Former NBA coach Phil Jackson

The legendary NBA coach sparks controversy with his new text, Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success.

Basketball Hall of Famer Phil Jackson has won more championships than any coach in the history of professional sports. During his tenure as head coach of the Chicago Bulls, the team won six titles, and he won five more with his next team, the L.A. Lakers. He also has the most championships as a player (with the N.Y. Knicks) and a head coach and the best winning record in NBA history. Jackson began his coaching career in the lower-level leagues and got his break as an assistant coach for the Bulls. In his text, Eleven Rings, he chronicles his journey as a preacher’s kid from the University of North Dakota to becoming one of the most innovative leaders of our time.


Tavis: Phil Jackson retired from basketball after earning 11 rings coaching the Chicago Bulls and, of course, the LA Lakers, and another two rings as a player with the NY Knickerbockers.

But that does not stop every team, practically every team in the league from pursuing him to come back to the bench. I promise tonight, Coach, no questions about your comeback.

But anyway, that decision may be forthcoming, we shall see. In the meantime, he’s putting a lot of time in his home state of Montana, where he writes best-selling books detailing his philosophy about winning and losing.

His latest best seller, number one, in fact – number one on “The New York Times” – is called “Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success.” Wish I had 11 rings, but I really love the subtitle, which we’ll get into tonight. Coach, I’m honored to have you here.

Phil Jackson: Thanks, Tavis.

Tavis: Glad to have you here, man. Let me start by asking whether or not one can get addicted to winning.

Jackson: Boy, I tell you, everything else does pale behind it.

Tavis: Yeah.

Jackson: I think I make a big statement in this book about those two losses in the finals to Detroit and to Boston as real moments that were tough to get by. I was aware of how hard that was as a player. We lost to the Lakers in ’71 and ’72, and then we were able to come back the next year and win in ’72 and ’73 against that Laker team.

But we had a lot of distaste for losing, and there’s something about losing when you’re in this competitive world that really sticks with you.

Tavis: Yeah. If one can in fact get addicted to winning, what’s the antidote to that? You don’t want to lose, and yet if it’s an addiction like anything else – you see where I’m going with this. If you can get addicted to it, what do you do about that? Because when you lose, it puts you in a deep funk.

Jackson: I had an assistant coach with me. There’s a wise man named Tex Winter.

Tex was the guy that kind of was the innovator of the triangle offense, which came out of USC here. Tex always reminded the players, you’re only a success for your last successful act. At the moment of your last successful act, that’s when you were a success.

You’re not a success right now. So it kind of was like a leveling moment for us to think about that – okay, we’re back to square one, and we’ve got to climb this ladder again.

But the actual winning itself is so momentary, it’s so ephemeral, it’s so gone, and you have that journey, and the journey’s what really lasts with you, how it went, how long it took, the nine, eight months that go into this preparation for this journey.

Tavis: To your earlier point, Coach, when you suggested, and I think you’re right, anybody who’s ever won and lost gets your point that nothing really compares to the feeling, that euphoria of winning.

But how have you navigated through those periods, two you’ve spoken of earlier, when you didn’t win the big one?

Jackson: Well, I think it was renewed energy.

Tavis: Right.

Jackson: I think you had to come back, and one of the things that I noticed in my own career is that it was really hard for teams that went into a successful season to lose in the finals and come back the next year.

We only had one team that really came back at us when I was with the Bulls, and that was the Utah Jazz. They had a couple times coming back at us. With the Lakers, we never had anybody that was successful coming back at us in subsequent years.

So those are things that I think demoralize a team, and you have to really regenerate a team and start all over again and say okay, we were a success. We got to the finals, but that’s not the penultimate thing. That’s just a goal that you have out there when you’re a kid – you want to play in the finals.

To win it is what’s important, because you really have to put all your energy into that.

Tavis: Do you think our society puts too much emphasis, too much focus, on winning?

Jackson: Oh, yeah. It really does. It pales behind – to see the NCAA game this year was a terrific game. Louisville was down in the first half and then came roaring BAC, and they got back into the game.

Yet it’s a game in which you should congratulate both the teams for what they have done. It was a magnificent demonstration of skill in basketball, et cetera. We’ve had a few of those that have happened in our last few years, I think the Butler vs. Duke game in which the final shot was up in the air as to whether they were going to win or lose.

Those are the things that I think are remarkable about college basketball. Then we had the Kansas City – Memphis game, in which an overtime game came about in that one. Those are the moments that really stand out.

But then we forget about who lost, and they were the also-rans, so to speak. So I do think there’s so much emphasis on winning that you sometimes look at teams like the Buffalo Bills and the Minnesota Vikings that always came up to the Super Bowl but never got there to that championship. You kind of go like, “What happened? Why?

