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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Tex On Kobe Vs. MJ

Well before Air Jordan had even finished playing, folks began a feverish hunt for Heir Jordan, as if there could ever be another one.
But that’s what everyone — team owners, fans, reporters, publicists, advertising and broadcasting executives, even players and coaches — wanted, someone to thrill them in the way that Jordan had.
Phil Jackson and his assistant coaches were no different.
Even before they truly settled in their offices in Los Angeles in 1999, they began the comparisons.
MJ vs. the Kobester.
After all, the public debate had started as early as 1997 and ’98 when the teen-aged Bryant was breaking on the NBA scene and gunning to take on the master. Like every hot-handed young whippersnapper, he elicited comparisons to the professional game’s standard, the incomparable Jordan.
After all, that question had raged for years unanswered, who is the next Jordan?
The klieg lights had blinded one young candidate after another in the 1990s. USC’s Harold Miner, the “Baby Jordan.” Ron Harper before his knee injury. Grant Hill. Vince Carter.
It enraged some fans that the audacious Mr. Bryant seemed to openly court such comparison. He would deny it, of course, but this only seemed to fuel their rage.
They cursed and shook their heads when his youthful affectations seemed intentionally Jordanesque.
Today, a lot of fans consider the debate beneath themselves, because it’s “so nineties.”
Yeah, right.
I wrote a little column last week about how Bryant has finally earned the kind of respect from Phil Jackson that the coach once accorded Jordan.
Henry Abbott’s megafun ESPN blog, True Hoop, linked to the column and it elicited a staggering 258 (and counting) comments from jacked-up readers and posters in a raging debate over the merits of MJ or Kobe. Those figures don’t include the thousands of readers quietly seething over the issue, readers who simply don’t vent in a blog.
Some readers spew that it’s the stupid media causing all this, that it’s trite to compare the two, that there is no comparison.
Such debates are the reason we follow sports. They’re just an extension of the competition. In fact, they’re the essence of NBA lore.
Russell vs. Wilt.
West vs. Oscar.
Bird vs. Magic.
Hakeem vs. Patrick.
Mention any one of those and it sets fans to woofing.
Even 85-year-old Tex Winter likes to jump in the fray.
A few years back, the Lakers coaching staff concluded Bryant and Jordan were much alike, almost eerie, in fact, when it came to the alpha male qualities of their competitive natures.
Kobe and Michael were ruthless when it came to winning, everyone agreed.
And their skills were similar.
Except Michael’s hands were larger.
The major difference between the two came with college experience. Jordan had played in a basketball system for Dean Smith at North Carolina, thus he was better prepared to play within a team concept.
Bryant had come into the league directly from high school with stars in his eyes.
This week I again raised the issue with Tex Winter, who spent years coaching each man.
“I tend to think how very much they’re alike,” he replied. “They both display tremendous reaction, quickness and jumping ability. Both have a good shooting touch. Some people say Kobe is a better shooter, but Michael really developed as a shooter as he went along. I don’t know if Kobe is a better shooter than Michael was at his best.”
Observers like to point out that Jordan played on a Chicago Bulls team with no great center, but Winter always countered that Jordan was a great post-up player and in essence was the premier post weapon of his time.
Bryant himself came into the NBA with amazingly good post skills, but there was never room for him to play in the post with Shaquille O’Neal occupying the lane during their years together with the Lakers.
In a lot of ways, Bryant is Jordan’s equal as a post player, Winter said, except for one critical element. “What’s happened to Kobe and his post play — and he is a great post player — is that he’s catching the ball just out of the lane and the defenders are forcing him out toward the wing.
“It’s hard for him to get a deep post position,” Winter explained. “Michael had a knack for holding his ground a little better than Kobe. Those strong defenders force Kobe out of there. When that happens, we need to go away from Kobe, instead of challenging the defense there. You don’t want him to start on the post and end up out on the wing.”
The situation leads some to wonder if Bryant’s difficulties in the post don’t lead him sometimes to an over-reliance on the 3-pointer.
“I like to see him take 3s when he’s got ‘em,” Winter said. “He’s an excellent 3-point shooter. I like to see him take them when the floor is spaced and the defense is not closing out fast enough. If the ball is moved quickly, then he has a chance at a good look. Plus defenders foul him on the close-out and he gets a chance at a four-point play. He would get more four-point plays if officials called it when defenders fouled him on the 3.”
Bryant also gets a lot of excellent looks when he charges up in transition and the defense is slow to react to him, Winter said. “He’ll bring the ball up. If they back up on him, he’ll move right to that 3-point line and hit it.”
Bryant has always faced questions about the quality and quantity of his shots.
“We study the tapes,” Winter said of Bryant’s recent scoring binge. “Actually, for the most part, he’s not forcing up a lot of bad shots. When he gets hot, he does take shots that would be questionable for other players. But a lot of the shots he’s taken go in.”
What constitutes a forced shot for most players is not necessarily a bad shot for Bryant, Winter explained. “He’ll take shots that not many other players are going to be able to hit, and he hits them.”
Long known as the innovator and developer of the triangle offense, Winter acknowledges that of recent Bryant has done much of his scoring while “not really running the triangle sequence options” that define the offense.
“But he is running out of the triangle format and making use of the offense’s spacing and ball movement,” Winter offered.
When the team does run the offense, Bryant finds most of his success at small forward, which allows him to work “behind the defense,” as Winter has often explained. “He gets the ball in position where he’s isolated and can attack the basket a little better. He gets more isolation that way. The triangle creates opportunity for him and he knows that.”
Even with all of Bryant’s offensive success, Winter said the team needs to keep the ball moving, that Bryant’s teammates still defer to him too much.
The main message that Winter, a Lakers consultant, would like to get across to Bryant is that the problem is not his offense.
“I’d like to see him play better defense,” Winter said, adding that he had addressed the issue recently with Bryant but didn’t come away with the idea that Bryant was intent on changing his approach.
“You know Kobe,” Winter said with a chuckle. “He has his game plan. I think he heard me. But he feels there’s a certain way he’s got to play the game. But it doesn’t involve a lot of basically sound defense.”
Because the Lakers need so much of his effort at the offensive end, Bryant has adopted a save-energy plan on the defensive end, Winter said. “He’s basically playing a lot of one-man zone. He’s doing a lot of switching, zoning up, trying to come up with the interception.
“The way Kobe plays defensively affects the team,” Winter added. “Anybody that doesn’t play consistently good defense hurts the team. That’s not only Kobe. Our other guards tend to gamble and get beat. Another problem is that the screen and roll is not played correctly.”


