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Thursday, July 20, 2006

Where The Bodies Are Buried

Note: This is an excerpt from my Phil Jackson biography Mindgames (originally published by McGraw-Hill in hardcover and trade paperback), which is scheduled to be released in an updated paperback in 2007 by the University of Nebraska Press, a publisher that has republished a long series of classic sports books. Although Mindgames focuses much on Jackson's great success and the reasons for it, it also explores Jackson's dark side. This excerpt deals with that dark side.


Not everyone, of course, enjoys Phil Jackson's unique approach. In particular, many Bulls staff members who had to endure his personality quirks were left harboring a long-burning resentment. Jackson’s battles with team vice president Jerry Krause spilled over into an ugly display in 1998, but he also had many less-public clashes with the team’s community services, marketing, and media relations departments. To many of these people, his mind games seemed unnecessary and sometimes cruel.
On more than one occasion, Jackson reduced staff assistants to tears with a good public upbraiding. Fans have often heard about his brilliant touch of canceling practice and instead taking the Bulls on a ferry ride in New York during the 1994 playoffs. What isn’t known is that Jackson stopped the team bus that day as it was about to depart for the trip and ordered a longtime team publicity assistant, the only female on the bus, to get off. According to team sources, the woman was devestated by the move and has never forgiven Jackson for an unexplained and seemingly unnecessary humiliation (she left the team's employment a few months later).
Other staff members simply learned to adjust to Jackson’s ways. They came to understand that for Jackson there were two groups, the players and immediate members of the team, and then the rest of the world. Staff members belonged in the rest of the world, and Jackson didn’t like them getting too close to the players and team. This, of course, is an attitude found among other NBA coaches. “Phil was a good guy,” recalled one Bulls staff member who worked with Jackson a lot. “Phil was Phil. He would bust your balls a lot, a lot of times for no other reason than to exert that attitude that ‘I’m the boss.’ He just liked flexing his muscles. He was unpredictable. A lot of it was to keep you off balance. If he saw you starting to feel comfortable at practice, in the locker room or on the team bus, he’d definitely put you in your place and let you know he was running the show. You always had to act subservient around him. He did that with the security guards, too. He had a way of saying things that would cut you to the bone.
“He wouldn’t let you get too comfortable. He liked to keep everybody on edge. It was his way of control. If you asked him about it, he would tell you that it was his way of fucking with you or playing mind games with you.
“He always used to say, ‘It’s like I tell my kids, always ask. Don’t assume things. Always ask.’”
This longtime Bulls employee said that as soon as he got comfortable around the team and forgot to ask if it was okay to make each move, then Jackson would cut him down to size. “Then, all of a sudden, you felt like a dick. He didn’t just do this to me, but to everybody. It was never personal. It was just his way.”
Another longtime Bulls employee said that Jackson had become increasingly difficult over the years in Chicago as the Bulls gained more and more notoriety and there were increasing demands on the coach. “You change a lot,” explained one staff member who worked closely with Jackson. “That’s because the landscape changes. We became the most popular sports team in the world. They all changed. The players. Phil. Everybody. Despite people thinking that he could be very, very arrogant, at times he could still be very funny. He could still take it all in stride and know that everything involving him was not the end of the world. But I can see where people would hate him. Those mind games after a while aren’t funny. Those games are easy to play when you got Michael Jordan on your side. When you got Michael, all your games are gonna work. All the dice come up sevens.
“Another thing you’ve got to remember,” the Bulls employee added, “is that Phil’s a former player. Just about all of those ex-players have this it’s-all-about-me syndrome. They’re taught to think that way and they never get over it. One other thing, Phil was the coach of the best basketball team in the world led by the greatest player in the history of the game. You have to have arrogance to coach a group like that. It’s gonna be tough day in and day out if you don’t. You do that job you better have some shit with you.”
Some Bulls employees saw Jackson’s approach as an outgrowth of his growing control battle with Jerry Krause. Anyone who held a private conversation with Krause over the course of the 1998 season heard his complaints that the Bulls’ success had gone to Jackson’s head, that he was an egomaniac hungry for power, that he had been disloyal to Krause, the one person who had allowed him back into the NBA, that the private Jackson was far different from the one admired by the public.