Tavis: Yeah. You gave two examples just now of the college game, and one of those examples had sportsmanship written all in it. Is the NBA lacking in sportsmanship?

That’s a strange way to phrase it, because what I’m really getting at is in these playoffs that we are still in right now, man, the technicals are just off the chart. I could have a whole nother conversation – which I know you’ve had a thousand times. I won’t drag you down this road of what happened to the game and why it’s gotten so slow, and what happened to the finesse.

It’s just all muscle, muscle, muscle. That’s another conversation for maybe an ESPN chat one day.

Jackson: You know, Tavis, what really strikes me is that the George-Games relationship, I enjoy. I think they really have a good time going up against each other and I think they’re complementary to each other, and I like that.

We’ve seen the Birdman get a suspension for a game, and those things you’ll draw that kind of attention to it. But when your best players are enjoying the competition that they’re having against each other, that makes it a lot of fun.

That brings to mind a golf outing that we saw recently in which two of the golfers encouraged each other to play better all the way through it in the Masters, and that was a lot of fun to see that.

Tavis: Yeah. What’s the problem with living in a society where everything is about pitting oneself against the other as opposed to what I take from your Zen, which is that so much of this is about competing with yourself?

It’s about being the best player, the best person you can be and yet you’re always put in the situation of asking or being asked who you got, Kobe or Michael.

Jackson: I know. I know, I tried not to say “better” or “best.” I didn’t want to get into the better-best aspect. I just wanted to say these are the attributes that separate them, because they’re so alike.

Their competitive drive, their championship runs, their scoring capabilities – a lot of similarities, and the similarities were so great. That’s why everybody compared the two of them. But there was, there’s some differences, and individually they stood out.

I just remarked on those, and I thought it was really important to remark on those, more from the standpoint of yeah, Michael compared the only person that really had the kind of gift he had to be Kobe, and I actually made that statement a couple of years ago, that that was the echelon that he had reached.

So that was a favorable comment, but I just wanted to point out to younger athletes and everything else there was some things that were different, and one of the things that was different was Michael’s education.

That he went through an educational process, and in the process had to learn a few things about self-control, about playing in the system, about patience, and he also had to sit back while the upperclassmen had a lot of the praise.

Then he had his moments, and he was ready for those moments when they came. With Kobe it was right from high school to the NBA, he could not wait, and his talent was so good that he could go there. But there was something that he missed out on that he could have enjoyed, and that was learning from a learner’s mind or beginner’s mind the process of basketball.

Tavis: What separates those players who have what we call in sports that killer instinct – I want the ball, I’ll take the last shot? What separates that killer instinct versus players who are competitive but don’t have that thing.

Jackson: Success. They’ve had that success, and –

Tavis: But there are a lot of player who have been on successful teams but don’t possess that – they’re not the guy on the team with that killer instinct.

Jackson: I agree. I think there’s something about wanting to stand in the spotlight. I think the ball is a spotlight, for example, and I think they want to stand in that. I a lot of times see – LeBron is a guy that vacillates between wanting to do that and then wanting to get somebody else involved.

I think that’s, the dichotomy that he has going on all the time within himself is do I have to take this on all by myself, or can I involve other guys in this process with me. Whereas with Michael and with Kobe, if they got two guys on them, I still might be better doing this than anybody else on this team.

Although I was very pleased that they moved into the realm of sharing in critical moments with their teammates. That brought them championships, and they learned that.

Tavis: I can’t think of any example in my own life, and I’m thinking really fast here, I can’t think of any example in my life where I have vacillated on something where the vacillation in and of itself was good for me.

So what’s the down side to your point about LeBron vacillating as his career continues to unfold? It’s kind of hard to say this because he’s one of the best in the game right now, maybe the best in the game.

Jackson: Yes.

Tavis: But as he continues, if he continues to vacillate between am I the man or am I going to get my players here involved, my teammates involved, what’s the down side of that vacillation?

Jackson: Well, we’ve seen a couple of things that happened in his career. One year he ran into a seven-game against the Boston Celtics a few years back that kind of pushed him out the door in Cleveland.

He just felt, I think, he didn’t have enough teammates, enough activity towards what he wanted to have as a winning combination. So he went to Miami, where he felt he had the support group with him.

However, in the series that we’re watching now we’re seeing a disintegration of that, whether it’s the system of basketball they’re running or whether it’s actually the people have come up short – Bosh, Wade, whatever this big three is supposed to be.

Tavis: Speaking of Miami, LeBron, and that big three, much was made of this big three coming to Miami, and there were other teams have tried to – the Lakers, in fact, at one point.

There are other teams that tried to do that same sort of thing – if we can get these three big guys or these three major players, we can pull this thing off. Talk to me about strategically whether or not – put your general manager’s hat on. Is that the way to win championships, or is the way to do it to get that one player that you really have to have and build around that?

