Summary and notes from Phil Jackson's book.

Eleven Rings

Summary and notes from Phil Jackson's book.


Phil Jackson is the most successful coach in NBA history, having led Michael Jordan’s Bulls to 6 championship rings, and Kobe/Shaq’s Lakers to 5. He is strongly influenced by Native American and Buddhist thinking, and he reflects this in his leadership style. His openness, authenticity, and focus on human connection was ahead of its time for competitive sports.

How to read this book:

  • For Jackson’s short leadership handbook, read chapters 1-2.
  • For Jackson’s upbringing and time as a player, read chapters 3-4.
  • For his time coaching the Jordan-era Bulls, read chapters 5-13.
  • For his time coaching the Kobe/Shaq-era Lakers, read chapters 14-22.

Recommended further reading:

  • Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M Pirsig
  • Toward a Psychology of Being, by Maslow
  • The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, by Maslow

Ch 1-2: Leadership Principles

Ch 1: The Circle of Love

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.

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 nurturing to get young athletes to step outside their egos and fully engage in a group experience.

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.

According to the book Tribal Leadership, there are five stages of tribal development:

  • Stage 1: characterised by a shared feeling of despair and hostility (i.e. street gangs)
  • Stage 2: passively antagonistic people with a shared “this sucks” mindset (i.e. The Office)
  • Stage 3: a group of individuals, focused on personal achievement or winning (i.e. politics)
  • Stage 4: collectively dedicated to tribal pride (i.e. we’re great and they’re not)
  • Stage 5: characterised by innocent wonder and the strong belief that life is great

Ch 2: The Jackson Eleven

These are the basic principles of mindful leadership I’ve evolved over the years to help transform disorganised 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.


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.


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. Dialing back the ego doesn’t mean being a pushover.


If you want them to act differently, you need to inspire them to change themselves. 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.


What attracted me to the triangle [offensive system] was the way it empowers the players, offering each one a vital role to play as well as a high level of creativitiy within a clear, well-defined structure.


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.


What the players really needed was a way to quiet the chatter in their minds and focus on the business of winning basketball games. [Meditation] is an easily accessible technique for quieting the restless mind and focusing attention on whatever is happening in the present moment. This is extremeley useful for basketball players, who have to make split-second decisions under enormous presuure. 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.

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 structure, but they also require enough latiuude to express themselves creatively.


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. From the Tao Te Ching:

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.


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.”

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.


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.


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. I subscribe to the philosophy of the late Satchel Paige, who said, “Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits.”


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 best athlete wants his opponent at his best. (Art of war)

Ch 3-4: Jackson’s upbringing and time as a player

Ch 3: Red

We prided ourselves on playing the game in a systematic way.

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.

“Practice doesn’t make perfect,” he used to say. “Perfect practice does.”

“Don’t you realize,” he’d say, “that these newspapers are going to be lining somebody’s birdcage tomorrow?”

Another lesson I learned was about the importance of pregame rituals. This is not a good time for deep left-brain discussions. It’s the moment to calm the players’ minds and strengthen their spiritual connection with one another before they head into battle.

Red made each player feel as if he had an important role on the team, whether he played four minutes a game or forty—and this helped turn the Knicks into a fast-moving, cohesive team.

Ch 4: The Quest

I felt confident enough to throw my whole mind, body, and soul into what I loved—and that, as much as anything, has been the secret of my success in sports.

When I was about eleven, my mother told me it was time for me to “seek the infilling of the Holy Spirit.” My brothers and sister had already been “baptized” in the Holy Spirit and spoke in tongues.

Shunryu Suzuki’s instructions on how to meditate are simple:

  1. Sit with your spine straight, your shoulders relaxed, and your chin pulled in, “as if you were supporting the sky with your head.”
  2. Follow your breath with your mind as it moves in and out like a swinging door.
  3. Don’t try to stop your thinking. If a thought arises, let it come, then let it go and return to watching your breath. The idea is not to try to control your mind but to let thoughts rise and fall naturally over and over again. After some practice, the thoughts will start to float by like passing clouds and their power to dominate consciousness will diminish.

