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LRB
01-29-2003, 12:57 PM
January 29, 2003 LA Times

Bill Plaschke:
Jackson Out of His Element Coaching Such a Bad Team

Watching Phil Jackson on the sidelines this season is like spotting an esteemed teacher in the grocery store on a Saturday.

You are shocked at the sight of him in old jeans.

You can't believe how he looks with an armful of toilet paper.

His immortal armor stripped, his imperial air vanished, you flee the store rather than endure the unimaginable sight of him choosing paper or plastic.

That man is a stranger. You want your teacher back.

So it is with Laker fans, who have been stuck this season with watching what appears to be an uncertain, unhappy old hippie running their basketball team.

They want their book-lending, mind-bending, Zen master back.

But it may be too late.

The Laker troubles have created a situation as unfamiliar to Jackson as mud wrestling was to Einstein.

He may have become the best basketball coach in history, but he has done so as a specialist who turns good teams into great teams.

Presently, he has a mediocre team, which puts him as badly out of position as a pitcher playing shortstop.

And he knows it.

"I've looked for everything," he acknowledged Tuesday after practice. "And I can't come up with a combination."

Jackson has questioned himself. The players have questioned him. He is coaching harder more than ever, but the results have been worse than ever, maybe because he hasn't done this in a while.

The last time he coached a team playing this poorly this late in the season, it was 20 years ago, with the Albany Patroons of the CBA, when he was hired as the head coach of a team with an 8-17 record.

No, he didn't turn it around, finishing with a personal 8-11 record that year, and it's not surprising.

He's not the sort of disciplinarian struggling teams need.

He doesn't instill the sort of fundamentals scuffling players need.

He doesn't teach freshman English, he teaches graduate literature, which works only on eager and accomplished scholars.

When he arrived here four years ago, the Lakers were filled with such scholars.

Today, flush with diplomas, they have reverted to spitballs and food fights.

They've changed. Their teacher doesn't know how to change. The chaos has been palpable.

"Has our success made me too soft? Am I enforcing less discipline? Those are questions I've asked myself," Jackson said. "And, yeah, they've asked me to be harder."

He tried that earlier this season, after their 3-9 start, after Shaquille O'Neal returned from surgery.

"For the most part, I've always let the players police themselves," he said. "But after our slow start, we made a decision that I would do more active coaching."

The results? They have gone 16-14 since, a .530 winning percentage that most years would not be good enough to make the playoffs.

"I have not moved us much further down the line," Jackson acknowledged.

Then last week, in the depths of consecutive bad losses to Golden State and New Jersey, the man with a record-tying nine NBA championships openly thought the unthinkable.

Were his players no longer listening to him? Had he fallen hopelessly out of touch with his team?

"Every coach goes through a period of time when they feel like they're not reaching their team," Jackson said Tuesday, later adding, "But with their effort, they've assured me that I was."

That this renown motivator would even question his motivational skills is troubling, but reasonable.

Devean George, after being given a huge contract, has been a huge bust. Samaki Walker, another questionable off-season signing, has not improved since arriving here two years ago.

Rick Fox has been puzzling, Derek Fisher has been confusing, and Robert Horry is still waiting for an April that may never come.

None of which even addresses Jackson's biggest problem: convincing O'Neal to make the sort of effort and conditioning adjustments that come with age and surgery.

"The guys have been intensely devoted," he said. "But for some reason, they've not been able to collectively lay their effort on the line."

Thus, a man better suited to room service has been spotted nightly with his elbows deep in the frozen foods, and it begs a question.

What if Jackson thinks this team is finished, the dynasty kaput? Does that mean his work here is finished? Why would he stick around for the final year of his contract next season if it involves the sort of rebuilding job that he has worked so hard to avoid?

He is certainly wealthy enough to retire, and famous enough not to care, with the only remaining goal being that 10th championship that would trump the eternally bitter Red Auerbach.

"In the history of basketball, you've got to know when a team is finished," he said. "The Celtics made that mistake. That's what happened in Detroit."

He was talking about the futility in stretching a dynasty one year too long. He said it's an easy mistake to make, because who wants to break up a defending champion in the months after their title, no matter how vulnerable they look?

"You're talking about betraying heart and loyalty, and you can't do that," he said.

In other words, the front office couldn't bear to break up the Lakers this summer, and maybe are now paying the price.

But if Jackson thinks they are done, then there's a remote chance he could also decide that his career is done.

"No, we're still moving forward, tweaking things every day," he said. "This is a process. We once had a chemistry that made us feel unbeatable. We're still trying to get that back."

In the meantime, a tweaking of his coaching style might not be a bad thing, not just for the future of the team, but for the sake of his legacy.

"I've always been known for being positive, maybe I've been too positive," Jackson said, grinning. "Maybe I should just say that, positively, this is not a good team."

That would be a start.

Bill Plaschke can be reached at: Bill.Plaschke@latimes.com.

MavKikiNYC
01-29-2003, 02:09 PM
See Phil squirm. See Phil wriggle.

See Phil covering his privates after having been exposed. Remember Phil hustling Jerry "Logo" West off the stage, and wrangling for more say in personnel matters.

See Phil subtly trying to lay the blame off on "the front office" (watch out for that knife, Mitch) for not breaking up the team in the off-season.

Sit down, bus driver.

Eat dirt, Zen.

WayOutWest
01-29-2003, 02:52 PM
<< Remember Phil hustling Jerry &quot;Logo&quot; West off the stage, and wrangling for more say in personnel matters. >>



This is such a misconception it's becomming a cliche. Do a little digging and you'll understand why West left, it's mostly for the same reasons that made him such a legendary player, GM and person. Thank goodness West left the Lakers, I'd rather see Jerry in Memphis than burried six feet under.

MavKikiNYC
01-29-2003, 03:02 PM
If you've got stories to the contrary, I'd be interested to see them.

Seems implauisble that Logo would end a 40-year association with the Lakers without a reason. He was widely reported to be dissatisfied with what he perceived to be a lesser degree of authority, and that he felt his contribution to the team was being underappreciated. His competitiveness, fear of losing, and tenacity would tend to support rather than refute the stories surrounding his departure.

And Jackson WAS reported to be making a play for a greater personnel role on the team.

But I'm always interested to see the record set straight.