One of the many reasons why Phil Jackson is considered one of the greatest coaches of all time is how he handled the players on his team.
Not only did the 11-time champion get the best out of his team with the triangle offense, but he also connected and impacted his players in ways that only he could. His spiritual and methodological approach to life did wonders for him when dealing with unique and unpredictable players like Dennis Rodman.
The study of Zen-Buddhism
In his New York Times best-seller, "Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success," Jackson talked about how practicing Japanese Zen Buddhism guided him throughout his legendary coaching career. According to Jackson, who spent his youth studying a lot of religion and philosophy, the practice of Zen-Buddhism appealed to him because of its straightforward approach to life.
"What appealed to me about Zen practice was its inherent simplicity. It didn't involve chanting mantras or visualizing complex images, as had other practices I'd tried. Zen is pragmatic, down-to-earth, and open to exploration. It doesn't require you to subscribe to a certain set of principles or take anything on faith."
Phil Jackson, Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success
Dealing with Rodman
When Rodman was acting out during the 90's Chicago Bulls dynasty, Jackson took a page from his mentor, Shunryū Suzuki's classic book entitled "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice."
According to Suzuki, if you want to obtain perfect calmness in your zazen, you should not be bothered by various images you find in your mind because you let those come and go — they will be under control. This passage stuck with Jackson, and he'd apply it with Rodman when the big man would lose his mind and go out of control.
"The best way to control people, he adds, is to give them a lot of room and encourage them to be mischievous, then watch them. 'To ignore then is no good: that is the worst policy," Suzuki writes. The second worst is trying to control them. The best one is to watch them. Just watch them without trying to control them. This piece of advice came in handy later when I was dealing with Dennis Rodman," Jackson wrote.
In short, Jackson approached Rodman's mischiefs in a calm way. He let Rodman do what he wanted instead of punishing him. Did Rodman's actions affect the team? Yes, but Jackson knew that controlling the big man wouldn't do any good. Instead, the Zen master let Rodman realize he was watching him and believed that the latter would eventually come around once he got himself straight.
Rodman may have needed Michael Jordan and some of his Bulls teammates to fly to Las Vegas in 1998 to get him right, but at least he still came around and played an integral role in solidifying their dynasty.
Would this have been different had Jackson and the rest scolded Rodman? Or punished him instead of letting him be? Nobody knows, but that approach didn't work when Gregg Popovich handled Rodman. It was only Jackson's calm method that did.
Rodman had his fair share of moments and is still considered one of the wildest players in NBA history, and it was Jackson that understood him more than anybody could.