Winter offered some opinions on my recent columns.
Last week I wrote in “Blood In The Water” that Phil Jackson had begun displaying the kind of respect for Bryant that he once offered only to Jordan.
Winter agreed with that assessment: “I think Phil is appreciative of what Kobe is and what he can do for a team. He’s given him a lot more green light recently than he would ordinarily.”
Asked if Bryant now has the same kind of green light that Jordan once enjoyed, Winter replied: “Pretty much.”
Another of my recent columns said Bryant’s four-game streak of 50-point games was more impressive than Wilt Chamberlain’s seven-game streak in 1961-62. Winter again agreed: “It is more impressive. Wilt’s streak was more about gimmickry that season. Kobe’s gotten these points against tough competition (Winter thinks just about all NBA team offer superior competition in this age, including the Memphis Grizzlies), which is something else Wilt didn’t face, not consistently.”
Other than Bill Russell there weren’t many quality big men in an NBA that featured fewer than a dozen teams, Winter offered. “He just out-manned most of the centers in those days.
“Kobe is not a 7-foot-1 giant. He’s a normal-sized 2 or 3 man. For him to go off on the kind of scoring tear that he did is remarkable. It was necessary for this team to win five straight games. Without it, I doubt seriously if we could have won.”
Winter, of course, felt compelled to mention that his Kansas State team in 1958 ended Chamberlain’s season early at the University of Kansas. Winter’s State team also beat Chamberlain and the Jayhawks on their own floor.
“When Kansas got Wilt as a recruit, everyone just assumed they’d win three straight championships,” he recalled.
After losing to UNC in triple overtime in the 1957 NCAA championship game as a sophomore, Wilt’s team lost to Winter’s team in the playoffs his junior year. Frustrated, Chamberlain left college ball to tour with the Harlem Globetrotters during his senior season and joined the NBA a year later, in 1960.

Roland Lazenby is the author of The Show, a comprehensive oral history of the Lakers. Mindgames, Lazenby’s biography of Phil Jackson, has just been released by the University of Nebraska’s Bison Books in a new special edition.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Kobe's Streak Better Than Wilt's?

