Phil Jackson won 11 championship rings as coach of the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers between 1991 and 2010. Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success is an autobiography of sorts, focused on those 11 championship seasons (plus the two he won as a player with the New York Knicks in 1970 and 1973). In it, Jackson recounts the lessons he learned in his attempts to turn teams from a bunch of “lone warriors” into a cohesive unit. In professional basketball, where players are encouraged by their friends, handlers, and the media to think of themselves as individuals and even brands, the greatest competitive advantage of Jackson’s teams at their best was their ability to set aside egos and put the team first.
This book is filled with interesting stories about Jackson’s life and the colorful personalities he worked with, and is an entertaining and quick read. Jackson’s stories about how he dealt with difficult characters like Dennis Rodman and, later, Kobe Bryant were particularly interesting, and I found some of Jackson’s coaching practices, like giving a specific book to each of his players every year, fascinating. However, I found by the end that I didn’t have a lot of admiration for Jackson as a person. It wasn’t that I disliked him, but I felt that the aura of imperturbability that he projected on the sidelines was tarnished by hearing him talk about what happened behind the scenes. He rarely if ever seemed to tell stories that reflected badly on himself—a classic sign of someone who lacks humility. Also, he still complained about the officiating in some games even though they happened years ago.
What I found most interesting about the book was Jackson’s account of his spiritual journey. He was born into a fundamentalist Pentecostal family where both of his parents were ministers, and decided in his early adulthood that the Christianity he grew up with wasn’t for him. Over the years he created his own eclectic spirituality, including elements of Native American religion, Zen Buddhism, and Christian mysticism, and incorporated several of the practices he found helpful into his coaching. As a Christian, I wished that he had been able to find that Christ was big and deep enough to meet all of his needs, but perhaps Jackson was presented in his youth with a Christ that was narrower than he is in reality. That, in my opinion, was the saddest part about this book.