THE CIRCLE OF LOVE
Life is a journey. Time is a river. The door is ajar.
Cecil B. DeMille would have loved this moment.
Here I was sitting in a limo at the ramp leading into the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, waiting for my team to arrive, while an ecstatic crowd of ninety-five thousand plus fans, dressed in every possible combination of Lakers purple and gold, marched into the stadium. Women in tutus, men in Star Wars storm-trooper costumes, toddlers waving “Kobe Diem” signs. Yet despite all the zaniness, there was something inspiring about this ancient ritual with a decidedly L.A. twist. As Jeff Weiss, a writer for LA Weekly, put it: “It was the closest any of us will ever know what it was like to watch the Roman Legions returning home after a tour of Gaul.”
Truth be told, I’ve never really felt that comfortable at victory celebrations, which is strange given my chosen profession. First of all, I’m phobic about large crowds. It doesn’t bother me during games, but it can make me queasy in less controlled situations. I’ve also never really loved being the center of attention. Perhaps it’s my inherent shyness or the conflicting messages I got as a kid from my parents, who were both ministers. In their view, winning was fine—in fact, my mother was one of the most fiercely competitive people I’ve ever met—but reveling in your own success was considered an insult to God. Or as they would say, “The glory belongs to Him.”
This celebration wasn’t about me, though. It was about the remarkable transformation the players had undergone en route to the 2009 NBA championship. You could see it in their faces as they descended the long purple and gold staircase into the coliseum dressed in rally caps and championship T-shirts, laughing, jostling, beaming with joy, while the crowd roared with delight. Four years earlier the Lakers hadn’t even made the playoffs. Now they were masters of the basketball universe. Some coaches are obsessed with winning trophies; others like to see their faces on TV. What moves me is watching young men bond together and tap into the magic that arises when they focus—with their whole heart and soul—on something greater than themselves. Once you’ve experienced that, it’s something you never forget.
The symbol is the ring.
In the NBA, rings symbolize status and power. No matter how gaudy or cumbersome a championship ring may be, the dream of winning one is what motivates players to put themselves through the trials of a long NBA season. Jerry Krause, the former general manager of the Chicago Bulls, understood this. When I joined the team as an assistant coach in 1987, he asked me to wear one of the two championship rings I’d earned playing for the New York Knicks as a way to inspire the young Bulls players. This is something I used to do during the playoffs when I was a coach in the Continental Basketball Association, but the idea of sporting such a big chunk of bling on my finger every day seemed a bit much. One month into Jerry’s grand experiment the ring’s centerpiece rock fell out while I was dining at Bennigan’s in Chicago, and it was never recovered. After that I went back to wearing the rings only during the playoffs and on special occasions like this triumphant gathering at the coliseum.
On a psychological level, the ring symbolizes something profound: the quest of the self to find harmony, connection, and wholeness. In Native American culture, for instance, the unifying power of the circle was so meaningful that whole nations were conceived as a series of interconnected rings (or hoops). The tepee was a ring, as were the campfire, the village, and the layout of the nation itself—circles within circles, having no beginning or end.
Most of the players weren’t that familiar with Native American psychology, but they understood intuitively the deeper meaning of the ring. Early in the season, the players had created a chant they would shout before each game, their hands joined together in a circle.
One, two, three—RING!
After the players had taken their places on the stage—the Lakers’ portable basketball court from the Staples Center—I stood and addressed the crowd. “What was our motto on this team? The ring,” I said, flashing my ring from the last championship we won, in 2002. “The ring. That was the motto. It’s not just the band of gold. It’s the circle that’s made a bond between all these players. A great love for one another.”
Circle of love.
That’s not the way most basketball fans think of their sport. But after more than forty years involved in the game at the highest level, both as a player and as a coach, I can’t think of a truer phrase to describe the mysterious alchemy that joins players together and unites them in pursuit of the impossible.
Obviously, we’re not talking romantic love here or even brotherly love in the traditional Christian sense. The best analogy I can think of is the intense emotional connection that great warriors experience in the heat of battle.
Several years ago journalist Sebastian Junger embedded himself with a platoon of American soldiers stationed in one of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan to learn what enabled these incredibly brave young men to fight in such horrifying conditions. What he discovered, as chronicled in his book War, was that the courage needed to engage in battle was indistinguishable from love. Because of the strong brotherhood the soldiers had formed, they were more concerned about what happened to their buddies than about what happened to themselves. Junger recalls one soldier telling him that he would throw himself on a grenade for any one of his platoonmates, even those he didn’t like all that much. When Junger asked why, the soldier replied, “Because I actually love my brothers. I mean, it’s a brotherhood. Being able to save their life so they can live, I think is rewarding. Any of them would do it for me.”
That kind of bond, which is virtually impossible to replicate in civilian life, is critical to success, says Junger, because without it nothing else is possible.
I don’t want to take the analogy too far. Basketball players don’t risk their lives every day like soldiers in Afghanistan, but in many ways the same principle applies. It takes a number of critical factors to win an NBA championship, including the right mix of talent, creativity, intelligence, toughness, and, of course, luck. But if a team doesn’t have the most essential ingredient—love—none of those other factors matter.
Building that kind of consciousness doesn’t happen overnight. It takes years of nurturing to get young athletes to step outside their egos and fully engage in a group experience. The NBA is not exactly the friendliest environment for teaching selflessness. Even though the game itself is a five-person sport, the culture surrounding it celebrates egoistic behavior and stresses individual achievement over team bonding.
This wasn’t the case when I started playing for the Knicks in 1967. In those days most players were paid modestly and had to take part-time jobs in the summer to make ends meet. The games were rarely televised and none of us had ever heard of a highlight reel, let alone Twitter. That shifted in the 1980s, fueled in large part by the popularity of the Magic Johnson–Larry Bird rivalry and the emergence of Michael Jordan as a global phenomenon. Today the game has grown into a multibillion-dollar industry, with fans all over the world and a sophisticated media machine that broadcasts everything that happens on and off the court, 24-7. The unfortunate by-product of all this is a marketing-driven obsession with superstardom that strokes the egos of a handful of ballplayers and plays havoc with the very thing that attracts most people to basketball in the first place: the inherent beauty of the game.