Kobe Bryant's streak has ended in Los Angeles, where just about everyone agrees it was time. Bryant's scoring binge served to refire the Lakers' slumping season, but once it served that purpose it quickly became a distortion of competitive basketball.
And it will remain that way — unless or until the Lakers need another similar explosion.
Some people like to point out that Wilt Chamberlain's record of seven straight 50-point games is better than Bryant's four-game streak of 50-point games.
Those people, however, don't know about Eddie Gottlieb, the old owner/manager/coach of the Philadelphia Warriors.
A legend in Philadelphia basketball, Gottlieb is a pioneer of pro basketball.
He is also remembered as one of the game's biggest tightwads.
Truth is, he couldn't have been one without being the other.
He was among the original owners and promoters when the Basketball Associaton of American formed after World War II. The BAA was the early version of the NBA.
Gottlieb had to make sure that his Warriors drew well because pro basketball teams died a quick death in those days.
As the late Paul Seymour once explained to me, Gottlieb knew that to sell tickets he had to have a superstar, somebody who could score an obscene amount of points.
In the 1940s, this somebody became Jumpin' Joe Fulks, a Kentucky hillbilly with one of the game's first jump shots.
In the league's first season, during the days of excruciatingly slow basketball, Fulks led the league in scoring at a whopping 23.6 points per game, huge numbers in those early years when the best shooters were lucky to hit 30 percent of their shots.
"Gottlieb always liked a big scorer," Seymour told me in a 1990 interview. "He figured that's what he had to have to draw the people."
So Gottlieb left Fulks in the game and told him to fire at will. Never mind that the game was a blow-out, the Warriors' job was to get the ball to Fulks and let him blast. He played nearly every minute of every game, because Gottlieb was sure that a high scoring average sold tickets.
In those days, pro basketball was only about survival. You had to sell enough tickets to last the season.
In 1959-60, Gottlieb finally got his hands on the ultimate "somebody," Wilt Chamberlain. He played heavy minutes as a rookie and averaged 37.6 points per game.
But that first year was nothing compared with 1961-62, when he averaged an all-time best 50.4 points a game.
Gottlieb made sure that Chamberlain played virtually every minute of the season, including all the blowouts. Of the 3,890 minutes the Warriors played during the regular season, Chamberlain spent just eight minutes on the bench the entire year.
As his average reveals, he took 3,159 shots, nearly one for every minute he played, and rang up a stunning 4,029 points.
Bryant's critics complain bitterly if he takes 36 shots over the course of a contested game.
Wilt, on the other hand, became the NBA's freak show.
Like Bryant, he seemed to have a hard time earning the love of the fans.
Nobody loves Goliath, remarked Franklin Mieuli, who bought the Warriors and moved them to San Fransciso. "Chamberlain is not an easy man to love. I don't mean that I personally dislike him. He's a good friend of mine. But the fans in San Francisco never learned to love him. I guess most fans are for the little man and the underdog, ,and Wilt is neither. He's easy to hate, and we were the best draw on the road when people came to see him lose."
Bryant, of course, has similar issues for different reasons. But which scoring streak came closer to happening in a competitive context?
Probably Bryant's recent streak fits that better.
On the other hand, does it matter?
If you're interested in the maximum limits of human performance, yes, it does.
But if you're interested in winning team basketball, well, it's championships won that cements the reputation of a great player.

Roland Lazenby is the author of The Show, a comprehensive oral history of The Lakers. He also has written Mindgames, a biography of Phil Jackson recently released in a special paperback edition by the University of Nebraska's Bison Books imprint.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Blood In The Water

I remember chatting with Kobe Bryant on the phone years ago. He was a lost 20-year-old kid, in his third year with the Lakers, just becoming aware that Shaquille O’Neal was stepping on his neck with an inconceivable hatred.
We were in Houston. I was writing a book called Mad Game, The NBA Education of Kobe Bryant.
There was no question that Bryant had huge blind spots about himself and his relationships with older teammates. What 20-year-old doesn’t have blind spots? Bryant, though, had huge ambition, thus huge blind spots. He didn’t see that his ambition itself, his over-the-top work ethic, immensely irritated the veterans around him.
Anyway, we were chatting on the phone before the Lakers played the Rockets that night. Bryant had awakened from a good nap and was willing to continue our running conversation about his unusual life.
