We all remember the most famous non-Michael Jordan moment of Phil Jackson’s tenure as coach of the Chicago Bulls. It happened during the 1994 NBA Playoffs when Scottie Pippen refused to leave the bench for the final play of Game 3 against the Knicks.
It was baffling.
With Jordan off playing baseball, Pippen had one of the all-time “I’m the Captain Now” seasons we’ve ever seen. He was named 1st Team All-NBA, 1st Team Defense, the All-Star Game MVP and he averaged 22 – 8.7 – 5.6 with 2.9 steals. He was 3rd in MVP voting (behind Hakeem and David Robinson) and the Bulls won 55 games.
But back to Game 3.
With the game tied and 1.8 seconds left, Jackson drew up a play for Pippen to inbound the ball to Toni Kukoc, who would take the final shot. The decision infuriated Pippen and he refused to leave the bench. Jackson called the play anyway and Kukoc famously hit the game winner.
The way Jackson chose to handle the situation is what got me first thinking about how his coaching strategies are actually undercover parenting strategies.
After the incident, many coaches would have gone one or both of the following routes:
- Laid into Pippen publicly, shaming him for not being a team player in the media.
- Called out Pippen as selfish in the locker room and laid the smack down on what would happen if he refused to go in the game again.
We’ve seen the above two scenarios play out over and over again and it usually creates a firestorm of controversy, becomes a huge distraction for the team and eventually, nobody wins.
Still, that path is taken all the time.
Jackson chose a different route.
He was tight lipped with the media in the post game interview and then when it came time to address the locker room, he took a step back.
He felt that anything he said might inflame the situation so he let one of the team’s leaders, Bill Cartwright, have the floor. And Cartwright, as a peer, teared up and told Pippen how upset he was that he chose himself over the team. He said everything Jackson might have wanted to say, but it was from the heart of someone who had been in the trenches with Pippen. It was from a colleague, not a boss.
It was a brilliant gambit. It worked.
Pippen apologized to the team and later apologized to Jackson and although the Bulls lost the series, the relationship with Pippen and his teammates and with Jackson remained strong.
I thought about this moment recently when my kids were supposed to work together to clean up their rooms, which were a disaster after they each had friends over. They had asked to go to the movies and I told them we’d go, but not until BOTH rooms were clean.
I gave them an hour to finish while I went off and did something else.
The hour passed and when I went upstairs, my son’s room was spotless and my daughter’s was maybe 30% cleaned while she played in the closet.
We had about 15 minutes to leave for the movie and as any of you parents reading this know, there are few things more frustrating than your kids not listening to you when you’re trying to do something for them.
I’m not a yeller, but in this scenario I typically would have launched into some kind of long talk about responsibility and how if she doesn’t clean her room then nobody gets to go and on and on and it likely would have been useless.
At best we’d both be irritated.
At worst, she’d dig her heels in and do nothing and we wouldn’t go to the movie.
That’s when I thought of Phil Jackson and Scottie Pippen.
Rather than even say a single word to my daughter, I walked into my son’s room and said, “Listen, buddy. We all want to go to the movie. I know you really want to go. How upset would you be if we couldn’t go because your sister didn’t clean her room but you did?”
After he told me his answer, I said to him, “Good. Then instead of me telling her that you’ll feel that way, why don’t you go tell her. Then tell her to clean her room and be downstairs in ten minutes so we can leave.”
He said he’d do it and I walked downstairs and waited…
Ten minutes later, they both came downstairs laughing.
“Is your room clean?” I asked.
“Yup!” my daughter said. “Even my closet. I didn’t want everyone to miss the movie because of me.”
Ummmmmm…. What??? Did that just really happen????
Yes, yes it did. And I have used the tactic several times since (both with my daughter talking to my son and vice versa) and it almost always works.
There have been untold jokes made about Phil Jackson as a Zen Master and Guru and he’s earned all kinds of goofy, touchy-feely names on his way to winning his eleven rings… And I never gave much thought about his leadership style until I read his book.
And I definitely never considered his mindset to be something that would be helpful with parenting but it is.
And there are so many more examples.
In one scene Jackson describes a time during the 1997 season when Dennis Rodman was going off the rails. He was recovering from an injury and wasn’t traveling with the team and partying hard and basically being self-destructive. Meanwhile, the Bulls were playing really well and MJ and Pippen had just about had it with Rodman.
As Rodman got healthier and was ready to join practice, Steve Kerr asked Jackson if they could take the team bus to go out together for a night to welcome him back to the team.
The Bulls went out and partied all night and Jackson says he knew the moment they all got off the bus that morning that the day’s practice was shot.
He tried to get them to work hard but after 40 minutes, he gave up.
But he wasn’t mad. He consented to the trip. The trip itself was good for team chemistry and enabled Rodman to rejoin the team’s fold. It was a net positive, so Jackson sent the players home to rest.
How many coaches would have gone ape shit and ripped on the team for being irresponsible and not focusing for practice? How many would have had the players run suicides or sprints or practice extra to learn their lesson?
He wanted the positivity of the experience to stay with the team into the upcoming game, which they won.
I think about this sometimes when my kids ask to have friends sleep over and we have dessert late and they’re running around going nuts before bed.
I now think: I let them have a friend over. I said they could have dessert. Of course they’re going to be excited and hyper. I’m not going to lose my mind about it. I consented to their fun and now I need to let them enjoy it. Otherwise I just should have said ‘no’ from the beginning.
Another major concept that Jackson preached was that he never utilized practices as a form of punishment. Practicing was a time to hone skills and unify as a team and get better. It was not something that was turned against his players.
Swap out practice for ‘chores’ and you basically have the same thing.
I am 100% guilty of using chores as a net negative. We all say stuff like, “you’re not going to your friend’s house if you haven’t finished X, Y and Z.”
After reading Eleven Rings, I’ve flipped a bit.
The chores are no longer held out as some sort of punishment. They are now the pillars of what is expected. I don’t use them as a source of discipline anymore. Chores are just what need to be done and they need to be done well. They’re not tied to anything other than learning responsibility.
So I recently made a checklist and printed it up and taped it to both my kids’ walls. I didn’t call it a “Chore Chart” or “List of Chores”… I titled it: “11 Rules for Excellence.”
Now the kids look at the list of things they have to get done as a way to improve themselves, not as a way to avoid punishment.
It’s a huge mindset shift and of course it’s not perfect… But it worked for Jackson and the Bulls and the Lakers and for MJ, Pippen, Rodman, Shaq and Kobe… So I’m thinking it can work with my kids.
Maybe it’ll work for yours, too.
Jon Finkel is the award-winning author of The Life of Dad, Jocks In Chief, The Athlete, Heart Over Height,“Mean” Joe Greene , The ‘Greatest Stars of the NBA’ Series and other books about sports, fatherhood, fitness and more. His work has been endorsed by Spike Lee, Tony Dungy, Jerry Jones, Mark Cuban and Chef Robert Irvine. He is the co-host of the Life of Dad Show podcast and Lunch Break Facebook Live Show, and he’s written for GQ, Men’s Health, Yahoo! Sports, The New York Times and dozens of other national publications.
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