Like most championship NBA teams, the 2008–09 Lakers had struggled for years to make the transition from a disconnected, ego-driven team to a unified, selfless one. They weren’t the most transcendent team I’d ever coached; that honor belongs to the 1995–96 Chicago Bulls, led by Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Nor were they as talented as the 1999–2000 Lakers team, which was loaded with clutch shooters including Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Glen Rice, Robert Horry, Rick Fox, and Derek Fisher. But the 2008–09 Lakers had the seeds of greatness in their collective DNA.
The players looked hungrier than ever when they showed up for training camp in August 2008. At the end of the previous season, they’d made a miraculous run to the finals against the Celtics, only to be humiliated in Boston and lose the decisive game 6 by 39 points. Clearly the beating we’d received at the hands of Kevin Garnett and company—not to mention the torturous ride to our hotel afterward through mobs of Celtics fans—had been a brutal experience, especially for the younger players who hadn’t tasted Boston venom before.
Some teams get demoralized after losses like that, but this young, spirited team was energized by getting so close to the prize only to have it batted away by a tougher, more physically intimidating opponent. Kobe, who had been named the NBA’s most valuable player that year, was particularly laser focused. I’ve always been impressed by Kobe’s resilience and ironclad self-confidence. Unlike Shaq, who was often plagued by self-doubt, Kobe never let such thoughts cross his mind. If someone set the bar at ten feet, he’d jump eleven, even if no one had ever done it before. That’s the attitude he brought with him when he arrived at training camp that fall, and it had a powerful impact on his teammates.
Still, what surprised me the most was not Kobe’s ruthless determination but his changing relationship with his teammates. Gone was the brash young man who was so consumed with being the best player ever that he sucked the joy out of the game for everyone else. The new Kobe who had emerged during the season took his role as team leader to heart. Years ago, when I’d first arrived in L.A., I’d encouraged Kobe to spend time with his teammates instead of hiding out in his hotel room studying videotape. But he’d scoffed at the idea, claiming that all those guys were interested in were cars and women. Now he was making an effort to connect more closely with his teammates and figure out how to forge them into a more cohesive team.
Of course, it helped that the team’s other cocaptain—Derek Fisher—was a natural leader with exceptional emotional intelligence and finely tuned management skills. I was pleased when Fish, who had played a key role as a point guard during our earlier run of three consecutive championships, decided to return to L.A. after free-agent gigs with the Golden State Warriors and the Utah Jazz. Though Fish wasn’t as quick or as inventive as some of the younger point guards in the league, he was strong, determined, and fearless, with a rock-solid character. And despite his lack of speed, he had a gift for pushing the ball up court and making our offense run properly. He was also an excellent three-point shooter when the clock was running down. Most of all, he and Kobe had a solid bond. Kobe respected Derek’s mental discipline and dependability under pressure, and Derek knew how to get through to Kobe in a way that nobody else could.
Kobe and Fish kicked off the first day of training camp with a speech about how the upcoming season would be a marathon, not a sprint, and how we needed to focus on meeting force with force and not allowing ourselves to be intimidated by physical pressure. Ironically, Kobe was beginning to sound more and more like me every day.
In their groundbreaking book, Tribal Leadership, management consultants Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright lay out the five stages of tribal development, which they formulated after conducting extensive research on small to midsize organizations. Although basketball teams are not officially tribes, they share many of the same characteristics and develop along much the same lines:
STAGE 1—shared by most street gangs and characterized by despair, hostility, and the collective belief that “life sucks.”
STAGE 2—filled primarily with apathetic people who perceive themselves as victims and who are passively antagonistic, with the mind-set that “my life sucks.” Think The Office on TV or the Dilbert comic strip.
STAGE 3—focused primarily on individual achievement and driven by the motto “I’m great (and you’re not).” According to the authors, people in organizations at this stage “have to win, and for them winning is personal. They’ll outwork and outthink their competitors on an individual basis. The mood that results is a collection of ‘lone warriors.’”
STAGE 4—dedicated to tribal pride and the overriding conviction that “we’re great (and they’re not).” This kind of team requires a strong adversary, and the bigger the foe, the more powerful the tribe.
STAGE 5—a rare stage characterized by a sense of innocent wonder and the strong belief that “life is great.” (See Bulls, Chicago, 1995–98.)
All things being equal, contend Logan and his colleagues, a stage 5 culture will outperform a stage 4 culture, which will outperform a 3, and so on. In addition, the rules change when you move from one culture to another. That’s why the so-called universal principles that appear in most leadership textbooks rarely hold up. In order to shift a culture from one stage to the next, you need to find the levers that are appropriate for that particular stage in the group’s development.
During the 2008–09 season the Lakers needed to shift from a stage 3 team to a stage 4 in order to win. The key was getting a critical mass of players to buy into a more selfless approach to the game. I didn’t worry so much about Kobe, even though he could go on a shooting spree at any second if he felt frustrated. Still, by this point in his career I knew he understood the folly of trying to score every time he got his hands on the ball. Nor was I concerned about Fish or Pau Gasol, who were naturally inclined to be team players. What concerned me most were some of the younger players eager to make a name for themselves with the ESPN SportsCenter crowd.
But to my surprise, early in the season I noticed that even some of the most immature players on the team were focused and single-minded. “We were on a serious mission, and there wasn’t going to be any letup,” says forward Luke Walton. “By the time we got to the finals, losing just wasn’t going to be an option.”
We got off to a roaring start, winning twenty-one of our first twenty-five games, and by the time we faced the Celtics at home on Christmas, we were a far more spirited team than we’d been during the previous year’s playoffs. We were playing the game the way the “basketball gods” had ordained: reading defenses on the move and reacting in unison like a finely tuned jazz combo. These new Lakers beat the Celtics handily, 92–83, and then danced through the season to the best record in the Western Conference (65-17).
The most troubling threat came in the second round of the playoffs from the Houston Rockets, who pushed the series to seven games, despite losing star Yao Ming to a broken foot in game 3. If anything, our biggest weakness was the illusion that we could cruise on talent alone. But going to the brink against a team that was missing its top three stars showed our players just how treacherous the playoffs could be. The close contest woke them up and helped them move closer to becoming a selfless stage 4 team.