He had scored his first 50-point game in January 1996 as a senior leading his Lower Merion, Penn., high school team to a 95-64 win over Marple Newtown.
As we talked, he recalled the absolute exhilaration, the complete sense of domination, that scoring 50 points brought him.
That night in high school had helped him articulate the goal in his basketball life. “I just want to be the man,” he told me. “I just want to dominate.”
It wasn’t idle boasting by some punked-out kid. Bryant was earnestly expressing his destiny.
Scoring 50 points was a feeling that he wanted to experience again and again. He was sure he could do it in the NBA if he could only get people to understand. His frustration was that no one saw what he saw. He knew he could do it. Knew he could find a way, if someone would just let him. He didn’t know how that would happen.
“I just want to be the man,” he repeated.
It wasn’t a statement he made around his teammates and coaches. He didn’t have to. His every action spoke it. Every little thing he did declared “I’m on my way to greatness.”
Every little thing he did was a match that torched the anger of the people around him.
As a response, nearly everyone he encountered in the NBA sought to harness his game. Even as a young player he could produce 26-point halves, but it was as if no one wanted to see them. Instead of seeing them as things of beauty, his coaches and teammates saw his scoring outbursts as unbridled acts of vanity.
They sought to bridle him.
“I will not let them change me,” he told me. “I will find a way. I don’t know how, but I will find a way.”
Over the years, Bryant has endured much pain trying to establish that destiny.
His ambition has been blamed for wrecking a Lakers dynasty. He has battled himself, his teammates, his coaches, the game itself. He has done so fearlessly, relentlessly, with little sign of regret or doubt, only the dogged pursuit of his vision of what he is supposed to be.
There was no question that Bryant could on any given night be blinded by his own brilliance, just as his teammates could be mesmerized by it.
Soon many fans came to equate his every action with selfishness, so that no matter what he did, or how brilliantly he did it, his accomplishments were met with derision.
The realization of this first drove Bryant to despair; then it drove him to compromise.
I like to hammer Phil Jackson in this column, almost as much as I like to extol the virtues of Tex Winter. Both men deserve much credit for their work with Bryant. Winter guided and nurtured him through the harsh phases of his career.
And after being Bryant’s uncommunicative enemy for several seasons, Jackson has become his ally, the man responsible for guiding him toward a team mind-set.
Often Jackson and Winter have differed in their opinions on how to handle Bryant. Now, though, they seem to agree that the Lakers absolutely need Bryant and the full firepower of his arsenal to push the team out of its doldrums and back on track toward the playoffs.
As a result, Bryant is now realizing his vision of 50 point games, of dominating, of “being the man.”
After Bryant scored 60 in a road win over the Memphis Grizzlies recently, Jackson told reporters, “At one point, we got the offensive rebound and (had) a whole new 24-second (shot clock) left. Lamar (Odom) gave the ball right back to him and Kobe went right back at them. He just smells blood in the water and he’s going to go after you.”
I interviewed Jackson many times during his years as coach of the Chicago Bulls. The “blood in the water” quote was the sort of commentary he frequently offered about the incomparable Michael Jordan.
In Bryant’s career with the Lakers, I can’t recall Jackson offering a truly Jordanesque quote about Bryant. Oh, Jackson has had plenty of nice things to say, some of them genuine.
But I perceive this quote as different. Kobe Bryant has finally achieved the status he has sought so long.
He finally has neared the level of respect, even reverence, that Jackson accorded Jordan.
It has taken him a long time to earn that status. Fans still withhold from him the respect they gave to Jordan, the sense that Jordan was bullet-proof, that he could do no wrong in their eyes.
Because of the criminal allegations in his past, because of the perception of his selfishness, Bryant may never be accorded that level of respect by the fans.
But there’s no question this is a new day. Bryant has arrived at his moment, able to use his full arsenal truly for the first time. His three big scoring games in a row all resulted in Lakers wins. He is the man at last, the dominance he sought in his youthful vision.
There’s only a sense, that as the team charges down the schedule toward the playoffs, there are more big performances to come, each of them to be prized the way Phil Jackson once prized Jordan’s every move.
As the Rolling Stones would say, Let It Bleed.

