Coaching great players often presents a big problem for the coaching staff because their egos frequently disrupt the chemistry within the team. Head coaches in pretty much any sport have to deal with that issue when they coach great players who have a different way of doing certain things. The same fear and concern were in Phil Jackson’s head when he accepted the head coaching position with the Chicago Bulls back in 1989 when the Bulls were still a solid playoff team but without any significant success in the postseason.
Led by Michael Jordan, who was the best player in the NBA at the time, the Bulls were hoping Phil Jackson would be the right person for the coaching position because of his unorthodox but fresh coaching ideas he planned for the team. Jackson immediately knew that the only way he could assert himself as a leader other players would follow was if Jordan was on board with him and his ideas on leading a team.
In his book Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success, Jackson shared his methods to convince Jordan to get along with the program he envisioned for the team. Jackson’s primary focus was to redefine Jordan’s role on the team that was up until then solely focused on scoring even though he could do other things equally dominant. He wanted Jordan to score less and get other teammates involved more, which at first sounded crazy, but Jackson was convinced that is the right decision for the team’s success.
If I was going to have any success realizing my vision for the team, I knew my first challenge was to win over Michael Jordan. He was the team leader, and other players would follow if he went along with the program. Michael and I had a good rapport, but I wasn’t certain how he would respond to the idea of giving up the ball and taking fewer shots. In a way, I was asking Michael to produce less. How much less, I wasn’t sure. Perhaps enough to prevent him from winning his 4th straight scoring title. Michael was more receptive than I thought he would be.Phil Jackson, viaEleven Rings: The Soul of Success
Jackson details a meeting and a conversation he had with Jordan in which he told him about the new system in place and what it means for him as a player, and what benefits it can have for the entire team. Luckily for Jackson, Jordan was immediately on board and surprisingly accepted his new role within the team exceptionally well.
Right after Labor Day We had a private meeting in my office, and I told him, “you’ve got to share the spotlight with your teammates because if you don’t, they won’t grow.” “Does that mean we’re going to use Tex’s equal opportunity offense?” He asked. “Yes I think so, and as a result, you probably won’t be able to win another scoring title.” Michael’s reaction was surprisingly pragmatic, “Okay, you know me. I’ve always been a coachable player. Whatever you want to do, I’m behind you. I guess I could average 32 points. Thats 8 points a quarter. Nobody else is going to do that.” “Well, when you put it that way, maybe you can win the title,” I said. “But how about scoring a few more of those points at the end of the game?”Phil Jackson, viaEleven Rings: The Soul of Success
Jackson and Tex Winter implemented the famous triangle offense in which every player had the opportunity to touch the ball and score if the situation presents itself. It was completely different than what the Bulls had before, where they would give the ball to Jordan and let him make the decisions on offense, and whatever happens, happens. Jackson knew he could use Jordan in so many different ways to benefit the team on both ends of the floor.
Scoring 32 points a game was nothing for him. That was it. From then on, Michael devoted himself to learning the system and finding a way to make it work for him. He was never a total convert, but he liked the fact that defenses would have a harder time double and triple-teaming him. Once we started using the triangle, what surprised me was how much havoc Michael could create moving without the ball. Defenders couldn’t take their minds off him, as he wove his way around the floor. Just the thought that he might get the ball at any moment was enough to spook opponents into giving up easy shots.Phil Jackson, viaEleven Rings: The Soul of Success
Looking back now over 20 years after they won their last championship, it’s safe to say Jackson had the right mindset and plan when accepting the head coaching position with the Bulls. Luckily for Jackson, despite having a giant ego, Jordan was incredibly coachable and understood he couldn’t do it by himself and that it takes a team effort to win a championship. Nowadays, we see so many players that can’t put their egos aside for the betterment of the team, which often results in frustrating playoff appearances or disappointing seasons as a whole. This definitely wasn’t the case for the Bulls during their time when Jackson coached. Jordan’s humility was also a significant factor in that success because he understood better than anyone it takes a team, not an individual, to win a championship.