No question, the team that walked off the floor in Orlando after winning the championship finals in five games was different from the team that had fallen apart on the parquet floor of the TD Garden in Boston the year before. Not only were the players tougher and more confident, but they were graced by a fierce bond.
“It was just a brotherhood,” said Kobe. “That’s all it is—a brotherhood.”
Most coaches I know spend a lot of time focusing on X’s and O’s. I must admit that at times I’ve fallen in that trap myself. But what fascinates most people about sports is not the endless chatter about strategy that fills the airwaves. It’s what I like to call the spiritual nature of the game.
I can’t pretend to be an expert in leadership theory. But what I do know is that the art of transforming a group of young, ambitious individuals into an integrated championship team is not a mechanistic process. It’s a mysterious juggling act that requires not only a thorough knowledge of the time-honored laws of the game but also an open heart, a clear mind, and a deep curiosity about the ways of the human spirit.
This book is about my journey to try to unravel that mystery.
THE JACKSON ELEVEN
You can’t break the rules until you know how to play the game.
RICKI LEE JONES
Before we go any further, I’d like to give you an overview of the basic principles of mindful leadership that I’ve evolved over the years to help transform disorganized teams into champions. You won’t find any lofty management theories here. With leadership, as with most things in life, the best approach is always the simplest.
1. LEAD FROM THE INSIDE OUT
Some coaches love to run with the lemmings. They spend an inordinate amount of time studying what other coaches are doing and trying out every flashy new technique to get an edge over their opponents. That kind of outside-in strategy might work in the short term if you have a forceful, charismatic personality, but it inevitably backfires when the players grow weary of being browbeaten and tune out or, even more likely, your opponents wise up and figure out a clever way to counter your latest move.
I am antilemming by nature. It goes back to my childhood, when I was force-fed religious dogma by my parents, both Pentecostal ministers. I was expected to think and behave in a rigidly prescribed manner. As an adult, I’ve tried to break free from that early conditioning and develop a more open-minded, personally meaningful way of being in the world.
For a long time, I believed I had to keep my personal beliefs separate from my professional life. In my quest to come to terms with my own spiritual yearning, I experimented with a wide range of ideas and practices, from Christian mysticism to Zen meditation and Native American rituals. Eventually, I arrived at a synthesis that felt authentic to me. And though at first I worried that my players might find my unorthodox views a little wacky, as time went by I discovered that the more I spoke from the heart, the more the players could hear me and benefit from what I’d gleaned.
2. BENCH THE EGO
Once a reporter asked Bill Fitch, my coach at the University of North Dakota, whether dealing with difficult personalities gave him heartburn, and he replied, “I’m the one who gives people heartburn, not them.” Fitch, who later became a successful NBA coach, represents one of the most common styles of coaching: the domineering “my way or the highway” type of leader (which, in Bill’s case, was tempered by his devilish sense of humor). The other classic type is the suck-up coach, who tries to mollify the stars on the team and be their best friend—a fool’s exercise at best.
I’ve taken a different tack. After years of experimenting, I discovered that the more I tried to exert power directly, the less powerful I became. I learned to dial back my ego and distribute power as widely as possible without surrendering final authority. Paradoxically, this approach strengthened my effectiveness because it freed me to focus on my job as keeper of the team’s vision.
Some coaches insist on having the last word, but I always tried to foster an environment in which everyone played a leadership role, from the most unschooled rookie to the veteran superstar. If your primary objective is to bring the team into a state of harmony and oneness, it doesn’t make sense for you to rigidly impose your authority.
Dialing back the ego doesn’t mean being a pushover. That’s a lesson I learned from my mentor, former Knicks coach Red Holzman, one of the most selfless leaders I’ve ever known. Once when the team was flying out for a road trip, a player’s boom box started blaring some heavy rock. Red went over to the guy and said, “Hey, do you have any Glenn Miller in your mix?” The guy looked at Red as if he were out of his mind. “Well, when you get some, you can play a little of my music and a little of yours. Otherwise, shut that damn thing off.” Then Red sat down next to me and said, “You know, players have egos, but sometimes they forget that coaches have egos too.”
3. LET EACH PLAYER DISCOVER HIS OWN DESTINY
One thing I’ve learned as a coach is that you can’t force your will on people. If you want them to act differently, you need to inspire them to change themselves.
Most players are used to letting their coach think for them. When they run into a problem on the court, they look nervously over at the sidelines expecting coach to come up with an answer. Many coaches will gladly accommodate them. But not me. I’ve always been interested in getting players to think for themselves so that they can make difficult decisions in the heat of battle.
The standard rule of thumb in the NBA is that you should call a time-out as soon as an opposing team goes on a 6–0 run. Much to my coaching staff’s dismay, I often let the clock keep running at that point, so that the players would be forced to come up with a solution on their own. This not only built solidarity but also increased what Michael Jordan used to call the team’s collective “think power.”
On another level, I always tried to give each player the freedom to carve out a role for himself within the team structure. I’ve seen dozens of players flame out and disappear not because they lacked talent but because they couldn’t figure out how to fit into the cookie-cutter model of basketball that pervades the NBA.
My approach was always to relate to each player as a whole person, not just as a cog in the basketball machine. That meant pushing him to discover what distinct qualities he could bring to the game beyond taking shots and making passes. How much courage did he have? Or resilience? What about character under fire? Many players I’ve coached didn’t look special on paper, but in the process of creating a role for themselves they grew into formidable champions. Derek Fisher is a prime example. He began as a backup point guard for the Lakers with average foot speed and shooting skills. But he worked tirelessly and transformed himself into an invaluable clutch performer and one of the best leaders I’ve ever coached.
4. THE ROAD TO FREEDOM IS A BEAUTIFUL SYSTEM
When I joined the Bulls in 1987 as an assistant coach, my colleague Tex Winter taught me a system, known as the triangle offense, that aligned perfectly with the values of selflessness and mindful awareness I’d been studying in Zen Buddhism. Tex learned the basics of the system as a student at the University of Southern California under legendary coach Sam Barry. As head coach at Kansas State, Tex refined the system and used it to lead the Wildcats to eight league titles and two Final Four appearances. He also relied on it when he was head coach of the Houston Rockets. (Tex’s USC teammates Bill Sharman and Alex Hannum used their own versions of the triangle en route to winning championships with the Lakers and 76ers, respectively.)