Roland Lazenby is the author of The Show, a comprehensive oral history of the Lakers. His biography of Phil Jackson, Mindgames, was recently released by the University of Nebraska’s Bison Books in a special paperback edition.

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Thursday, March 22, 2007

Mystery, Irony, All That Good Stuff

You just never know what to expect from Kobe Bryant. That’s both a charming and a frustrating element for fans of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Ditto for the team’s coaches.
Bryant’s unpredictability has often left triangle offense guru Tex Winter fussing about his “impetuousness.”
Head coach Phil Jackson figured that Bryant’s nature would wreck his team headed into the 2001 playoffs. The coach was so sure of it, in fact, he attempted to have Bryant traded and even joked about it on national TV. But a stunningly mature Bryant came back from injury that year and played nearly perfect basketball in sending the Lakers on a blistering championship run.
In 2006, he wowed the NBA with an 81-point game but later befuddled Lakers fans with a strangely quiet second half as Los Angeles lost to Phoenix in Game 7 of their first-round playoff battle.
This season, when Lakers forward Lamar Odom went out with a knee injury, many observers expected Bryant to veer off on one scoring binge after another. Instead he sat back and smiled while doling out assists and guiding his young teammates to a series of surprising victories. Unfortunately, those injuries continued to mount for the Lakers and their good start to the season soon melted into frustration. Even then, Bryant offered a restrained approach, until finally his frustration boiled over in recent games against Portland and Minnesota.
His scoring outburst of 65 and 50 points was just what the team needed to leave behind a seven-game losing streak.
Now, with a promising season dangerously close to slipping away, both Jackson and Winter have given their approval to Bryant unleashing his full scoring power.
“We need him,” Winter said recently. “Let’s hope he can turn it on like he did a couple of years ago when he ran off that string of 40 point games.”
Both Jackson and Winter have found themselves in these circumstances before — having to rely on the superhuman abilities of one superstar. They did it year in and year out with the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan.
Winter used to watch Jordan on game nights and marvel. Jordan was the biggest mystery he ever coached, Winter would confide. “On many nights, Michael was a mystery, even to himself.”
Asked recently if Bryant’s mystery had become as big as Jordan’s, Winter scoffed and replied, “Oh, heaven’s yes. Kobe is much more of a mystery than Michael. So many nights you don’t know how he’s going to respond to events.”
Asked about Winter’s statement, Bryant replied with a smile, “Considering the company, I’ll take that as a compliment. That’s good company to keep (with Jordan).”
However, like many of Winter’s statements, this one was neither compliment or criticism, just observation.
Bryant’s critics are quick to point out that his mystery has a dark side. What really happened in Colorado in 2003, many have asked. Or how about his spate of suspensions this season for blows delivered to opposing defenders as Bryant has tried to draw fouls and get to the line?
Those closest to Bryant scoff at such questions. They draw their fascination from his absolute dedication and his unique approach to the game.
“It’s hard to know what Kobe is thinking, particularly in regards to basketball,” Winter explained. “He’s a very quick learner. He picks up things and he knows how to do things right. He knows the offense better than anyone. Because he is astute he spends a lot of time directing his teammates.
“Still a lot of times he goes off on tangents,” Winter said, echoing a complaint he has made over the years. “He’s impetuous. That’s one of the mysteries about him. Sometimes the way he likes to play is a mystery. He’s pretty aggressive in whatever he does. If he elects to not take shots, then he spends time getting the ball to his teammates.
“Or, if he elects to ignore his teammates and take a lot of shots, he’ll do that.”
That unpredictable nature has sometimes left his teammates unsure of how to respond.
“Kobe is a big talent,” explained Lakers forward Luke Walton. “You have to adjust your game to learn to play with him. It’s always a learning process.”
On the nights that Bryant elects to take over a game, his teammates seem to enjoy his talent and power. But that leads to criticism that they tend to become passive and content just to watch him work, something that isn’t always good for team play.
At the end of a six-game road trip in December, Bryant came out aggressively against the Charlotte Bobcats (and produced another 50-point game in a losing effort), and he later explained that he simply didn’t want to let his team get off to another slow start before a sell-out crowd on the road.
“He can score,” says Winter, Bryant’s mentor who doesn’t hesitate to criticize him. “That’s not the problem. The problem is, how are we going to play as a team?”
That’s a question that Bryant seemed more and more concerned with this season. He and Jackson have spent much of the past two seasons building a strong player/coach relationship. Jackson’s goal was to improve Bryant’s “team” game, to develop his leadership abilities, to control that “impetuousness.”
As several journalists have noted this season, Bryant has clearly enjoyed changing his own approach and watching his young teammates grow into their roles.
“I’d much rather not do that,” Bryant said of his big scoring nights. “It’s too tiring. Sometimes you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do to keep the team together and get a win. Then you move on and hope you don’t have to do that the next time.”
Under Jackson’s tutelage, Bryant’s big concern became teaching his teammates how to carry their share of the burden, and how to be confident doing it.
“We’re learning how to close out games,” Bryant said of the team earlier in the season. “That’s a big thing for us. We’re getting better at it.”
Bryant’s confidence became critical to the team itself, Walton said.
So did lessons about Bryant’s own unique perspective on the game. Failure doesn’t weigh heavily on Bryant, and that’s another lesson he has tried to impart to his teammates. You have to compete very hard, then accept the results without dwelling on them.
“You can’t make a loss any bigger than what it is,” he says. “You can’t over-dramatize the situation. It is what it is. A loss is a loss. It’s not going to make or break our season. So you just move on from it. You don’t want to over-dramatize it. A loss is a loss. Hats off to the other team and move on. It’s just one game.”
This mental approach is all part of the unique package that is Kobe Bryant, says longtime Lakers broadcaster Stu Lantz, who has observed Bryant up close since he came into the league in 1996. “His own expectations are huge. I don’t think anyone else could possibly have bigger expectations than those that Kobe has for himself. I’ve been around a lot of players, first as a player and now as an announcer all these years, and I don’t think I’ve been around anybody that has the internal drive to be the best that Kobe has. There’s all this pressure that he puts on himself. How he copes with all that is a mystery to me. Maybe sometimes when people think he’s aloof or mysterious or whatever he is, it’s just him dealing with all the things that he has to deal with, with all the things that he puts on himself. The guy plays hurt, he plays sick. It doesn’t matter to him. He doesn’t make excuses. He loves to play, as all the great ones do.”
Winter says that part of the mystery earlier this season was Bryant’s health. He had off-season knee surgery but came back early from the injury because the team needed him.
Bryant predicted that he would be fully healthy by February, just in time to make other teams truly fear the Lakers. The problem with that plan was that as Bryant became healthy other parts of the machine broke down. Odom, Walton and Kwame Brown spent months out with injuries.
So now the Lakers find themselves in a fix as the likely seventh seed in the Western playoffs, likely to face Phoenix again in the first round.
Funny, that Jackson, Winter and the Lakers now find themselves come round again to needing Kobe Bryant, the superstar, more than they need Kobe Bryant, team player.
Actually, his coaches will tell you they want him to be both, to fill that rarest of roles in basketball, a sensational scorer able to move in and out of his own game while helping teammates to find theirs.
It’s a tall challenge, yet it’s one that Bryant has trained for his entire life. Are Lakers fans about to witness something special?
The answer to that is clearly another big part of the Bryant mystery.

Roland Lazenby is the author of The Show, a comprehensive oral history of the Lakers. His biography of Phil Jackson, Mindgames, was recently released by the University of Nebraska’s Bison Books in a special paperback edition.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Sea What I Mean?

