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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Where The Dinosaurs Roam

Talk about a reversal of karma, it wasn't even two years ago that NBA insiders were describing Kwame Brown as a head case and one of those eternal basketball blights, a number one overall draft pick who didn't pan out.
Back when he was with the Washington Wizards, Brown seemed to fit what former Bulls GM Jerry Krause used to call a recipe for the perfect asshole: Take a young player out of high school or college with a high pick in the draft, put him on a struggling team with suspect leadership, heap tons of pressure and expectations on him, and watch him turn into your worst nightmare.
Yes, Brown seemed destined to sully not only his own reputation but that of Michael Jordan, who selected him with the top pick in the 2001 NBA draft. Kwame Brown was the second coming of LaRue Martin.
Until he got traded to the Lakers in 2005.
It's not like Brown has become a beast in his 18 months in Los Angeles. Fans in Washington still smirk when you mention his name.
But Brown is quietly and steadily impressing the only person who really matters, his boss, Lakers coach Phil Jackson.
"Phil really likes Kwame," Lakers consultant/guru Tex Winter offered recently. "He thinks he's one of the best defensive centers in the league, with his quickness and strength."
Yes, Kwame Brown is quite a reclamation project.
And he's not Jackson's first.
Bulls fans and old NBA hands will recall the raised eyebrows when Jackson's Chicago team acquired 7-foot-2 Luc Longley from the Minnesota Timberwolves in February 1994. Longley had been considered pretty much a wasted draft pick after the T-Wolves took him with the seventh overall pick in 1991. The first Australian in the NBA, Longley had languished on Minnesota's bench, watching what little self esteem he had as a player melt away.
Jackson, though, liked Longley's big body (the better to counter Orlando's Shaquille O'Neal) and his soft touch on a face up jumper.
"There are only so many dinosaurs," Jackson said privately of the move.
Dinosaurs are those big NBA monsters, those 7-footers who can actually play, who can defend a little and can contribute on offense. Longley never became dominant with the Bulls. That wasn't the plan. But he used his size well on defense. Shot his face-up jumper that worked well in Chicago's scheme. And he worked well in the pinch post in the triangle offense.
Basically, Jackson helped Longley regain his self-respect. Even on those nights when Tex Winter would light the big guy up for lackadaisical play.
For his efforts, Jackson made a lifelong friend of Luc Longley. When the coach was on his forced sabbitical during the 2004-05 NBA season, when he needed to travel and sort out why he had been fired by the Lakers, Jackson made a journey to New Zealand/Australia, to visit with Longley.
His time playing around with Longley in the Pacific Ocean seems to have been the perfect balm for Jackson.
The coach, after all, has long known what it felt like to be an undervalued big man in the NBA.
A second round draft pick of the New York Knicks out of the University of North Dakota, Jackson had a suspect future in pro basketball until Red Holzman replaced Dick McGuire as coach of the Knicks. Then Jackson suffered a back injury and surgery that sidelined him for more than a season. To many, his future seemed over before it happened.
Holzman's Knicks, though, became the first pro team to rely heavily on the press. In practice, Holzman would stand courtside, dressed in shorts and a windbreaker, urging his players to "see the ball." On the press, he wanted them anticipating where the offense was going to throw it in attempting to escape the trap. Holzman wanted his players feeding off those passes. That would become their trademark, creating turnovers and converting them into points in easy bunches. "Any game we're down even 10 points going into the fourth quarter we can still win," Willis Reed explained at the time.
It was the press that would provide Jackson a reason for his NBA existence. In short time, Jackson would find a role coming off the bench with Holzman's pressing unit in the second period, where his long arms and mobility were not just an advantage but a weapon.
If the game slowed down into the halfcourt during Jackson's first years in the league, the crowds in Madison Square Garden would groan and hiss about his ineptitude. "I remember him coming in and lighting a spark," the late Dave DeBusschere would say of Jackson during the period. "I also remember Red yelling at him, 'Don't dribble it!' And Phil would dribble it off his knee, and the ball would go two rows deep into the stands."
But when the pace was high, Phil Jackson was a difference maker in the Knick press.
His role allowed him to find his teammates' confidence and respect. "Whenever Phil got out there, you knew he was going to get physical and make something happen," DeBusschere once recalled. "People talk about what a free spirit he was, but he always worked hard and always played within the structure of the team."
"Jackson's style as a player developed in accordance with his build, which reminds me of a clothes hanger turned upside down," teammate and friend Bill Bradley later explained. "He surprised big men by his defensive skill and made them feel they were being guarded by a man with three sets of arms."
By the time the glory years rolled around in the 1970s, Holzman's teams had transformed the Garden crowd into a loud, silly horde. The upper deck screamed "dee-fense," and the city-hardened fans seemed to lose a little of their gaming edge and actually softened into something resembling cheerleaders. Over the next several seasons, they would even find it in the kindness of their hearts to drop the murmur of despair when Jackson produced a miscue on the floor. Finally, they would go so far as to give up some love for Jackson and his mad-scramble ways. They would even take to calling him by his college nickname, "Action Jackson."
Red Holzman had shown him the path away from ridicule.
"Red was a big influence on my basketball philosophy," Jackson would explain later. "Everyone on those teams had their own sphere, but Red knew how to let everyone find their own niche."
Jackson admired Holzman's "tender touch," the ability to compromise, to reconcile differences. "He never overloaded you with advice. He doled it out in small packets and in a variety of ways," Jackson explained. "He had a featherweight punch that hit you like a knockout blow."
And Jackson's knack for instigating a change of pace as a coach, giving his players books or taking a sidetrip through the countryside instead of pushing his team through another practice, those things stemmed from the appreciation for the other, finer things in life that Holzman showed his players. Years later, as they watched Jackson at work, the former Knicks would note how much he was like Holzman.
That has been Jackson's approach with the Longleys and Browns that have happened onto his roster. Like Holzman once did for him, he's helped them find their niche.
It's not that Kwame Brown exactly fits the dinosaur mold. He's big, to be sure, but quickness and strength are his main assets. On the other hand, Andrew Bynum, the Lakers' 19-year-old center, is still growing his way toward 7-feet-2, a baby dinosaur if you will, one who will surely find a big role as he matures.
"Phil has always understood his players," Tex Winter once told me. "He's been where they've been. He remembers it, too."
Coming off a shoulder injury, Brown is averaging 9.1 points, 6.4 rebounds and an outstanding 2.4 assists this season. He's beginning to learn how to use his strength and quickness offensively as well.
And while Bynum began the season as a starter and now comes off the bench, Winter says the coaches are also pleased with the young guy's progress.
Rebounding, however, remains a team weakness, and if the Laker frontcourt is to get any true respect around the league, those numbers are going to have to increase. Plus, both Brown and Bynum will have to step up their pace, now that Lamar Odom is out indefinitely with a knee injury.
It seems a safe bet to say that Brown will relish the opportunity to step up. The NBA life that Phil Jackson has helped him find is so much more than what he had before.