Jackson: I think you need to – there’s no magic formula for this. When I got to Chicago and I was an assistant coach, the general manager used to say, “We’ve never seen a championship team come out of two guard.”

There’s never been a shooting guard or a two guard that’s won a championship. They’ve all been point guard, big men, et cetera. Bob Pettit was a big guy that was a power forward, so to speak, with St. Louis that won, and it was (unintelligible) and it was Kareem and it was Bill Russell and it was Wilt Chamberlain, it was – all the time.

Suddenly Michael arose and there were six championships behind his effort. Now in between that, Houston won with Olajuwon, another center combination. So it was unique to have it that way.

So there’s no really magic formula. It depends upon the dynamism of that person, for that individual. But the important thing is to bring the rest of the group in. That individual can’t stand out so much that he doesn’t bring the rest of the group in. It has to be a team effort.

Tavis: Yeah.

Jackson: Has to be a team effort. Otherwise you never – individually, a person can be stopped in the game, even though he has more control over this game than any other game in sports that we watch, baseball – well, golf; golf’s an individual sport.

But I’m talking about team sport. Basketball’s the one that an individual has the most impact.

Tavis: While you were talking about your teams or about the value of teams playing together, they popped a picture up of Michael and Scottie and Rodman. Just because I’m thinking about it right now, you talk about, you’ve mentioned Dennis, of course, in the text. But what were you thinking when Rodman made his journey over to North Korea?

Jackson: Good, we got somebody in there can speak the language. (Laughter)

Tavis: I was like, “I wonder what Phil Jackson’s thinking about this moment?” Dennis Rodman as an ambassador.

Jackson: Oh my goodness, and Dennis’s verbal skills are limited. He only rarely talks. (Laughter) But obviously they had great communicate and here we are, we’ve got somebody in there, an American in there that was an ambassador.

Now we’ve got to send him to Iran and see what happens there.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) I have always believed that we are who we are because somebody loved us. Somebody loved us and that’s how we became who we are.

So I’m always fascinated by people’s back story, particularly where their parents are concerned. Tell me about Charles and Elizabeth Jackson.

Jackson: My parents were, had a marriage of passion, and the passion was about their religious beliefs. They were both immigrant families that – well, my father’s family came as Puritans to Massachusetts.

My mother’s families were Mennonites or Anabaptists that came to Minnesota from Russia. They were actually moving around Europe doing diking and lowland reclamation work, and they moved into Minnesota.

Their fervor caught them up in this Pentecostal movement in the ’20s that went through the United States, Church of God, Assemblies of God, two of the churches that came out of that, and my parents were there are the formation of that denomination.

My father was a man who didn’t consider himself learned. He was a man who liked to be a farmer. He enjoyed his dairy farm and felt the calling. So there was a dedication. I was dedicated as a child to the service of God, and so there was this continual centering of a greater purpose than your own.

The individual effort was – knowing my mother was a tremendous competitor, but it was about the dedication towards the one, moving towards the one. So our lives were centered around church and about doing the right service, and my mother had an attribute that she worked on every year that was a little bit different.

Service of people that help over here, doing various things that were beneficial to a community and her church, and my father was a real humble man but a very, recognized as a leader and rose to become the superintendent of the churches in Montana.

But it wasn’t a position for him. He was much more comfortable as a pastor, and he went back to being a pastor. So I grew up with a view from the pew, as I say, sitting in a pew, watching my parents, my mother played the piano, could lead the song service.

Was a spiritual person that emanated that energy. She would ask my friends I’d bring home when I was in college or beyond, “Are you right with the Lord?” If you had to go to Heaven, or if you had to die today, do you think you would go to Heaven,” type of thing.

So she was always spreading the word and instilling it. My father’s a man that went around to the jails and the hospitals and visited people that were in need, and he was a man that people really adored and liked as a man.

So I had two pilot lights ahead of me that kind of dragged me along with this course of action, and I think that kind of brought me into where I am as a basketball coach, even though it wasn’t in the service of the Lord, so to speak. It still was in the service of a group of a greater purpose than my own.

Tavis: Unless the Lord is a Bulls or a Laker fan. (Laughter) It might have been in service. One of the reasons why I wanted to ask about that upbringing is because before I fell in love with you as a coach and all the rest that you represent as a winner, I grew up in a Pentecostal church myself, so I connected with you just on that upbringing. I raise that because – and I say this with all due respect, and my mother, I’m sure, who watches every night – I’m going to hear about this in about 15 minutes when this show is over. (Laughter)

I’m going to get a phone call in my dressing room. But some faiths, and Pentecostalism isn’t the only example of this, can be somewhat dogmatic.