To celebrate his 85th birthday, Tex Winter gathered up a group of relatives and took to the high seas recently for a cruise of the Western Caribbean.
Throughout the trip, he worked to keep up with his beloved Lakers through their seven-game losing streak.
Never mind that he was more than 1,000 miles away, Winter could feel just what they were going through. Buffeted by bad weather and stormy waters, his cruise ship couldn’t even dock at some of the ports. The Grand Caymans? Forget it. The weather was simply dreary.
Fortunately, the cruise featured one great meal after another, key for Winter, long known as a chow hound.
“Eat and poop. Poop and eat,” Winter confided. “That’s about all we did.”
The same was true for the Lakers, whose only respite from the losing was perhaps the sumptuous fare on their charter flights and in their first class hotels.
In their case, the routine became: “Eat and play like poop. Play like poop and eat.”
Actually, the preceding punch line is a bit unfair. Considering their injuries and the difficulty of the recent schedule, Winter said it would be hard to say the Lakers underperformed during the stretch, even though it resulted in seven straight losses, the longest such streak of Phil Jackson’s celebrated coaching career.
As he watched events unfold from afar, Winter had two main concerns:
1) He wondered about Jackson’s health as his team plummeted. Ultimately, though, Winter figured the losing streak was good for Jackson. Anything that humbles the coach seems to benefit him. “He handles adversity pretty well,” Winter said proudly.
2) The other concern was Kobe Bryant’s frustration level. “He appeared to be very out of sorts,” Winter said. That’s why his scoring outbursts in recent games have been important, Winter added. Like Jackson, the losing streak may have helped Bryant because it helped him see just how important Lamar Odom and Luke Walton were to him and the team.
The absence of Odom and Walton (and center Kwame Brown) have also made things hard on the other starters, especially point guard Smush Parker. Fans grew shrill in their criticism of Parker during the losing streak, but he did something important. He remained healthy and was able to hang tough through extremely challenging times. Lesser men would have easily disappeared. Not Smush. He’s the kind of guy who hangs around and keeps playing through the low points.
Sometimes that’s how you have to evaluate a player.
On the other hand, Winter’s evaluation of Andrew Bynum remains less than glowing. “Bynum hasn’t made a whole lot of progress,” Winter said, adding that the center is playing about the same way now as he was earlier in the season.
Bynum remains a young player (thus deserving of some benefit of doubt), but Winter clearly had expectations that he would develop more this year.
Jackson has begun to express a similar frustration and openly chastised Bynum for poor play toward the end of the Minnesota game. “Phil is Phil,” Winter observed. “He knows when to turn it on and turn it off. He’s been firm at times. He was very stern with Bynum at the end of the Minnesota game. I don’t know what the kid is thinking.”
Bynum responded by returning Jackson’s anger.
The Lakers may be showing some signs of selfishness, Winter said. The NBA may not be the rah-rah environment of college ball, “but you still have to have character,” he added.
In his years of working with Jackson, Winter has often been the voice encouraging him to abandon his laid-back approach and take action. He’s been pleased by what he’s seen from Jackson recently.
“I don’t think Phil can sit back and let things take their course,” he said. “He’s got to step up and show leadership. That’s what he gets paid that fabulous salary for, to face pressure.”
Winter also heartily approves of Jackson’s recent decision to turn Bryant loose as a scoring machine.
“We’re in a situation where we’ve got to rely on Kobe,” Winter said, adding that he hopes Bryant can produce a run of big games as he has done on occasion in years past.
Those Bryant scoring binges can lift the team out of the doldrums and actually boost its confidence.
Winter also answered criticism of the triangle offense, another target of frustrated fans who point out the Lakers have no running game and are mired in the triangle’s half-court attack.
Winter’s response is that the triangle has always been structured to feature the running game. With Shaquille O’Neal as the Lakers’ center, Jackson refused to allow even a hint of a run.
The Lakers opened this season determined to become a running team by relying on the ability of Lamar Odom and Luke Walton to rebound and push the ball.
“When Luke and Odom were healthy, they were getting the rebound and powering out on the break,” he said. “To run, you’ve got to rebound the ball and get it out. That in turn makes guys want to get out and fill that lane and get a basket out of the break. When that was happening early in the season, we were a pretty good running team.”
With Walton and Odom out, that running game ground to a halt. Now that they’re back from injury, it still isn’t running because “Odom and Walton still aren’t in basketball shape. They’ve been hurt so much.”
As for fan complaints that the offense is too predictable, Winter said injuries again are a factor there. With Walton and Odom out, execution of the triangle is limited, thus more predictable.
“The offense is not predictable,” he said. “You get more possibilities out of it than you would any other offense.”
Injuries are a fact of life in the NBA, Winter said, yet few teams have had injuries to as many key players as have the Lakers.
While Walton and Odom try to round their way back into shape, the team has finally turned to Bryant. Here’s hoping he has the sea legs to see the task through.