Tex Winter was a friend and counselor to both Jackson and Krause. He had witnessed their success, then watched as the relationship began falling apart in 1996, leaving Winter playing the middle over the next two years trying to keep the two men working together for the team’s sake. Winter acknowledged that there were things that Jackson could have done to make the situation more harmonious. But Winter privately pointed out that Krause had a difficult personality and that Jackson had spent years bending over backwards to accommodate that personality until Jackson finally wearied of that effort.
Krause, though, portrayed Jackson as a two-faced character who really had very little regard for his assistant coaches, a perception that certain Krause associates in the Bulls organization had sought to spread about Jackson. At the height of the hard feelings in the spring of 1998, one of Krause’s scouts went to press row in Chicago’s United Center to explain to a reporter the insidious nature of Jackson’s ego.
Perhaps no NBA general manager had a more investigative nature than Krause, nicknamed “The Sleuth” for his secretive approach to scouting and compiling information about players and coaches. A Chicago native, Krause had worked in an around the NBA for four decades, which meant that he had a voluminous knowledge of the league’s secrets. “I know where all the bodies are buried,” he had once bragged when asked about his own franchise.
It was Phil Jackson’s great misfortune that at the height of their discord Krause gained irrefutable evidence about one of Jackson’s own misdeeds involving the 1994 firing of assistant coach Johnny Bach.
Like Winter, Bach had been an elderly influence on Jackson when he joined the team. A spirited sort who was popular with Bulls players, Bach apparently fell into Jackson’s disfavor because he sometimes encouraged Jordan to follow his own inclinations and ignore the triangle offense. But Bach also was a strong supporter of Jackson’s, which leaves his dismissal as something of a mystery. There was something about Bach that annoyed Jackson. “We were very different people,” Bach acknowledged.
At the time and in later accounts, Jackson portrayed Bach’s firing as a result of Krause’s anger over the 1991 book “The Jordan Rules” by Chicago Tribune columnist Sam Smith. The text contained fascinating inside detail on the team’s drive to its first championship, detail that portrayed Krause as something of a buffoon and Jordan as somewhat ruthless and selfish. Both Jordan and Krause hated the book, and Jackson later joked that “The Jordan Rules” was one of the few things the team executive and star player could agree about.
Krause alleged later that Jackson deceived him into believing that Bach was the anonymous source for most of the inside detail. Krause learned in 1998 that it was Jackson himself, not Bach, who was the source for much of Smith’s book. How did Krause discover this? He learned it from Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, who was told of the situation in confidence by none other than Sam Smith himself. Smith had revealed his sources to Reinsdorf with the caveat that he not tell anyone. Reinsdorf was not supposed to give that information to Krause, but he did.
Smith independently confirmed those events and Jackson’s role in his book. “Phil and the players had much more of a role than Johnny Bach,” Smith said in acknowledging that he had told Reinsdorf of Jackson’s part in “The Jordan Rules.”
Jackson, though, had continued to explain Bach’s firing as a result of the elderly assistant coach’s involvement, clearly a prevarication on Jackson’s part.
"It was Jerry Krause’s relationship with Johnny Bach that created a very uncomfortable situation," Jackson said of the firing in a 1995 interview. "It made this have to happen eventually. It had gone all wrong. It was bad for the staff to have this kind of thing because we had to work together.
"Jerry basically blamed Johnny Bach for a lot of the things in the Jordan Rules. And there’s no doubt that Johnny did provide that information. Jerry felt that Johnny talked too much. And Johnny, in retrospect, felt that animonsity that Jerry gave back to him, the lack of respect, so Johnny refused to pay allegiance to Jerry just because he was the boss.
"It had gone on for too long a period of time," Jackson said. "I could have kept them apart, at bay from one another, I suppose for a while longer. But I didn’t like the fact that it wasn’t good teamwork. That was my staff and my area. I agreed to do it. I felt it was a good opportunity because Johnny had an opportunity to get another job in the league quickly. It worked out fine for Johnny, although I would just as soon have not put him through the disappointment, or have to go through the situation myself."
“Phil lied to me,” Krause said in a 1998 interview. “Phil actually got Johnny fired.”
“It was Phil’s idea to fire Bach,” Reinsdorf said in 1998. “Phil told me that the bad relationship between Krause and Bach had made things impossible. It was Phil’s idea. Nobody told him to do it.”
Contrary to Jackson’s later assertions that things worked out fine for Bach, Bach himself said the firing came at a terrible time in his life, after the 1994 playoffs, just weeks shy of his 70th birthday. The irony, Bach said, was that the coaching staff had probably never worked better together.