Despite Tex’s and my extraordinary success using the triangle with the Bulls and the Lakers, there are still a lot of misconceptions about how the system works. Critics call it rigid, outdated, and complicated to learn, none of which is true. In fact, the triangle is a simpler offense than most NBA teams run today. Best of all, it automatically stimulates creativity and teamwork, freeing players from having to memorize dozens of set plays.
What attracted me to the triangle was the way it empowers the players, offering each one a vital role to play as well as a high level of creativity within a clear, well-defined structure. The key is to train each player to read the defense and react appropriately. This allows the team to move together in a coordinated manner—depending on the action at any given moment. With the triangle you can’t stand around and wait for the Michael Jordans and Kobe Bryants of the world to work their magic. All five players must be fully engaged every second—or the whole system will fail. That stimulates an ongoing process of group problem solving in real time, not just on a coach’s clipboard during time-outs. When the triangle is working right, it’s virtually impossible to stop it because nobody knows what’s going to happen next, not even the players themselves.
5. TURN THE MUNDANE INTO THE SACRED
As a boy I used to marvel at the way my parents created community, transforming the hardscrabble life on the plains of Montana and North Dakota into a sacred experience.
You know the hymn:
Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.
That’s the essence of what it means to bring individuals together and connect them to something greater than themselves. I heard that hymn thousands of times when I was growing up, and I witnessed what happens when the spirit touches people and unites them. The rituals had a profound effect on me—and on my approach to leadership—even though later I drifted away from the Pentecostal faith and found a new direction spiritually.
Once when the Bulls were getting on the team bus after a close come-from-behind win, my trainer Chip Schaefer said he wished we could bottle that late-game energy like a magic potion so we could bring it out whenever we needed it. That’s a nice idea, but what I’ve learned is that the forces that join people harmoniously aren’t that clear-cut. They can’t be manufactured at will, though you can do your best to create the conditions that will promote that sort of transformation—very similar to what my parents tried to do every Sunday in church.
As I see it, my job as a coach was to make something meaningful out of one of the most mundane activities on the planet: playing pro basketball. Despite all the glamour surrounding the sport, the process of playing day after day in one city after another can be a soul-numbing exercise. That’s why I started incorporating meditation into practices. I wanted to give players something besides X’s and O’s to focus on. What’s more, we often invented rituals of our own to infuse practices with a sense of the sacred.
At the start of training camp, for instance, we used to perform a ritual that I borrowed from football great Vince Lombardi. As the players formed a row on the baseline, I’d ask them to commit to being coached that season, saying, “God has ordained me to coach you young men, and I embrace the role I’ve been given. If you wish to accept the game I embrace and follow my coaching, as a sign of your commitment, step across that line.” Wonder of wonders, they always did it.
We did this in a fun way, but with a serious intent. The essence of coaching is to get the players to wholeheartedly agree to being coached, then offer them a sense of their destiny as a team.
6. ONE BREATH = ONE MIND
When I took over the Lakers in 1999, they were a talented but highly unfocused team. They often fell apart in the playoffs because their attack was so confused and undisciplined and the better teams, such as the San Antonio Spurs and the Utah Jazz, had figured out how to neutralize the Lakers’ most potent weapon: Shaquille O’Neal.
Yes, we could make a number of tactical moves to counter these weaknesses, but what the players really needed was a way to quiet the chatter in their minds and focus on the business of winning basketball games. When I was head coach of the Bulls, the players had to deal with the Michael Jordan media caravan. But that was nothing compared to the distractions the Lakers faced in the belly of celebrity culture. To get the players to settle down, I introduced them to one of the tools I’d used successfully with the Bulls: mindfulness meditation.
I’ve taken a lot of ribbing from other coaches for my experiments with meditation. Once college basketball coaches Dean Smith and Bobby Knight came to a Lakers game and asked me, “Is it true, Phil, that you and your players sit around in a dark room before games and hold hands?”
All I could do was laugh. Though mindfulness meditation has its roots in Buddhism, it’s an easily accessible technique for quieting the restless mind and focusing attention on whatever is happening in the present moment. This is extremely useful for basketball players, who often have to make split-second decisions under enormous pressure. I also discovered that when I had the players sit in silence, breathing together in sync, it helped align them on a nonverbal level far more effectively than words. One breath equals one mind.
Another aspect of Buddhist teachings that has influenced me is the emphasis on openness and freedom. The Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki likened the mind to a cow in a pasture. If you enclose the cow in a small yard, it will become nervous and frustrated and start eating the neighbor’s grass. But if you give it a large pasture to roam around in, it will be more content and less likely to break loose. For me, this approach to mental discipline has been enormously refreshing, compared to the restricted way of thinking ingrained in me as a child.
I’ve also found that Suzuki’s metaphor can be applied to managing a team. If you place too many restrictions on players, they’ll spend an inordinate amount of time trying to buck the system. Like all of us, they need a certain degree of structure in their lives, but they also require enough latitude to express themselves creatively. Otherwise they’ll start behaving like that penned-in cow.
7. THE KEY TO SUCCESS IS COMPASSION
In his new adaptation of the Chinese sacred text Tao Te Ching, Stephen Mitchell offers a provocative take on Lao-tzu’s approach to leadership:
I have just three things to teach:
simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are the greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and thoughts,
you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.
All of these “treasures” have been integral to my coaching, but compassion has been the most important. In the West we tend to think of compassion as a form of charity, but I share Lao-tzu’s view that compassion for all beings—not least of all oneself—is the key to breaking down barriers among people.
Now, “compassion” is a word not often bandied about in locker rooms. But I’ve found that a few kind, thoughtful words can have a strong transformative effect on relationships, even with the toughest men on the team.
