The art of coaching: Phil Jackson and the Chicago Bulls

“If you meet the Buddha in the lane, feed him the ball.” – Phil Jackson

I recently started watching The Last Dance on Netflix. For those that don’t know it is a sports documentary about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls team of the 80’s and 90’s. I am always fascinated by sportsman and women as well as coaches that have taken their sports to new heights and there are few greater examples of this than the Bulls team of the 90’s.

What is really interesting with regards to this particular team is that despite having arguably the greatest basketball player in their midst, the Bulls were unable to win the overall championship because other teams were able to neutralise Jordan. It was not until coach Phil Jackson moved into the head coaching position that the team begun to realise its true potential. Phil favoured a game plan that shared the work load and relative to previous coaches, actually took the ball out of Jordan’s hands rather than solely rely upon his brilliant individualism.

I am simplifying the story and of course it took the addition of quality players around him to ensure that this game plan would succeed as well. The team also included Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman, world class players in their own right and it was coach Phil Jackson’s handling of the latter that really stood out for me.

Rodman, the badboy of the NBA, famously requested a break in the middle of the 1997/98 season to go party in Las Vegas with then girlfriend Carmen Electra. Coach Jackson and Jordan discussed the idea with Jordan quoted as saying if you let him go we may never see him again. What a lot of people didn’t see was that while Rodman was a party animal off the court, he was also incredibly meticulous in his preparation for games and trained incredibly hard. Jackson realised he needed to give Rodman some leeway outside of the game to get the best of him on the court. In the end Rodman was given 48 hours to go let his hair down and was eventually tracked down by Jordan after he ran over the allotted 48 hour time window.

With hindsight we can see the value of the change in game plan that Phil Jackson implemented but without the ability to get his players to buy-in to this strategy it’s unlikely the Bulls would have won 6 titles in Jordan’s 13 years with the team (all of which were with Phil Jackson as head coach). What really stands out for me is that the greatest philosophy or tactical nuance has little relevance without player / athlete buy-in. Phil Jackson took a team of talented individuals and worked out a way to get the best out of them as a team, his ability to read Rodman was the perfect illustration of this.

Photo credit: New York Times