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In June 2004, shortly after his team’s crushing loss to the Detroit Pistons in the NBA finals, Phil Jackson resigned as coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, writes Mike Steinberger. It was a decision more or less forced on Jackson because Kobe Bryant, the team’s querulous star, had evidently made clear to management that he did not want Jackson back. In a tell-all memoir published four months later, Jackson had his say, describing Bryant as, among other things, uncoachable.
It thus came as no little surprise when the Lakers announced in June that the 60-year-old Jackson had signed a three-year, nearly $30m contract to coach the team again – a club that still has Bryant on its roster. The Lakers opened the 2005/2006 season on Wednesday with a 99-97 victory over the Denver Nuggets. The win came courtesy of a last-second Bryant jump shot, which under other circumstances might have been seen as a highly auspicious sign.
But one buzzer beater cannot erase memories of a thousand cross words, and although both Jackson and Bryant have been paragons of diplomacy and politesse in recent weeks, Jackson’s about-face is still the talk of the league. The biggest question is the simplest one: why? What would compel Jackson to return to a team led by the same player who ran him out of town just 17 months ago and who had made his life miserable for many months before that?
Oddly enough, love may have had something to do with it – and no, not love for Bryant. Jackson’s long-time girlfriend is Jeanie Buss, who happens to be the daughter of Lakers owner Jerry Buss. Even though there was much blood on the floor when Jackson resigned as coach, his relationship with the boss’s daughter survived his break-up with the Lakers and it was well known that she had been pushing her father to bring Jackson back to the sidelines.
But apart from love and perhaps money, there were surely other considerations that led Jackson back to Los Angeles. It is possible, for instance, that he felt he had some unfinished business – namely, getting a championship ring for the one finger of his that still lacks one. He has won nine NBA titles as a coach – six with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls and three with the Lakers – tying the record set by the legendary Red Auerbach. Jackson might have retired for good had the Lakers defeated the Pistons for the title in 2004. Having instead been deprived of his 10th championship, and humiliated in the process (the Lakers came apart like a jalopy and fell to Detroit four games to one), Jackson may well have returned in order to try to end his career on a sunnier note.
It could also be that Jackson feels he has something yet to prove. The one knock on the Zen Master, as he is known, is that he has never built a winner from scratch. It is a point that the 88-year-old Auerbach, no fan of Jackson’s, likes to harp on about.
When Jackson took over as coach of the Chicago Bulls in 1989, the club already had Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, and while no one would deny that Jackson was a superb coach, he had some talent at his disposal, to put it mildly. That was also the case when he was hired to coach the Lakers a decade later. Both Bryant and centre Shaquille O’Neal were on the roster, the nucleus of a championship squad already in place.
The ability to take a loser and turn it into a winner is, of course, the ultimate measure of professional coaching prowess, and it is fair to say that the most celebrated skippers these days are the turnround artists. Bill Parcells, for instance, is generally regarded as the finest still-active coach in the NFL because he managed to take three perennial doormats – the New York Giants, the New York Jets and the New England Patriots – and whipped them into contenders. His reputation has slipped a bit of late because he has thus far been unable to return his current team, the Dallas Cowboys, to their former greatness. But if Jackson was intent on proving that he too could take zeroes and turn them into heroes, there were other restoration projects readily available to him. A job coaching the club he played for in the 1960s and 1970s, the now-hapless New York Knicks, was evidently Jackson’s for the asking (after being rebuffed by Jackson, the Knicks threw an armoured truck’s worth of cash at the nomadic Larry Brown, late of the Pistons, and lured him back to his native New York). Other clubs would have jumped at the chance to hire such a proven winner but in true Hollywood fashion, Jackson opted for a sequel with the Lakers.
Whatever it was that drew Jackson back to the scene of the maelstrom, he is certainly facing the toughest challenge of his coaching career. Apart from having to make nice with Bryant, Jackson has to make do without the services of his beloved big man, O’Neal. When Buss decided to placate Bryant further by also cutting O’Neal loose just days after Jackson’s resignation, questions were naturally raised about the owner’s sanity. After all, O’Neal is one of the greatest centres in NBA history and was also a far more agreeable presence than Bryant. But a year and a half later, Buss’s decision is more defensible. True, O’Neal led his new team, the Miami Heat, to the second-best record in the NBA last year, but by the time the play-offs came around, his 33-year-old body was too battered to carry the Heat to a title.
Still, given a choice between an ageing superstar and a cast of unproven kids and journeymen, it is not hard to guess which option Jackson would have selected. But the choice was made for him and now he needs to figure out a way to perform alchemy on a club that went 34-48 last year and missed the play-offs. Moreover, apart from rehiring Jackson, the Lakers did not do a lot over the summer to improve their prospects. The team’s biggest acquisition during the off-season was Kwame Brown, a former number one draft pick who has spent most of his career falling woefully short of expectations and irritating his coaches in the process.
Insofar as Jackson has a blueprint for reviving the Lakers, it revolves around Bryant and forward Lamar Odom. Jackson is hoping Odom can eventually become to Bryant what Scottie Pippen was to Michael Jordan in Chicago – an indispensable sidekick whose scoring and defensive prowess can take some of the pressure off the main man. In their effort to clone Pippen, the Lakers have hired the prototype himself, Pippen, to work with Odom. Odom is not short on talent and it is not unrealistic to think that he could one day evoke comparisons with Pippen. But that is not likely to happen in time to spare Jackson from a long and trying season.