“At the end of that year I had every reason to think my contract would be renewed,” Bach recalled in a 1999 interview. “The first person that told me was Phil. He said, ‘We’re not gonna renew the contract.’ I was stunned. Before I could say much in defense, he said, ‘It’s really best for you that you do leave. The organization has made up its mind.’ I was disappointed. Shocked is a better way of saying it. I didn’t quarrel. I just couldn’t believe it. I went to see Krause and he said the same thing. I just got up and left. I had a lot of crisis in my life at that time. I was in the divorce courts ending a long-term marriage. I had to move. I thought everything was collapsing around me that summer. Then I had a heart attack. It was all a shock, and it took some time to believe and trust people again.”
An excellent coach, Bach was later hired by the Charlotte Hornets. He subsequently learned that he was supposedly fired for the inside information he provided to Smith. Bach said he went back and read the book three or four times looking for damaging information he might have provided. His quotes, though, were on the record and relatively basic.
“I didn’t see a single quote in that book that was out of order,” he said. “Sam is obviously a good investigative reporter. There was a portrait in there that Michael did not like, based on whoever gave it to Sam.”
The book “was quite an accurate portrayal,” Bach said. “I don’t think Sam painted someone as he wasn’t.”
Krause was supposedly distraught more than three years later to learn that he had been deceived into firing an innocent Bach. By then, Bach was working in Detroit as an assistant coach. One night when the Pistons were in Chicago to play the Bulls, Pistons executive Rick Sund told Bach that Krause would like a word with him. “I had mixed feelings,” Bach recalled. “You sort of protect yourself.”
He agreed to the meeting, however, and was more than a bit surprised. “When Jerry spoke to me he was emotional, and so was I. I always thought the organization had made that move, not Phil. I thought it was a huge concession on Jerry’s part to come up to me. I thought he meant it,” Bach said of Krause’s apology. “And I accepted that.”
Bach said he had continued to greet Jackson whenever he ran into him and even addressed the issue with Jackson when they had a chance to sit down man to man over a drink. What he told Jackson that night will remain between the two of them, Bach said. “I’d rather leave it be. Certainly he knew how I felt. I always thought we had a relationship that was strong enough. We had sat there on the bench together for five years. As an assistant coach you don’t always know about these things that are going on. It was always foolish, kind of an indictment that I could never defend myself. Now the whole thing is not important. Once it was.”
The incident, however, begged several questions. Jackson had coveted the opportunity to coach the Bulls, just as he had worked diligently to build a relationship with Michael Jordan. Why would he risk his job or that key relationship in his professional life by providing a reporter with unflattering information about his boss and his star player?
One longtime Bulls employee who worked with Jackson on a daily basis figured the coach provided the information to Smith because it helped him gain more control over his team. The end result of the book was that it served to further alienate Krause from the players, thus securing Jackson’s role as “the leader of the pack,” the team employee said.
As far as the negative portrayal of Jordan, it was the ultimate mind game, a matter of “ ‘Let’s get down on Michael. Let’s whip this guy and keep him in line for my purposes.’ It was his way of getting on Michael’s side by alienating him from the media,” the Bulls employee suggested. “That was why Phil always used it’s the Us-Against-The-Media approach, the Us-Against-The-Organization approach, because if he did that, then he could be the leader of the pack. That’s why I’ve got a lot of qualms with the Zenmaster. You’re not even smart enough to get along with your own bosses and your own fellow employees during the greatest run in basketball history. So how smart are you?”
These voices provide two distinctly different perspectives on Phil Jackson, of those who work for him and those who work with him. What emerges in both is his determination to control the competitive environment he inhabits. Some he cajoles and charms into line. For others he reserves harsher methods. Regardless, his purpose beats as insistently as his drum, moving them about for designs that only he sees. Yet even those who don’t like him marvel at his mastery, at how he can do what no one else can.
Part of the employees’ resentment stemmed from Jackson’s insistence on shutting out everyone except the immediate group of players and coaches and trainers, thus dividing the organization into those within the team and those without. Jackson did this to increase camraderie and group identification, but it led him to treat most approaching staff members as intruders. Regardless, the few staff members allowed a view of the team’s inner workings marveled at what they saw.
“He really did love his team, really deeply” explained a Bulls staff member who worked around the team daily. “And the team trusted him totally. He included every player, top to bottom. You really knew he cared about them, about the whole group on the deepest level.”