Because I started as a player, I’ve always been able to empathize with young men facing the harsh realities of life in the NBA. Most players live in a state of constant anxiety, worrying about whether they’re going to be hurt or humiliated, cut or traded, or, worst of all, make a foolish mistake that will haunt them for the rest of their lives. When I was with the Knicks, I was sidelined for more than a year with a debilitating back injury. That experience allowed me to talk with players I’ve coached from personal experience about how it feels when your body gives out and you have to ice every joint after a game, or even sit on the bench for an entire season.
Beyond that, I think it’s essential for athletes to learn to open their hearts so that they can collaborate with one another in a meaningful way. When Michael returned to the Bulls in 1995 after a year and a half of playing minor-league baseball, he didn’t know most of the players and he felt completely out of sync with the team. It wasn’t until he got into a fight with Steve Kerr at practice that he realized he needed to get to know his teammates more intimately. He had to understand what made them tick, so that he could work with them more productively. That moment of awakening helped Michael become a compassionate leader and ultimately helped transform the team into one of the greatest of all time.
8. KEEP YOUR EYE ON THE SPIRIT, NOT ON THE SCOREBOARD
Management guru Stephen Covey tells this old Japanese tale about a samurai warrior and his three sons: The samurai wanted to teach his sons about the power of teamwork. So he gave each of them an arrow and asked them to break it. No problem. Each son did it easily. Then the samurai gave them a bundle of three arrows bound together and asked them to repeat the process. But none of them could. “That’s your lesson,” the samurai said. “If you three stick together, you will never be defeated.”
This story reflects just how strong a team can be when each of its members surrenders his self-interest for the greater good. When a player isn’t forcing a shot or trying to impose his personality on the team, his gifts as an athlete most fully manifest. Paradoxically, by playing within his natural abilities, he activates a higher potential for the team that transcends his own limitations and helps his teammates transcend theirs. When this happens, the whole begins to add up to more than the sum of its parts.
Example: We had a player on the Lakers who loved to chase down balls on defense. If his mind was focused on scoring points at the other end of the floor instead of on making steals, he wouldn’t be able to perform either task very well. But when he committed himself to playing defense, his teammates covered for him on the other end, because they knew intuitively what he was going to do. Then, all of a sudden, everybody was able to hit their rhythm, and good things began to happen.
Interestingly, the other players weren’t consciously aware that they were anticipating their teammate’s behavior. It wasn’t an out-of-body experience or anything like that. But somehow, mysteriously, they just sensed what was going to happen next and made their moves accordingly.
Most coaches get tied up in knots worrying about tactics, but I preferred to focus my attention on whether the players were moving together in a spirited way. Michael Jordan used to say that what he liked about my coaching style was how patient I remained during the final minutes of a game, much like his college coach, Dean Smith.
This wasn’t an act. My confidence grew out of knowing that when the spirit was right and the players were attuned to one another, the game was likely to unfold in our favor.
9. SOMETIMES YOU HAVE TO PULL OUT THE BIG STICK
In the strictest form of Zen, monitors roam the meditation hall, striking sleeping or listless meditators with a flat wooden stick, called a keisaku, to get them to pay attention. This is not intended as punishment. In fact, the keisaku is sometimes referred to as a “compassionate stick.” The purpose of the blow is to reinvigorate the meditator and make him or her more awake in the moment.
I haven’t wielded a keisaku stick in practice, though there were times when I wished I’d had one handy. Still, I’ve pulled out some other tricks to wake players up and raise their level of consciousness. Once I had the Bulls practice in silence; on another occasion I made them scrimmage with the lights out. I like to shake things up and keep the players guessing. Not because I want to make their lives miserable but because I want to prepare them for the inevitable chaos that occurs the minute they step onto a basketball court.
One of my favorite ploys was to divide the players into two lopsided teams for a scrimmage, then not call any fouls on the weaker of the two. I liked to see how the players on the stronger team would respond when all the calls were going against them and their opponents were running up 30-point leads. This scheme used to drive Michael nuts because he couldn’t stand losing, even though he knew the game was rigged.
One of the players I came down especially hard on was Lakers forward Luke Walton. I sometimes played mind games with him so that he would know what it felt like to be stressed out under pressure. Once I put him through a particularly frustrating series of exercises, and I could tell by his reaction that I’d pushed him too far. Afterward I sat down with him and said, “I know you’re thinking about becoming a coach someday. I think that’s a good idea, but coaching isn’t all fun and games. Sometimes no matter how nice a guy you are, you’re going to have to be an asshole. You can’t be a coach if you need to be liked.”
10. WHEN IN DOUBT, DO NOTHING
Basketball is an action sport, and most people involved in it are high-energy individuals who love to do something—anything—to solve problems. However, there are occasions when the best solution is to do absolutely nothing.
This is especially true when the media is involved. Reporters often made fun of me for not directly confronting my players when they acted immaturely or said something dumb in the press. The Los Angeles Times’s T. J. Simers wrote a funny column once about my propensity for inactivity and concluded wryly that “no one does nothing better than Phil.” I get the joke. But I’ve always been wary of asserting my ego frivolously just to give reporters something to write about.
On a deeper level, I believe that focusing on something other than the business at hand can be the most effective way to solve complex problems. When the mind is allowed to relax, inspiration often follows. Research is beginning to prove the point. In a commentary on CNNMoney.com, Fortune senior writer Anne Fisher reported that scientists have begun to realize “that people may do their best thinking when they are not concentrating on work at all.” She cites studies published in the journal Science by Dutch psychologists who concluded, “The unconscious mind is a terrific solver of complex problems when the conscious mind is busy elsewhere or, perhaps better yet, not overtaxed at all.”
That’s why I subscribe to the philosophy of the late Satchel Paige, who said, “Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits.”
11. FORGET THE RING
I hate losing. I always have. When I was a kid, I was so competitive I frequently burst into tears and broke the board into pieces if one of my older brothers, Charles or Joe, trounced me in a game. They loved teasing me when I threw a sore loser’s tantrum, which made me even more determined to win the next time. I’d practice and practice until I figured out a way to beat them and wipe the smug smiles off their faces.
Even as an adult, I’ve been known to act out on occasion. Once, after a particularly embarrassing loss to Orlando in the playoffs, I shaved off most of my hair and stomped around the room for nearly an hour until the anger subsided.