Roland Lazenby, the author of The Show, an oral history of the Lakers, also wrote Mindgames, a biography of Phil Jackson which has been released recently in a special revised paperback edition by the University of Nebraska’s Bison Books.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere

Yes, when it comes to the Lakers in 2007 it’s mostly about injuries.
Or is it?
Is there something else going on here?
If there is, be sure of this: If it involves Phil Jackson, it’s complicated. Extremely complicated.
And it definitely involves good old PJ.
Some of his old friends wonder if he hasn’t lost his way.
Check that.
They don’t wonder.
They’ve been saying for a while now that he’s lost his way, that he sold out, that he began believing the hype in a big way, that the things that once worked for him now strangle him and his team, that just maybe his ruthlessness has caught up to him, that he changed when he got caught up in all that California worship, and not for the better.
They say there are too many yes men around him.
They say that he’s put himself on a pedestal, much like the big chair he perches atop each game night.
That he’s gotten old.
That he’s gotten greedy, grubbing his big salary around himself while refusing to accept the personal challenges that would make him face reality.
They say it’s too easy to sit on that big chair each game night, smug in the loftiness of Michael Jordan’s and Scottie Pippen’s six championships, smug in Shaquille O’Neal’s and Kobe Bryant’s three championships.
They say he doesn’t need this current Lakers thing, at least not for his reputation.
They say he came back to the Lakers because he felt guilty about all those nasty lies and half-truths he told about Kobe Bryant in his public comments and in that horrible book, “The Last Season.” (Note: PJ has written a great book, Sacred Hoops; a very good book, Maverick; and two books that weren’t worthy of him.)
They say he came back because he wanted to help Kobe. (Note to Kobe: Be wary of help.)
Oh, and they say he came back for the money, to be paid like a rock star, to be sucked up to like a rock star.
Well, are “they” correct?
Is that Phil in his 60s? A mere shadow of the former man of light and energy and innovation.
Perhaps. Only Phil himself really knows for sure. Or maybe nobody knows.
This much is true. If Lamar Odom and Kwame Brown and Luke Walton had stayed healthy, we’re probably not having this conversation.
But this is the NBA. Excuses are for losers. Phil and his Lakers are treading dangerously close to that domain. Land there and suddenly Phil no longer has his miracle worker status. Land there and suddenly Phil is just another working stiff, a coach whose blah-blah emits no light.
So it’s gut check time. Time to search.
And the dominant question is, what exactly is Phil Jackson’s genius?
Well, longtime assistant and mentor Tex Winter knows him better than anyone. (By the way, Tex is not one of the “theys” quoted earlier, so don’t even think about cheap retribution against the guy that has meant so much to you, Phil).
Tex has always said that one of the most amazing among the numerous amazing things about Phil is his ability to establish a relationship with his superstars.
Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan. Perhaps the ultimate coach/player relationship in the history of the game. Nothing lovey/dovey. Just cutting edge competitive mindset. Wolves sharpening their teeth together.
Just as important was the number two relationship in Chicago: Phil and Scottie Pippen. Pip had no great high attention needs, no high maintenance. Happy to be Michael’s number two guy.
Phil’s other great superstar relationship came with Shaq. Not anywhere near as fulfilling as working with Michael, Phil once told me. Shaq’s different. Not as keen, not as brilliant, not nearly as energetic. Shaq was all about focusing raw power and sometimes juvenile emotions. Still, a very productive relationship.
Of note was Phil’s lack of a relationship with Kobe Bryant. Not allowed, not possible to make nice with Kobe if he wanted to keep that special bond with Shaq. The big fella couldn’t handle it.
So Kobe was disrespected. Big time.
Phil proved to be very good at disrespect. In retrospect, he realized he was too good. Some people around him told him he was wrong in how he was treating Kobe. Phil’s answer? He banished those people. Or marginalized them.
And Jerry Buss saw it happen and did a beautiful thing. He fired Phil Jackson, sent Mr. Nine Championships packing.
So Phil spent a year away from the game.
And came back with a mission to form a third great bond with a superstar. He now wanted to nurture Kobe and explore the range of his vast competitive nature.
This effort produced growth in that first season, just as it did with Michael in 1989-90. The harsh, selfish young Jordan began to mature.
And then things went very right in Michael’s second season with Phil.
It seemed a reasonable and correct formula for reviving the Lakers. Nice progress the first year. And big things simmered early in their second season “together.”
But the NBA often offers a harsh bottom line. As a player, PJ learned this lesson long ago. As a coach, he has been fortunate to avoid it for most of his career.
Now, the Lakers have many injuries. Which means that the supporting cast that was growing around Bryant has been shattered.
Where Phil’s relationship with Michael and Shaq worked because of a strong supporting cast, Phil’s relationship with Kobe is now perhaps suffocating a superstar.
Once he forms a relationship, Phil tends to cut off communication between the rest of the coaching staff and the superstar. It’s Phil and the star, with little outside interference tolerated.
This season for the Lakers is mostly kaput. IT’S NOT GOING TO HAPPEN.
So Phil needs to lighten up a bit with Kobe. Let him loose to enjoy whatever they can find in this year’s circumstances.
But Laker fans also have to lighten up. Phil’s basic premise, his MO of forming a strong bond with his superstar, is a proven thing.
The Lakers must start again next season, once again bringing along the supporting cast as Kobe matures into the star and leader he can be. When they were healthy and growing dynamically as a team, they earned the fans’ patience and forbearance.
In this case, “wait until next season” is not a platitude. It’s a legitimate strategy. Kobe was making tremendous progress, despite coming off difficult knee surgery.
So, fans, hear me again. Lighten up.
And Phil. Come down off your perch on high. Listen to your old friends. They may not be entirely right. But they love you. They’ve seen you at your best. They know what works, and best of all, they understand your magic.

