prior to their games. They sit down with eyes closed in an incense-filled locker room. Jackson is a student and follower of humanistic psychology, Zen Buddhism and Native American philosophy, and he applied a hybrid of these teachings to the teams he coached. He did not just coach basketball—he also preached mindfulness, concentration and team chemistry. He even gave reading assignments to players for them to reflect on in the hopes of channeling their focus and determination during games.
Jackson is known in the game as the “Zen Master” because of his unorthodox style in coaching. He used this style to manage team chemistry amid conflicting characters and personalities. His methods proved to be effective in developing trust within the team, developing harmony, and bringing out the best in every member of the team. Want proof? 11 rings.
3. A closer look at the superstars
Apart from Phil Jackson being arguably the greatest coach in NBA history, he also coached some of the greatest players in Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’neal and Kobe Bryant. These players are so iconic that they are mononymously known as Michael, Shaq and Kobe, which are some of the most notable brands in sports.
Eleven Rings shares a lot of not-so-known stories about our deified basketball legends. We often see Jordan as the epitome of basketball greatness but he also had his fair share of frustrations and struggles. O’neal and Bryant are considered the most dominant duo but they also had their rough times together. Michael did not win before Phil came in, just as Shaq and Kobe did not figure it out before Phil taught them.
All the championship teams did not win easily, no matter how talented they were. There were (and will) always be struggles, pressures and conflicts. There will also always be egos and pride. These challenges should be hurdled all for the ultimate goal of hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
4. Being mindful of what surrounds you
Phil Jackson’s most important lesson that has stuck with me is mindfulness. You always have to be aware of what’s happening around you. You have to be mindful of the people surrounding you and recognize them as an opportunity to improve one another. In basketball, skills on the court are useless if you don’t and can’t have good working and personal relationships with your teammates. No matter how good you are in basketball, if you can’t get along with the people around you, you’re bound to failure.
The secret to Jackson’s championship teams are not only because Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant was a part of it. In fact, Jackson made them sacrifice some of their personal intentions, such as eyeing for individual accolades, for the welfare and success of the team. Being aware of the team goal and how to achieve it was the paramount objective, nothing else. Team-first mentality is the true essence of a championship team.
5. Making people better together
Clearly, the lessons from our basketball idols can also be applied to our own lives as “ordinary” people from different walks of life. You can ask yourself: are you working in a healthy working environment? Do your peers and boss appreciate what you do? Or is there a sense of achievement in what you do? How about in school, how do you approach a group project? How do you see your class or batch mates? In a much higher level, how do you see your ka-barangay in your community? Ultimately, how do you feel about your fellow Filipinos?
Phil Jackson teaches us how to see potential in people. It is recognizing people’s value and bringing the best out of them in order to contribute to the collective goal. The game plan for us Filipinos is to respect our fellow, including their dignity and rights, and see them as our equal stakeholders in our pursuit for nationhood. Remember, genuine development is driven by the people. And by ‘people,’ that means everyone and not only by a small group of people in power. We should not put all the responsibility to a single person and expect that we will thrive.
More importantly, we should not depend on a single person to do everything because he’s such a rock star or superstar. Always remember what the Golden State Warriors roar: There will always be #StrengthInNumbers because real power emanates from the people, and real change starts with you. ☁️