And yet as a coach, I know that being fixated on winning (or more likely, not losing) is counterproductive, especially when it causes you to lose control of your emotions. What’s more, obsessing about winning is a loser’s game: The most we can hope for is to create the best possible conditions for success, then let go of the outcome. The ride is a lot more fun that way. Bill Russell, the Boston Celtics great who won more championship rings as a player than anyone else (eleven), revealed in his memoir, Second Wind, that he sometimes secretly rooted for the opposing team during big games because if they were doing well, it meant he would have a more heightened experience.
Lao-tzu saw it another way. He believed that being too competitive could throw you out of whack spiritually:
The best athlete
wants his opponent at his best.
The best general
enters the mind of his enemy . . .
All of them embody
the virtue of non-competition.
Not that they don’t love to compete,
but they do it in the spirit of play.
That’s why at the start of every season I always encouraged players to focus on the journey rather than the goal. What matters most is playing the game the right way and having the courage to grow, as human beings as well as basketball players. When you do that, the ring takes care of itself.
The greatest carver does the least cutting.
My first impression of the NBA was that it was an unstructured mess.
When Red Holzman recruited me for the New York Knicks in 1967, I’d never seen an NBA game before, except for a few playoff games on TV between the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia Warriors. So Red sent me a film of a 1966 game between the Knicks and the Lakers, and I invited a bunch of my college teammates over to watch it on a big screen.
I was stunned by how sloppy and undisciplined both teams were. At the University of North Dakota, we prided ourselves on playing the game in a systematic way. In fact, in my senior year coach Bill Fitch had implemented a system of ball movement that I really liked, which I later learned was a version of the triangle that he’d picked up from Tex Winter.
There seemed to be no logic to the Knicks game we were watching. To me it looked like nothing more than a bunch of talented players running up and down the floor looking for shots.
Then the fight broke out.
Willis Reed, the Knicks’ imposing six-nine, 235-pound power forward got tangled up with forward Rudy LaRusso near the Lakers’ bench. Then there was a pause in the film, and when it started up again, Willis was shrugging several Lakers players off his back, before leveling center Darrall Imhoff and slugging LaRusso twice in the face. By the time they finally subdued him, Willis had also broken forward John Block’s nose and thrown center Hank Finkel to the ground.
Wow. We all jumped up in unison and shouted, “Run that back again!” Meanwhile, I’m thinking, What have I gotten myself into? This is the guy I’m going to be going up against day in and day out in practice!
Actually, when I met Willis that summer, I found him to be a warm and friendly guy, who was dignified, bighearted, and a natural leader whom everyone respected. He had a commanding presence on the floor and he felt instinctively that his job was to protect his teammates. The Knicks expected Willis to be suspended for that incident in the game against L.A., but the league was more tolerant about fighting in those days and let it go. From that point on, big men around the league started thinking twice before getting into a tussle with Willis on the floor.
Reed wasn’t the only great leader on the Knicks. In fact, playing for New York during the championship years was like going to grad school in leadership. Forward Dave DeBusschere, who had been a player/coach for the Detroit Pistons before joining the Knicks, was an astute floor general. Forward Bill Bradley, the future U.S. senator, was gifted at building consensus among the players and helping them meld together into a team. Shooting guard Dick Barnett, who later earned a Ph.D. in education, used his biting wit to keep everyone from taking themselves too seriously. And Walt Frazier, my roommate during the first season, was a masterful point guard who served as the team’s quarterback on the floor.
But the man who taught me the most about leadership was the most unassuming of them all: Holzman himself.
The first time Red saw me play was during one of the worst games of my college career. I got into foul trouble early and never found my rhythm, as Louisiana Tech knocked us out in the first round of the NCAA small-college tournament. I scored 51 points in the consolation game against Parsons, but Red missed that one.
Nevertheless, Red must have seen something he liked because he grabbed Bill Fitch after the Louisiana Tech game and asked him, “Do you think Jackson can play for me?” Fitch didn’t hesitate. “Sure he can play for you,” he said, thinking that Red was looking for players who could handle full-court defense. It was only afterward that he realized that what Red really wanted to know was: Can this hick from North Dakota handle life in the Big Apple? Either way, Fitch says, his answer would have been the same.
Fitch was a hard-nosed coach—and ex-Marine—who ran practices as if they were Parris Island drills. He was a far cry from my mild-mannered Williston (North Dakota) high school coach, Bob Peterson, but I liked playing for him because he was tough, honest, and always pushing me to do better. Once, in my junior year, I got drunk during pledge week and made a fool of myself trying to lead a bunch of students in school cheers. When Fitch heard the story, he told me I would have to do push-ups every time I saw him on campus.
Still, I flourished in Fitch’s system. We played full-court pressure defense, and I loved it. At six-eight I was big enough to play center, but I was also quick and energetic and had a large wingspan, which made it easy for me to harass playmakers and pick off steals. My arms were so long, in fact, that I could sit in the backseat of a car and open both front doors at the same time without leaning forward. In college, my nickname was “the Mop” because I was always falling on the floor, chasing after loose balls.
During my junior year, I came into my own, averaging 21.8 points and 12.9 rebounds per game, and was named first team All-American. We won the conference title that year and made the small-college Final Four for the second year in a row, losing in a tight semifinal game to Southern Illinois. The next year I averaged 27.4 points and 14.4 rebounds and scored 50 points twice on the way to making the All-American first team again.
At first I thought that if I was going to be drafted by the NBA, I would be picked by the Baltimore Bullets, whose head scout, my future boss, Jerry Krause, had been eyeing me. But the Bullets were outmaneuvered by the Knicks, who picked me early in the second round (seventeenth overall), leaving Krause, who’d gambled that I wouldn’t go until the third round, kicking himself for years.
I was also drafted by the Minnesota Muskies in the American Basketball Association, which was attractive to me because it was closer to home. But Holzman wasn’t going to let the Muskies win. He visited me that summer in Fargo, North Dakota, where I was working as a camp counselor, and made me a better offer. He asked me if I had any reservations about signing with the Knicks, and I replied that I was thinking about going to graduate school to become a minister. He said that there would be plenty of time after I finished my pro career to pursue whatever else I wanted to do. He also reassured me that I could turn to him if I had difficulty dealing with New York City.