Roland Lazenby is the author of Mindgames, a Phil Jackson biography, recently released by the University of Nebraska’s Bison Books in special revised edition.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

How Will The Lakers Err? Pip or No Pip?

Note: Readers, I apologize for not posting a blog over the past two months. During that time, I dealt with some personal issues, sat back and observed, then decided that when I have something to say, I’ll say it. But I’m not going to write just to write. For those of you who have contacted me, I appreciate your interest and concern. Here’s a new post:

Scottie Pippen certainly needs the money, now that a St. Louis court has ruled that he owes an airplane finance company about $5 million in cash for a failed attempt to launch his Air Pip company.
But will his decision to attempt an NBA comeback at age 41 come to be known as Err Pip?
That’s what the Lakers are trying to determine as they ponder what personnel moves to make in the wake of mounting injuries. Their latest casualty is forward Vladamir Radmanovic, lost for up to eight weeks with a separated shoulder.
Actually, even before Radmanovic slipped on a patch of ice and injured his shoulder, the Lakers took note of Pippen’s comments last week to Chicago Tribune columnist Sam Smith.
“Phil has a very high regard for Pippen, as do I,” Lakers consultant Tex Winter said of coach Phil Jackson. “There’s no player who picked up the triangle offense faster than Pippen, nor one who understood it better.”
The Pippen of old was known for doing all the little things that took immense pressure off of Chicago Bulls teammate Michael Jordan.
That, in part, is why Kobe Bryant immediately spoke out in favor of the Lakers bringing in Pip.
Certainly the history is there. Pippen anchored the Bulls’ defense through six championships. Pippen ran the team’s triangle offense. Pippen was the regulator on the floor for Jackson. He controlled tempo perhaps like no other player in the history of the game.
In some respects, the Lakers picking up Pippen seems like a no-brainer. He doesn’t want a lot of money. He just wants to come in and help a team down the stretch to the playoffs.
Ideal for Los Angeles.
At 41, does he have anything left in the tank? Bryant and numerous others talk about Pippen’s exceptional conditioning, his healed knee, his freakishly low body fat.
Does he even want to play for the Lakers? To date, there’s been no official contact. As Winter explained, Pippen seems determined to go to work for a playoff/championship contender, and right now, the Lakers are fading fast from that category.
How do owner Jerry Buss and GM Mitch Kupchak feel about adding Pippen? There’s no clear indication they have enthusiasm for adding him.
Lakernoise conclusion: Running the triangle offense means the Lakers have limited personnel options, because so many players, especially veterans, struggle to learn the offense.
That’s part of the hesitation over Nets guard Jason Kidd. He rebelled mightily against the triangle when Jim Cleamons tried to run it as coach of the Dallas Mavericks in the 1990s.
“Kidd does like to have the ball in his hands an awful lot,” triangle guru Tex Winter observed.
Would Jason Kidd be the second coming of Gary Payton?
That could well be.
Which means Pippen could be all the more valuable to the Lakers, as someone who could help organize bench play and then jump into the mix with the starters for key runs of execution down the stretch.
This much is clear: The Lakers have to do something.
The coaches had a two-hour meeting Monday morning after the All-Star break to figure out how to stop the bleeding of a five-game losing streak.


The key to the team’s offensive production now is forward Lamar Odom, just coming back from injury himself, according to Winter.
The team is getting almost no fast-break opportunities, thus no easy baskets. So it’s up to Odom to snag the defensive rebound and power out on the break.
In that regard, and in terms of triangle execution, the team also misses Luke Walton, who should return from injury shortly.
Walton, too, has that ability to control the defensive rebound and to ignite the break.
However, the onus is on Odom, who is still rounding back into form after missing a couple of months with a knee injury.
The defensive woes, on the other hand, can be tied to two things: 1) Kwame Brown’s absence, also due to injury, in the post (“Peope don’t realize how important he is to us,” Winter says of Brown); 2) Kobe Bryant’s mysteriously lackluster defensive play.
Phil Jackson and Bryant are now tight, which means Jackson wants to control more of the coaching input with Bryant. That, in turn, limits what assistant coaches offer Bryant.
Jackson has raised the defense issue with Bryant, but those conversations remain between the two.
One theory: Bryant has an immense blind spot, aided by his considerable confidence, when it comes to the current state of his defense. He simply doesn’t recognize how bad things are.
Perhaps that’s the best reason for bringing back Pippen. He’s a fresh voice, one who has Bryant’s respect and attention, one who has mastered virtually every element of defense, one who could jumpstart a Bryant resurgence.

Roland Lazenby is the author of The Show, an oral history of the Lakers published by McGraw Hill. Lazenby’s Phil Jackson biography, Mindgames, is set to be released in a special paperback edition from Bison Books, an imprint of the University of Nebraska Press.