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Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Imagine Tex Coaching With Riles

Longtime Lakers team trainer Gary Vitti likes to recall the Pat Riley regime with the Lakers.
Riles always had a way of keeping the pressure on.
Things were never going good enough.
If things did go well, then Riley began searching for the chink in the armor, the next thing that would bring the big letdown, the big disappointment.
There was never a break from his pressure. Never a chance to relax.
That, of course, is the real job of any coach in any league. To keep a team focused. To prevent slippage and failure. To make sure that no one ever naps.
That job is especially difficult in the NBA, where the games are physical and mental challenges, where so much of success depends on energy and focus.
To be all the guardian that he could be, Riley had his mental ploys.
And Phil Jackson has ... Tex Winter.
You could blame it on Winter's age. As he closes in on his 85th birthday, he deserves the right to be a contrarian, to be constantly questioning each of the Lakers players on every little thing.
Except it's not about age with Winter. (If you don't believe that, watch him work a jump rope.) He's probably been a contrarian since the days when he played junior college ball against Jackie Robinson.
Winter is one of the sweetest guys in the world. Unless he's dealing with basketball. He's usually politely pointed. But he can become a fire-breathing dragon, if someone isn't playing the game the right way. Just ask Luc Longley. There were some nights in Chicago when Winter had to be restrained from going after the giant center for lackluster play.
Even Lakers assistant Brian Shaw had a tangle with Winter when he was a player. (Shaw still smiles cautiously when asked about it.)
Just about all his players over the years have found a way to deflect the intense nature of Winter's scrutiny. Most do it with a scoffing laugh when reminded of something Winter has had to say about their games. Michael Jordan once snuck up behind Winter in practice and tugged his shorts to his ankles.
"There was Tex, with his bare butt hanging out of his jock strap," recalled longtime Bulls trainer Mark Pfiel.
Whether it's with an occasional pranks or a nervous laugh, players usually try to make light of Winter's assessment. But only the foolish ones don't take it to heart. And the very best of them find a way to respond.
For yesterday's blog, I caught Winter as he was preparing to leave L.A. today after many days of working with the team. He's headed to Kansas for an event (he coached for years at Kansas State) and will rejoin the Lakers later. He took the time out to offer a frank assessment of the Lakers, which I published Tuesday.
But his impact was seen all over the team later that night in the Lakers' meeting with the Clippers.
Kobe Bryant is not the Kobe of old, Winter had said frankly.
Bryant responded by scoring 40 points on just 23 shots.
The issue with Kwame Brown remains a question of competitiveness, Winter had said.
Kwame responded with a magnificent game off the bench.
Smush Parker needs to show consistency, Winter said.
Smush stepped up.
I roughly paraphrase the great writer Flannery O'Connor in her short story "A Good Man Is Hard To Find," who described one particularly annoying character by saying that she would be a good woman if she had someone to shoot her every day of her life.
That, of course, is what a great coach does. He shoots them every day of their lives. He stays vigilant against the worst inclinations of his players and constantly reminds them that they have to fight against those inclinations.
It's an exhausting job. Only a perfectionist like Riley could do it.
Or a guardian like Winter.
For years he has done that each and every game, each and every playoff series, for Phil Jackson.
As Steve Kerr and Longley and Scottie Pippen and Brian Shaw and numerous other Jackson players have told me over the years, Tex makes Phil's job much easier.
Because he does those things for Jackson so that the head coach doesn't have to worry and nag and confront his players constantly.
Why don't more NBA coaches get their assistants to do such dirty work?
Because none are as fierce about playing the game the right way, because none are as fearless as Winter in taking on the star players, because no assistant coach has the status of Tex Winter.
Jackson has asked Winter to take a lower profile this season, to not speak with the media so much. Winter actually talks little with the media, except for his weekly chats with me.
Winter, however, remains fiercely independent. He was hired years ago by the Bulls to be the "coach's coach," to train Jackson how to be a great coach. Tex is nine championships deep into that lesson. He knows that Jackson, like his players, is just like that woman in Flannery O'Connor's short story. Phil's got to have someone shooting him every day, too.

Roland Lazenby is the author of The Show, a comprehensive oral history of the team published by McGraw-Hill.


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