As it turned out, John Lindsay, New York’s mayor at the time, was in Fargo giving a speech at the organization where I was working. Red found the synchronicity of it all amusing. While I signed the contract that day, he said, “Can you imagine? The mayor of New York is here and everybody knows it. And you’re here getting signed and nobody knows it.”
That’s when I knew I’d found my mentor.
When I arrived at training camp in October, the Knicks were in a holding pattern. We were still waiting for our new star forward, Bill Bradley, to show up after finishing Air Force Reserve boot camp. In fact, we were conducting training camp at McGuire Air Force Base in the hope that he would be able to break away at some point and start practicing with the team.
Although our roster was loaded with talent, the leadership structure hadn’t yet been established. The putative top man was Walt Bellamy, a high-scoring center and future Hall of Famer. But Walt was constantly battling with Willis, who was much better suited for the lead role. At one point in the previous season, the two of them had run into each other and literally knocked themselves out fighting to establish position in the post. Dick Van Arsdale was the starting small forward, but many thought that Cazzie Russell was more talented. Meanwhile, Dick Barnett and Howard Komives made up a solid backcourt, but Barnett was still recovering from a torn Achilles tendon the year before.
On top of all that, it was clear that the players had lost confidence in coach Dick McGuire, whose nickname, “Mumbles,” said a lot about his inability to communicate with the team. So it wasn’t surprising when Ned Irish, president of the Knicks, moved McGuire to a scouting position in December and appointed Red head coach. Holzman was a tough, reserved New Yorker with a wry sense of humor and a strong basketball pedigree. A two-time All-American guard at City College of New York, he played for the Rochester Royals as a pro, winning two league championships, before becoming head coach of the Milwaukee/St. Louis Hawks.
Red was a master of simplicity. He didn’t espouse any particular system, nor did he stay up all night inventing plays. What he believed in was playing the game the right way, which to him meant moving the ball on offense and playing intense team defense. Red learned the game in the pre–jump shot era when five-man ball movement was far more prevalent than one-on-one creativity. He had two simple rules, which he shouted from the sidelines during every game:
See the ball. Red focused much more attention on defense in practice because he believed that a strong defense was the key to everything. During one practice, Red, who could be extremely graphic when he needed to be, took copies of our plays and pretended to wipe his butt with them. “This is about how much good these things are,” he said, dropping the pages on the floor. That’s why he wanted us to learn to play defense together better, because once you did that, he believed, the offense would take care of itself.
In Red’s view, awareness was the secret to good defense. He stressed keeping your eye on the ball at all times and being acutely attuned to what was happening on the floor. The Knicks weren’t as big as other teams; nor did we have an overpowering shot blocker like the Celtics’ Bill Russell. So under Red’s direction, we developed a highly integrated style of defense that relied on the collective awareness of all five players rather than one man’s brilliant moves under the basket. With all five men working as one, it was easier to trap ball handlers, cut off passing lanes, exploit mistakes, and launch fast breaks before the other team could figure out what was going on.
Red loved using full-court pressure to throw opponents off their games. In fact, in my very first practice, we implemented a full-court press for the whole scrimmage. That was perfect for Walt Frazier, Emmett Bryant, and me, because we’d played full-court defense in college. My teammates dubbed me “Coat Hanger” and “Head and Shoulders” because of my physique, but I much preferred the name broadcaster Marv Albert gave me: “Action Jackson.” I knew that by playing forward instead of center, I was giving up my biggest strength—post play—but I could help the team out and get more time on the court by concentrating on defense. Besides, I didn’t possess a fifteen-foot jumper yet and my ball-handling skills were so sketchy that Red later gave me a two-dribble rule.
Hit the open man. If Red were coaching today, he would be appalled at how self-absorbed the game has become. For him, selflessness was the holy grail of basketball. “This isn’t rocket science,” he would proclaim, adding that the best offensive strategy was to keep the ball moving among all five players to create shooting opportunities and make it hard for the other team to focus on one or two shooters. Even though we had some of the best shot creators in the game—notably Frazier and Earl “the Pearl” Monroe—Red insisted that everybody work together in unison to get the ball to the player with the best shot. If you decided to go solo, which few players ever attempted, you’d soon find yourself exiled to the end bench.
“On a good team there are no superstars,” Red insisted. “There are great players who show they are great players by being able to play with others as a team. They have the ability to be superstars, but if they fit into a good team, they make sacrifices, they do things necessary to help the team win. What the numbers are in salaries or statistics don’t matter; how they play together does.”
Few teams in the NBA have ever been as balanced offensively as the 1969–70 Knicks. We had six players who consistently scored in double figures and none who averaged much higher than 20 points a game. What made the team so hard to defend was that all five starters were clutch shooters, so if you double-teamed one man who happened to be hot, it would open up opportunities for the other four—all of whom could hit big shots.
One thing that fascinated me about Red was how much of the offense he turned over to the players. He let us design many of the plays and actively sought out our thinking about what moves to make in critical games. Many coaches have a hard time giving over power to their players, but Red listened intently to what the players had to say because he knew we had more intimate knowledge of what was happening on the floor than he did.
Red’s singular gift, however, was his uncanny ability to manage grown men and get them to come together with a common mission. He didn’t use sophisticated motivational techniques; he was just straightforward and honest. Unlike many coaches, he didn’t interfere in players’ personal lives unless they were up to something that would have a negative effect on the team.
When Red took over as coach, practices were laughably chaotic. Players often arrived late and brought their friends and relatives as spectators. The facilities had broken floors, warped wooden backboards, and showers without any hot water, and the practices themselves were largely uncontrolled scrimmages without any drills or exercises. Red put a stop to all that. He instituted what he called “silly fines” for tardiness and banished from practices everybody who wasn’t on the team, including the press. He ran tough, disciplined practices focused primarily on defense. “Practice doesn’t make perfect,” he used to say. “Perfect practice does.”
On the road, there were no curfews or bed checks. Red had only one rule: The hotel bar belonged to him. He didn’t care where you went or what you did as long as you didn’t interrupt his late-night scotch with trainer Danny Whelan and the beat writers. Although he was more accessible than other coaches, he felt it was important to maintain a certain distance from the players because he knew that someday he might have to cut or trade one of us.