It was nice of the Boston Globe's Peter May to follow up on my Brian Shaw interview comparing Larry Bird and Kobe Bryant. May reported that Bird was "fascinated" when he read my blog online.
"Shaw, now a Lakers assistant coach, was asked by veteran scribe Roland Lazenby to compare and contrast the Bird-McHale relationship with that of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal," May wrote.
"'The difference was, they respected each other and what they did on the court,' Shaw said of Bird and McHale. 'So when they stepped between the lines, all that other peripheral stuff, it was on the outside. They said, 'We're going for the same goal between these lines. I'm gonna help you achieve what you want to achieve. You're gonna help me. I'm gonna help you. Then when the game is over, you're gonna go your separate way and I'm gonna go mine. And that's OK.'
"Shaw said Shaq and Kobe seemed to have that kind of respect only occasionally, and they allowed 'trivial stuff' to mushroom into bigger things. Bird's take was that he simply was playing basketball the way he knew how, and it didn't matter whether the other guy was his best buddy.
"'In my three years in Boston, I don't remember Kevin McHale and Larry Bird hanging out together,' Shaw said.
"They might have done so earlier in their careers," May continued, "but by the time Shaw got there in 1988, Bird and McHale had grown even more distant."

Roland Lazenby is the author of The Show, The Inside Story of the Spectacular Los Angeles Lakers in the Words of Those Who Lived It, published earlier this year by McGraw-Hill.


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