According to Suzuki, meditation helps you do things “with a quite simple, clear mind” with “no notion or shadows.” Most people have two or three ideas running in their heads whenever they do something, and that leaves “traces” of thoughts that cause confusion and are difficult to let go of. “In order not to leave any traces, when you do something,” he writes, “you should do it with your whole body and mind, you should be concentrated on what you do. You should do it completely, like a good bonfire.”

“If you want to obtain perfect calmness in your zazen, you should not be bothered by the various images you find in your mind. Let them come and let them go. Then they will be under control.”

Ch 5-13: Coaching the Chicago Bulls

Ch 5: Dances with Bulls

One thing I liked about Tex’s system, from a leadership perspective, was that it depersonalized criticism. It gave me the ability to critique the players’ performance without making them think I was attacking them personally.

The beauty of the system—and this applies to all kinds of systems, not just the triangle—was that it turned the whole team into a learning organization.

The downside was that it made the players overly dependent on his minute-by-minute direction.

“the real mark of a star was how much better he made his teammates.”

As Steve Kerr says, “Scottie was the nurturer; Michael was the enforcer.”

Ch 6: Warrior Spirit

Think lightly of yourself and think deeply of the world.

Lakota warriors had far more autonomy than their white counterparts, but their freedom came with a high degree of responsibility.

For the Sioux, freedom was not about being absent but about being present,

Dedication to the We overtakes the emphasis on the Me

I wanted to create a culture of selflessness and mindful awareness at the Bulls.

But when he saw that I wasn’t going to back down, Michael dedicated himself to learning the system and figuring out ways to use it to his advantage—which is exactly what I had hoped he would do.

Jordan wasn’t “a natural leader, he was a natural doer.” He drove the team with the sheer force of his will. It was as if he were saying, “I’m going out here, men, and I’m going to kick some ass. Are you coming with me?”

Oneness is not something you can turn on with a switch. You need to create the right environment for it to grow, then nurture it carefully every day.

As the season progressed, I slowly started to introduce the team to some of the tribal customs of the Lakota. Some of these were quite subtle. (Slowly and with subtlety)

Lakota warriors always gathered in circular formations because the circle was a symbol of the fundamental harmony of the universe.

The tribal room—aka the video room—was decorated with several Indian totems I’d been given over the years. (Symbolic reminders of the tribe mentality. Mindset Prompts. Shrine-like.)

Effective approach is to delegate authority as much as possible and to nurture everyone else’s leadership skills as well. When I’m able to do that, it not only builds team unity and allows others to grow but also—paradoxically—strengthens my role as leader.

Each coach had a high level of autonomy, but when we talked to the players, we spoke as one.

Ch 7: Hearing the Unheard

Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.

Third, it was important to make sure that each game was meaningful in terms of what we were trying to do as a team. (Make every day a meaningful contribution towards the ultimate destination)

The most important thing was to get the players to develop a strong group intelligence in order to work more harmoniously together.

Rather than squeeze everybody into preordained roles, my goal has always been to foster an environment where the players can grow as individuals and express themselves creatively within a team structure. I wasn’t interested in becoming best friends with the players; in fact, I think it’s important to maintain a certain distance. But I tried to develop genuine, caring relationships with each player, based on mutual respect, compassion, and trust.

How to be genuinely compassionate while also commanding people’s respect.

A man who was soft-spoken and modest yet totally in control.

I didn’t dictate to him what I wanted; I simply pushed him to think about the problem in a different way, mostly by asking him questions about the impact that this or that strategy might have on the team.

When I let him solve the problem himself, he was more likely to buy into the solution and not repeat the same counterproductive behavior in the future.

The first thing I did with the Bulls was to teach the players an abbreviated version of mindfulness meditation based on the Zen practice I’d been doing for years. I didn’t make a big deal of it. (Emphasize not making a big deal of it. Subtle but continuous change.)

“To hear the unheard,” he said, “is a necessary discipline to be a good ruler. For only when a ruler has learned to listen closely to the people’s hearts, hearing their feelings uncommunicated, pains unexpressed, and complaints not spoken of, can he hope to inspire confidence in the people, understand when something is wrong, and meet the true needs of his citizens.” Hearing the unheard. That’s a skill everyone in the group needs, not just the leader.