If he needed to discipline you, he rarely did it in front of the team, unless it was related to your basketball play. Instead he would invite you to his “private office”: the locker-room toilet. He usually called me in to the toilet when I’d said something critical in the press about the team. I had good rapport with the reporters after years of playing cards together, and sometimes I had a tendency to be overly glib. Red was more circumspect. “Don’t you realize,” he’d say, “that these newspapers are going to be lining somebody’s birdcage tomorrow?”
Red was notoriously sphinxlike with the media. He often took reporters out to dinner and talked for hours, but he rarely gave them anything they could use. He never criticized the players or any of our opponents. Instead he often toyed with reporters to see what kind of nonsense he could get them to print. Once after a particularly hard defeat, a reporter asked him how he managed to be so calm, and Red replied, “Because I realize that the only real catastrophe is coming home and finding out there’s no more scotch in the house.” Of course, the quote made the papers the next day.
What I loved about Red was his ability to put basketball in perspective. Early in the 1969–70 season, we went on an eighteen-game winning streak and pulled away from the rest of the pack. When the streak ended with a disappointing loss at home, reporters asked Red what he would have done if the Knicks had won, and he replied, “I’d go home, drink a scotch, and eat the great meal that [his wife] Selma is cooking.” And what would he do now that we had lost? “Go home, drink a scotch, and eat the great meal Selma is cooking.”
The turning point for the Knicks was another brawl, this time during a televised game against the Hawks in Atlanta in November 1968. The fight was ignited by Atlanta’s Lou Hudson in the second half when he tried to dodge around Willis Reed’s hard pick and ended up slugging him in the face. All of the Knicks got up and joined the battle (or at least pretended to), except for one player, Walt Bellamy.
The next day we had a team meeting to discuss the incident. The conversation revolved around Bellamy’s no-show, and the consensus among the players was that he wasn’t doing his job. When Red asked Walt why he hadn’t supported his teammates on the floor, he said, “I don’t think fighting is appropriate in basketball.” Many of us may have agreed with him in the abstract, but fighting was an everyday reality in the NBA, and it didn’t give any of us comfort to hear that our big man didn’t have our backs.
A few weeks later the Knicks traded Bellamy and Komives to the Pistons for Dave DeBusschere—a move that solidified the starting lineup and gave us the flexibility and depth to win two world championships. Willis took over as center and established himself as team leader and Red’s sergeant at arms. DeBusschere, a hard-driving, six-six, 220-pound player with great court sense and a smooth outside shot, stepped into the power forward position. Walt Frazier replaced Komives at point guard, teaming with Barnett, a gifted one-on-one player. Bill Bradley and Cazzie Russell shared the final position—small forward—because our starter, Dick Van Arsdale, had been picked up by the Phoenix Suns in that year’s expansion draft. But Bill got the upper hand when Cazzie broke his ankle two months after the DeBusschere trade.
It was interesting to watch Bill and Cazzie compete for that position when Russell returned the next year. Both of them had been stars in college and prized picks in the draft. (Bill was a territorial selection in 1965, and Cazzie was the number one pick overall in 1966.) Bradley, who was nicknamed “Dollar Bill” because of his impressive (for that time) four-year, $500,000 contract, had averaged more than 30 points a game three years in a row at Princeton and led the Tigers to the NCAA Final Four, where he was named the tournament’s most valuable player. After being drafted by the Knicks in 1965, he had decided to attend Oxford for two years as a Rhodes scholar before joining the team. There was so much hype about him that Barnett started referring to him sarcastically as “the man who could leap tall buildings with a single bound.”
Cazzie got a lot of teasing as well. He too had scored a big contract ($200,000 for two years) and had been such a dynamic scorer at Michigan that the school’s gym was dubbed “the House that Cazzie Built.” Nobody questioned his skill: Cazzie was an excellent shooter who had led the Wolverines to three consecutive Big Ten titles. What amused the players was his obsession with health food and alternative therapies. For once, there was someone on my team who had more nicknames than I did. He was called “Wonder Boy,” “Muscles Russell,” “Cockles ’n’ Muscles,” and my favorite, “Max Factor,” because he loved slathering massage oil on his body after workouts. His room was filled with so many vitamins and supplements that Barnett, his roommate, joked that you had to get a signed pharmaceutical note if you wanted to visit.
What impressed me about Bill and Cazzie was how intensely they were able to compete with each other without getting caught in a battle of egos. At first Bill had a hard time adjusting to the pro game because of his lack of foot speed and leaping ability, but he made up for those limitations by learning to move quickly without the ball and outsmart defenders on the run. Defending him in practice—which I often had to do—was nerve-racking. Just when you thought you had trapped him in a corner, he would skitter away and show up on the other side of the floor with an open shot.
Cazzie had a different problem. He was a great driver with a strong move to the basket, but the starting team worked better when Bradley was on the floor. So Red made Cazzie a sixth man who could come off the bench and ignite a game-turning scoring spree. Over time, Cazzie adjusted to the role and took pride in leading the second unit, which, in 1969–70, included center Nate Bowman, guard Mike Riordan, and forward Dave Stallworth (who had been sidelined for a year and a half recovering from a stroke), plus backup players John Warren, Donnie May, and Bill Hosket. Cazzie gave the unit a nickname: “the Minutemen.”
Not too long ago, Bill attended a Knicks reunion and was surprised when Cazzie, who is now a minister, came up to him and apologized for his selfish behavior when they were competing for the same job. Bill told Cazzie that there was no need to apologize because he knew that, no matter how driven Cazzie was, he never put his own ambition above that of the team.
Unfortunately I couldn’t be one of Cazzie’s Minutemen in 1969–70. In December 1968 I had a serious back injury that required spinal fusion surgery and took me out of the game for about a year and a half. The recovery was horrendous: I had to wear a body brace for six months and was told that I had to limit physical activity, including sex, during that period. My teammates asked if I was planning to have my wife wear a chastity belt. I laughed, but it wasn’t funny.
I probably could have returned to action in the 1969–70 season, but the team had gotten off to a great start and the front office decided to put me on the injured list for the whole year to protect me from being picked up in the expansion draft.
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