Israeli Readers Can Now Find Zen With Phil Jackson's Memoir

In his memoir, now appearing in Hebrew translation, legendary NBA coach and intellectual how he forged a connection between Shaquille O’Neal and Hermann Hesse.

Alon Idan
Alon Idan
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Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers hug after defeating the Orlando Magic in Game Five of the 2009 NBA Finals at Amway Arena on June 14, 2009 in Orlando, Florida.
Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers hug after defeating the Orlando Magic in Game Five of the 2009 NBA Finals at Amway Arena on June 14, 2009 in Orlando, Florida. Credit: AFP
Alon Idan
Alon Idan

“Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success,” by Phil Jackson; Penguin Books, 368 pages, $27.95

Hebrew edition “11 Alifuyot: Me’amen ha-NBA al manhigut, nitzhonot ve kochavim”; translated by Tomer Spindel; Matar Publishing House, 328 pages, 69 shekels

In the end it’s about basketball. A ball that’s meant to enter the basket. Put more balls in the basket and you win. Fewer balls and you lose. That’s at the end. But what about the beginning?

The question can be asked differently. What does one have to do to get a young guy who’s already made $25 million to put the ball in the basket? After all, he’s talented, for sure, and also jumps really high and runs fast, and is strong only in the way that someone who has repeatedly collided with life can be strong. But he has $25 million in the bank, so what do we do with that?

The thing is that when you have $25 million in the bank – an amount that means that you are set for your whole life, as are your potential children and the potential children of your potential children for as long as they live, too; and when you can buy an apartment every week and a car every day and love every night – the ball and the basket might sometimes seem like well, like a ball and a basket. Just a ball and a basket.

On top of which, the $25 million isn’t exactly $25 million. Because there’s always Nike, or Adidas, or AND1, and because you jump high and are capable of dunking the ball in the basket, they want to give you more money, lots of money. So much money that the $25 million suddenly becomes “only 25 million.”

The thing about the $25 million that becomes “only 25 million” is that it isn’t only just about the money. The thing is also those people with microphones who, after every practice ask you, absolutely beg you, to give them your opinion about life. And you, who until a few minutes before that didn’t think you even had opinions about life, start to be persuaded that you definitely do have such opinions. And that they’re important. Very important.

And afterward, when during a morning practice, an older man with a whistle throws some words at you that don’t include “great,” “tremendous,” “one of a kind” – you really don’t get who this weirdo is and what exactly he’s doing here, especially in a place where there’s a friggin’ $25 million + Nike + important opinions about life.

In other words, the questions are these: How do you get $25 million to fade into the tangle of questions and make room for a ball and a basket? How do you restore to a young, talented man the original, primal, wild memory that prompted him to throw balls into a basket like mad? How do you get him to be considerate of other, regular people who don’t pull in $25 million a season? How do you roll back the wheel of insanity?

Members of a tribe

Phil Jackson, the most decorated coach in the history of the National Basketball Association, thought the best way to deal with all this was to erase the original story: to make the person forget he’s a basketball player. Jackson preferred to tell the player that he was actually a member of a tribe, probably one in South America. He also organized a “tribal room” for him and asked him to write a heartfelt message on a piece of paper, and at the end of the evening the paper would be set afire, just as the Indians surely used to do.

Now we have to think about Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player in history, not a very nice person, terrifyingly competitive, a person for whom only the love of victory is greater than the love of money and power – and yes, we have to think of him sitting now in that “tribal room,” waiting for the coach to finish reading a moving passage from the New Testament. And when his turn comes, he chooses to read a short poem he wrote.

After he finishes reading out the poem, he places the sheet of paper in a coffee can, together with the pieces of paper from the other members of the tribe that have already been put in there, and after the lights in the room are turned off, he watches as the small creations of the heart go up in flames that are dancing in the dark.

“The intense intimacy we felt sitting silently together and watching the flames die down. I don’t think the bond among us had ever been stronger,” Jackson writes in “Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success,” now out in Hebrew translation.

He has won 11 NBA championships as a coach, more than anyone else: six with the Chicago Bulls and five with the Los Angeles Lakers (and two more as a player with the New York Knicks). But because in Chicago he had the God of basketball by his side (Jordan), and in Los Angeles he had two of the numberless deputies of God (Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal) – not everyone gets off on Jackson.

Criticism of him can be channeled into a trio of words: “No big deal.” What exactly is “no big deal”? It’s not a big deal to win championships when you have great players like those. The Israeli soccer coach (with all that that entails) Shlomo Scharf used to say about Jackson’s teams, “With them I’d win a championship, even by phone.” Was he right?

Here are the facts: Before Jackson was appointed head coach in Chicago, even God didn’t win a championship there. Before Jackson came to LA, the dueling duo of Bryant & O’Neal didn’t pull in even one championship ring. Empirically, then, Scharf was wrong: He would not have won a championship with those teams, certainly not by phone.

