“Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success” marks Phil Jackson’s eighth foray into the world of publishing. As the name suggests, the overarching theme of the book is how an average player, with many interests outside of the realm of basketball, went on to become the most decorated coach in NBA history. While the more cynical amongst us may say, “Michael Jordan+Kobe Bryant=11 Rings, end of story”, Jackson’s book goes much deeper than just basketball X’s & O’s. In fact, basketball almost plays a secondary role for much of the book, with Coach Jackson taking up his preferred role of philosopher and basketball shaman.
Throughout “Eleven Rings”, Phil Jackson makes a number of references to his “hyperactive mind”. The book itself stands as a testament to this characteristic, reading as one might imagine his thought process working; weaving in and out of various topics, never fully committing to just one subject. One sentence you’ll be reading about a crucial three-pointer made by Steve Kerr, and in the next Phil will be explaining the spiritual enlightenment bestowed upon him during a cross country motorcycle ride in the ‘70s. It leads to one genre-bending read, where you’re never quite sure if the message is the basketball, or the greater principles at play.
Rick Fox gives his own view on Jackson’s hyperactive mind, “describing [his] approach to coaching as a play in three acts” (213). While most coaches worry about starting a season strong and establishing a bar for the rest of the year, Phil Jackson would “sit back and let the characters reveal themselves”. Then, during the time right before and after the all-star game, “he would nurture the team, when guys were starting to get bored”. Usually, this manifested in the form of a pseudo-book club, with Jackson handpicking motivational memoirs and novels for each and every member of his team. Finally, in the third act towards the end of the season, Jackson would assert his dominance and take control of the reigns. “He would [take] the pressure off of us and put it on himself. He would turn whole cities against him. And everyone would get upset at him and wouldn’t be thinking about us” (214). With this, Jackson created the illusion of individual empowerment within his locker rooms, while really pulling the strings all along.
Lest you have no interest in leadership theories or the teachings of Buddhist monks, “Eleven Rings” also delivers with a number of quality basketball stories. Sure, there are the Michael Jordan ego trips and some accounts of the infamous Kobe-Shaq feud, but those stories have been done to death. Instead, Jackson’s stories about Dennis Rodman, in the aptly-titled chapter “As The Worm Turns”, are some of the best behind-the-scenes and most entertaining bits of the book. Rodman was and is an infamous character, but hearing from the man who was in charge of keeping him functional enough to play 82 professional basketball games a year gives a whole new perspective on things. But nothing, and I mean nothing, tops a simple story in the middle of his memoir that has no affiliation to a basketball game, and no greater purpose to the narrative as a whole. “One day Shaq dropped by the house unannounced. He’d ventured to Montana in order to perform at a rap concert in nearby Kalispell […] When I drove up, Shaq was bouncing on a trampoline down by the lake and creating quite a sensation in the neighborhood” (205).
In the end, Phil Jackson’s “Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success” blurs the line between memoir and self-help book. It is literature that can be equally enjoyed by hoops junkies and aspiring leaders alike, without ever fully isolating one or the other. After becoming used to so many ghost writers dominating memoirs in sports, it’s refreshing to read a book that very much sounds like the voice of its author. It is introspective, and sometimes almost annoyingly so, but “Eleven Rings” gives you a clear picture of how Phil Jackson has become the elusive yet revered figure he is in the world of basketball.