But the most effective way to deal with anxiety, I’ve discovered, is to make sure that you’re as prepared as possible for whatever is coming your way.

During the 1990 playoffs, I’d shown the team a video with scenes from The Wizard of Oz. (Humour to get defenses down about poor performance.)

Ch 8: A Question of Character

The way you do anything is the way you do everything.

Ch 9: Bittersweet Victory

Coach Al McGuire once told me that his secret was not wasting anybody’s time.

The basic characteristics of self-actualizers, he discovered in his research, are spontaneity and naturalness, a greater acceptance of themselves and others, high levels of creativity, and a strong focus on problem solving rather than ego gratification. Making choices from moment to moment that foster growth rather than fear. Identifying your ego defenses and finding the courage to give them up;

As Maslow puts it, “The great lesson from the true mystics … [is] that the sacred is in the ordinary, that it is to be found in one’s daily life, in one’s neighbors, friends, and family, in one’s backyard.” To make your work meaningful, you need to align it with your true nature. “Work is holy, sacred, and uplifting when it springs from who we are, when it bears a relationship to our unfolding journey,”

Before the trip I would select a book for each of the players to read, based on what I knew about them.

I never expected everyone’s 100 percent engagement. The message I wanted to convey was that I cared enough about them as individuals to spend time searching for a book that might have special meaning for them. Or at least make them laugh.

But when we returned to Chicago, the Suns came back to life and won two of the next three games, including a triple-overtime marathon in game 3. But Michael was unflappable. As we boarded the plane for game 6, he showed up smoking a footlong cigar. “Hello, world champs,” he said.

I wasn’t interested in trying to talk Michael out of following his dream, but I wanted to make sure he’d examined the move from every possible angle.

Ch 10: World in Flux

George talked about the two aspects of every crisis: danger and opportunity. If you have the right mind-set, he said, you can make the crisis work for you.

George taught mindfulness as a way of life, what he called “meditation off the cushion.” That meant being fully present not just on the basketball floor but throughout the rest of the day as well. The key, he said, was not just to sit and calm your mind but to learn to read and react effectively in any situation based on what’s happening at that very moment.

Losing is as much a part of the game as winning—and I really meant it. “Today they beat us,” I said. “We were not defeated.”

And during warm-ups, Corie Blount saw a TV crew taking a shot of Michael’s Nikes and said, “Now they’re interviewing his shoes.”

Ch 11: Basketball Poetry

“Half the Spurs players had their balls locked up in the freezer every time they left the house,” he added sarcastically.

He was so uninhibited and joyful when he stepped on the floor, like a boy discovering how to fly.

meet them where they are and lead them where you want them to go.”

With some players, he decided, he would get physical (Adapting leadership style for individuals. Some respond to physical, some emotional, others verbal communication.)

I had always insisted on structured practices with a clear agenda that the players would receive ahead of time.

told him that it wasn’t me he had to worry about if he came late to practice; it was his teammates.

Never forget that a wheel is made not only of spokes, but also of the space between the spokes. Sturdy spokes poorly placed make a weak wheel. Whether their full potential is realized depends on the harmony between them.

Ch 12: As the Worm Turns

The price tag for keeping the team together wasn’t cheap: The Bulls payroll that year was $ 58 million plus, the highest ever in the NBA. The biggest line item, of course, was Michael Jordan’s salary of $ 30 million.

“Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” The point: Stay focused on the task at hand rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. This team was getting very good at doing that.

Unfortunately, the Rodman reprieve didn’t last long.

Read the 5 pages from Page 174 for an amazing Dennis Rodman story.

During an off day, Michael decided to play forty-six holes of golf,

“When my teammate got a knot on his head,” he said, “I got a knot on my head.”

Later we learned that our equipment manager had mistakenly served our players Gaterlode, a high-carbohydrate drink, instead of Gatorade throughout the game, which explained why the team was so sluggish in the closing minutes. Each of the players, it was estimated, had ingested the equivalent of about twenty baked potatoes.

Ch 13: The Last Dance

The Dalai Lama calls it “the enemy’s gift.” (Also, competitors gift)

Later that summer he also hammered out one-year deals with Jordan (for $ 33 million) and Rodman ($ 4.5 million, plus incentives for up to $ 10 million).