Jackson: Yeah.

Tavis: Your parents were wonderful people, but the faith can end up being somewhat dogmatic.

Jackson: Somewhat, yeah. So –

Tavis: I raise that because somehow you broke – you either broke from it or didn’t get trapped by it, so much so that you’ve been able to get on your own spiritual journey. You see where I’m going with this?

Jackson: I –

Tavis: How did that happen for you?

Jackson: Well, it happened because I think we were taught to have an open mind, and in the process of doing this, my mother was a Lutheran, my father was a Methodist, and they came out of their background to be forming this Pentecostal belief that became a church.

So the dogmatism grew out of that, and so there were things that popped up, like for example a parishioner would call up and say, “We saw your daughter. She was wearing Capri pants. She was wearing,” and there were other people that were against swimming together, boys and girls swimming together.

There was so many things that were dogmatic and I used to question my parents about it, and they would say, “You have to really feel, feel what the spirit does, move with you, and you should know what’s right or wrong within yourself.”

So they kind of taught us to go out and feel where that was at. So the first time I heard about evolution, for example, and had to deal with this in college, it struck a real blow to my fundamental belief, but I had to deal with what that was about as an individual.

Can I stand up and just be afraid of other dogmatic things that come in or other ideas that come into my head, or am I going to have to push them out all the time because I have something that overrides them?

It went that way with Buddhism, the first time I heard about Buddhism and the fact that well, maybe – they don’t worship a god, for example. I was like, well, how is that possible? They could be a religion and not a god.

But really it’s about the Buddha, or the Buddha enlightenment within you, so then I started dealing with the actual term Yahweh, “I am that I am.”

Tavis: Sure, absolutely.

Jackson: That word, “I am that I am,” that presence that is within us, and then it started to click with me that there is something within us that leads us and guides us. We are guided on this path, and we have to allow that to happen to us in a certain way in which we give voice to it.

Not voice so much as credence.

Tavis: When you are exposing your players to the spirit that you have exposed them to, and the spirit within, most often was that met – did they welcome that? Did you sense a resistance?

I ask that because I find that in the world we live today, so many of these young people, young guys who you were coaching, are searching for something. So I’m just trying to get a sense of how that was met by Michael and by Kobe and guys younger than them in the locker room.

Jackson: It was met by presenting them with an idea that was like here’s a process that we’re going to explore. We’re going to explore developing our mindfulness – in other words, the ability to stay present for as long as we possibly can stay present.

Now you go in the weight room and you lift weights and you do all these things to strengthen your body. This is strengthening your mind. When you can stay focused and you can use that focus to always come back with your breath to center yourself, so that you’re kind of floating in the moment, in the spirit, so to speak.

So I didn’t ever have to get in religious, dogmatic. It’s not going to interfere with any of this religious thing. But most of the guys were always receptive. I was very pleased at how much receptivity I met with all these players. I was amazed at it, actually. But so many of them have felt the spirit in their life, and they know it exists.

Tavis: I can’t do justice to this book in a 30-minute conversation, even a full show. I can’t do justice to it, because there’s so much in here. But we’ve scratched the surface.

I want to close with that other question that you’re going to get asked for as long as you live. One, we covered it earlier in this conversation, Michael or Kobe. The other, in one shape or form, why does Phil Jackson matter? Why do coaches matter? Couldn’t anybody have done what Phil Jackson did with the crew that he had in Chicago, with the crew that he had in L.A.?

So I want to close in an unorthodox way. Why do coaches matter? Why did Phil Jackson matter?

Jackson: I think that it’s a collision of things that are happening, and people come together at certain moments that are just unique. For whatever reason, I was able – I had interview opportunities before that were – Minnesota’s an expansion team and another team that was not going anywhere and I wasn’t taken as a coach.

I wasn’t dogmatic or charismatic enough to be that coach. But the right thing happened at the right time for me, and maybe for these players. It certainly worked that way, and it was a success.

So I have to feel like there’s a guidance, that something made sense out there, and I was fortunate, and yet I was ready to be in the right place and the right time, and all these things worked together for the good.

Tavis: Yeah.

Jackson: You know that scripture.

Tavis: I know it well.

Jackson: Work together for the good, for those who love the Lord and call it according to his purpose.

Tavis: That’s right.

Jackson: It’s a great scripture. The book is called “Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success,” written by the guy who has 11 rings plus two, so 13 total. It is the new number one on “The New York Times” best seller list, but no surprise there. This guy’s used to being number one, so he’s comfortable with that. Coach, good to have you on.

Jackson: Thanks, Tavis. Pleasure.

Tavis: Oh, I enjoyed (unintelligible). That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

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Last modified: June 29, 2013 at 8:19 pm