On the other hand, the philosopher David Hume wrote long ago about the problem of causality and the fallacy of induction. The fact that Jackson won championships in those years does not necessarily demonstrate that a different coach – Gregg Popovich, say – wouldn’t have done just as well as he did, maybe even better.

Polar opposite

I am deliberately invoking the name of Popovich, the current head coach of the San Antonio Spurs, the NBA champions. Popovich is the polar opposite of Jackson: a winning coach who doesn’t customarily tell his $25-million players that they are members of an Indian tribe or athletic reincarnations of the Buddha. Nor does he demand of them “an open heart, a clear mind and a deep curiosity about the ways of the human spirit” (Jackson).

Popovich simply yells at them to move their legs and bend their knees when on defense, and to move the ball relentlessly on offense and look for the open man. Popovich is just too angry to philosophize about the metaphysical effects of money.

I imagine that Jackson would not understand the contradistinction between him and Popovich. Life, after all, is an unending process of coming into being, and so it contains no genuine contrasts, only an illusion of contrasts. And the beautiful part is that there’s no need to decide if he’s right, because it’s preferable to imagine the following situation: Jackson gives Shaquille O’Neal – 150 muscular kilograms draped over a physique of 2.22 meters – a copy of Hermann Hesse’s “Siddhartha,” a fictional account of the Buddha’s life, and asks him to keep a reading log.

“I thought the book might inspire Shaq to reexamine his attachment to material possessions,” Jackson writes, adding, “It was my way of nudging him to explore the road to inner peace – by quieting his mind, focusing on something other than his own desires, and becoming more compassionate toward his teammates, especially Kobe.”

A few weeks later, O’Neal did in fact hand Jackson a “book report” whose gist, as recounted by Jackson, was: “This book is about a young man who has power, wealth, and women (much like me), who gives them all up to pursue a holy life (not so much like me).”

It’s not that the English literature program at Princeton missed out big-time, for example, on Bryant, to whom Jackson gave “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” (a novel by Louis de Bernieres). Rather, writes Jackson: “I hoped that Kobe might resonate with the message and its parallels to his own struggles with the Lakers. Unfortunately, he wasn’t interested.”

Unlike “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin,” Bryant has undoubtedly read Jackson’s book. He had no other option. But after he read Jackson’s comparison of him and Jordan, there is no way he would have gone on flipping the pages, no way. (“Michael was stronger Kobe is more flexible – hence his favorite nickname, ‘Black Mamba’”; “Kobe treats his body like a finely tuned European sports car,” Michael liked “indulging his taste for good cigars and fine wine”; Michael was “more charismatic and gregarious” than Bryant; Michael had “superior skills as a leader”).

And not just Michael and Kobe; Shaquille, too, and Scottie Pippen (“Scottie was the nurturer”), and Dennis Rodman (“Dennis’ appeal was the playful way he bucked the system”). In short, this is not only a book about Jackson, but a book about some of the greatest basketball players of the last 20 years. It’s hard to imagine a genuine fan of the sport who will forgo this spectacular invasion of privacy.

Do nothing

But Jackson’s book is interesting not only for its anecdotes about the stars and the learned explanations about the legendary triangle offense: It’s interesting, because even the cynicism that might arise when reading about Jackson’s “do-nothing policy” (that is, don’t do anything when problems arise) doesn’t for a second cancel out the fact that we are in the presence of a man of broad horizons, a sports intellectual, who treats basketball in a way that goes beyond the game itself.

Herein lies the greatness of the coach who’s known as the “Zen master”: He was able to observe the game from the side in real time. He did it with the help of the Buddha, Lao Tse, Hesse – and there’s more where they came from. But his ability to get basketball giants like Jordan and Bryant and O’Neal to believe that he understood something that’s beyond the here-and-now, something that they, with all their $25 million, were not necessarily able to apprehend, convinced them to sweat for him.

Yes, precisely against the backdrop of the big money and the luxury cars and the microphones being held out and the whirring cameras, one little-but-really-big thing was missing, which Jackson identified well: the belief that they were part of something larger, something transcendent, something of which the ball and the basket are only symbols. Even millionaires are looking for meaning.

When I read the book, particularly the sections on Jordan, Bryant and O’Neal, I couldn’t help thinking about David Blatt. I couldn’t but imagine what this industrious person, the first Israeli to coach an NBA team (this year’s Cleveland Cavaliers), will have to do in order to persuade his private Michael Jordan – namely, LeBron James – that it’s not just about basketball, it’s about things beyond that.

I remembered that not long ago, after Cleveland came back from being well behind in the final minutes and won a game, Blatt told an interviewer, “There’s a great saying in Russian: ‘Hope dies last.’” And I’m pretty sure that, if he heard him, Phil Jackson just smiled to himself with satisfaction.



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