Each of us gave a toast to another member of the team.

Ch 14-21: Coaching the LA Lakers

Ch 14: One Breath, One Mind

Horry said the game reminded him of The Wizard of Oz because the team played with “no heart, no brain, no courage.” To which coach Del Harris added, “And no wizard.”

Ch 15: The Eightfold Offense

I wanted to spell everything out at the beginning so there wouldn’t be any ambiguity about roles—especially with Kobe.

He needed to express his confidence and natural joy for the game in such a way that his teammates—Kobe especially—felt that if they joined forces with him, nothing would be impossible. A team leader’s number one job, I explained, was to build up his teammates, not tear them down.

When we try to prolong pleasure or reject pain, we suffer. On the bright side, the Buddha also prescribed a practical way for eliminating craving and unhappiness by following what he called the Noble Eightfold Path. The steps were right view, right thinking, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

RIGHT LIVELIHOOD—is about having respect for the work you do and using it to heal the community rather than simply to polish your ego. Be humble. You’re getting paid a ridiculous amount of money to do something that’s really simple. And fun.

RIGHT CONCENTRATION—is about staying focused on what you’re doing at any given moment and not obsessing about mistakes you’ve made in the past or bad things that might happen in the future.

You’ve got to play to win, not play to avoid losing.”

Warriors star Latrell Sprewell’s choking attack on his coach P.J. Carlesimo. (Todo: Watch footage of this!)

Ch 16: The Joy of Doing Nothing

He had worked hard over the summer—claiming to have taken 2,000 shots a day—and he’d made another quantum leap in performance.

“There are no other individuals I’ve known who act like they do. To them, winning at all costs is all that matters. And they demand that everyone around them act the same way, regardless of whether they can or not. They say, ‘Find somewhere inside yourself to get better, because that’s what I’m doing every day of the week, every minute of the day.’ They have no tolerance for anything less. None.”

In his mind he had it all figured out. His goal was to become the greatest basketball player of all time. And he was certain he knew what he had to do to get there. Why should he listen to anybody else? If he followed my advice and cut back his scoring, he’d fall short of his ultimate goal. How was I going to get through to this kid?

think it was easy to mistake Kobe’s worldliness and intense focus for maturity. As far as I could see, he still had a lot of growing up to do—and because of his nature, he’d have to do it the hard way.

the best way to handle most flare-ups is to sleep on them. The point is to avoid acting out of anger and creating an even stickier mess. And if you’re lucky, the problem may resolve itself.

“A good athlete can enter a state of body-awareness in which the right stroke or the right movement happens by itself, effortlessly, without any interference of the conscious will,” he writes. “This is the paradigm for non-action: the purest and most effective form of action. The game plays the game; the poem writes the poem; we can’t tell the dancer from the dance.” Or as Lao-tzu pro-claims in Mitchell’s work: Less and less do you need to force things, until finally you arrive at non-action. When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.

Ch 17: One-Two-Three—Lakers!

That’s how I view leadership. It’s an act of controlled improvisation.

Ch 18: The Wisdom of Anger

Researchers found that subjects who were prompted to feel angry generated more creative ideas than those who experienced sadness or a nonemotional state.

Ch 19: Chop Wood, Carry Water

Both [Jordan and Kobe] have an extraordinary competitive drive and are virtually impervious to pain. Michael and Kobe have both played some of their best games under crippling conditions—from food poisoning to broken bones—that would sideline lesser mortals for weeks.

Michael was masterful at controlling the emotional climate of the team with the power of his presence.

Ch 20: Destiny’s Children

Give players the freedom to find their own destiny within the team structure.

“Every time Derek gave a speech,” says Luke Walton, “I felt that there should be music playing in the background, like one of those epic sports movies. When he talked, I wanted to write it down because nobody could have said it better.”

Leadership is not about forcing your will on others. It’s about mastering the art of letting go.

Ch 21: Deliverance

Ch 22: This Game’s in the Refrigerator

Buddhist sages say that there’s only “a tenth of an inch of difference” between heaven and earth.

As a leader your job is to do everything in your power to create the perfect conditions for success by benching your ego and inspiring your team to play the game the right way. But at some point, you need to let go and turn yourself over to the basketball gods.