Roland Lazenby is also the author of The Show, an oral history of the Lakers.

Monday, July 10, 2006


Note to readers: Thanks for your kind comments and suggestions. Your questions led me to interview Tex Winter on the upcoming season, the signing of Vlade Radmanovic and the challenge ahead.

Many of the teams in the Western Conference have made moves to get better over the off-season. That, in turn, has put pressure on the Lakers.
“I don’t think we can be sure of making the playoffs without considerable improvement,” Laker consultant and longtime Phil Jackson assistant Tex Winter offered in a phone interview.
Specifically, Winter calls for four areas of improvement that will be key for 2006-07 success.
• Guard improvement. “We have to find some leadership in the backcourt,” he explained. This is not a dig at Kobe Bryant. Rather, Winter says the team needs a strong guard, which can take some of the pressure off Bryant and allow him to move to small forward. “That’s where he can be more effective,” Winter said. That’s because working at the 3 spot allows Bryant to operate behind the defense on the underside of the triangle. It could create more opportunities for quick-opening isolation looks like the Bulls used to get for Jordan.
With Bryant at the 3 spot, the Lakers will have an open-floor look that allows them to use more of the options from the triangle.
Bryant at the 3 also might make Phil Jackson more comfortable with the running game. “Phil’s got a lot of confidence in our flow game,” Winter explained. The “flow game” allows the team to use a limited break to “flow” into the triangle sets.
Winter has encouraged Jackson to look for more pure running opportunities, something that owner Jerry Buss has wanted for years.
The running game would take advantage of what Lamar Odom does best, which is rebound on the defensive end and power out on the break with the ball (like Magic Johnson so often did for Showtime in the Laker days of yore), Winter said.
Rookie Jordan Farmar, of course, is perhaps a key to improved guard play. He knows the game and has shown a knack early in summer league play for the offense, Winter said. “Farmar will help because he’s got some savvy. He knows how to complement Odom on the break. The break will help because it will allow Kobe to get up the floor and attack the basket before the defense sets up. If Smush Parker learns how to utilize all that speed he has, he can be a factor in the running game, too.”
The running game, of course, requires tremendous defensive effort, rebounding the ball, forcing turnovers, etc. It might also be the format which allows Odom to realize his potential.
• Boost post depth and play. “I don’t know how much we can depend on (Andrew) Bynum,” Winter said. He pointed out that the young center’s play in summer league’s first game is extremely encouraging. “He’s got great potential. If he gets fire in his belly and learns to compete, he could help us tremendously,” the coach added.
The coaching staff likes Chris Mihm as well. Winter has envisioned Mihm as having great potential at power forward, but both Mihm and Kwame Brown seem to prefer the center position.
Regardless, Bynum’s improvement will be a big factor in how the Lakers do. And that’s a lot of pressure to put on an 18-year-old with no college experience. “That’s why I think the summer league is important. Very important,” Winter said. If it can advance the play of Bynum and Farmar, the summer league will pay dividends this upcoming season. That, however, is a huge IF. Is it realistic?
Winter likes the fact that assistant Kurt Rambis wound up coaching the summer league team with help from Brian Shaw and Craig Hodges. All three have a solid understanding of the offense, not to mention great teaching ability, he said.
• Much better shooting. All of last season, Winter bemoaned the Lakers’ lack of consistent perimeter shooting. Bryant’s presence creates so many open looks for teammates in the triangle offense. The Lakers needed someone to take advantage. Their acquisition of free agent Vladimir Radmanovic, the 6-10 perimeter threat (and Clipper free agent), has him excited.
“In this offense, he’s gonna get some shots,” Winter said of Radmanovic. “He’ll get more open shots than he’s ever had in his life. That’s if we get the ball movement we need. Radmanovic can do other things besides just shoot. He has an ability to go to the hole off the dribble. Yes, he’s more of a perimeter player, but that will open the floor for Kobe and our other players to drive.”
• Improvement from Bryant. “Kobe has got to continue to lift his game, particularly from the standpoint of team play,” Winter said, repeating a refrain that he sends Bryant’s way on a constant basis. Bryant’s play on Team USA in the World Championships in Japan in late August will help tremendously, Winter said. “He won’t feel he’ll have to go out there and dominate. He’ll have so many other good players on that team, he’ll be able to relax a bit and enjoy his teammates.
“He’ll play differently on that team than he’s ever played before,” Winter predicted.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006



By Roland Lazenby

Still aching after watching their three-games-to-one lead over the Phoenix Suns slip away in the playoffs, the Los Angeles Lakers now look ahead with a new urgency.
No one smarts more than the team’s two leaders — Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson. They both are eager to continue building the team to gain some measure of redemption after the playoff fold.
The biggest obstacle to that, though, may be Jackson’s health.
“The hip has really been bothering him,” said Tex Winter, a Lakers consultant and Jackson’s longtime assistant and mentor. “He doesn’t know what to do about it. His health is the big challenge for the team.”
The team’s trainers work regularly with Jackson to find ways to relieve his pain and to gain better mobility. The situation begs the question: If Jackson is still having trouble this offseason, how will he cope with two more years of NBA travel?
After watching Jackson on a recent trip to Los Angeles, Winter asked the Lakers coach if his health would allow him to fulfill the three-year contract Jackson signed last summer.
“He said he thought so, but it wouldn’t be easy,” Winter said.
After working in Los Angeles for the recent draft, Jackson headed north to Montana to the huge new home he has built on Flathead Lake. There, later this summer, Jackson’s daughter Chelsea will be married.
One person who doesn’t seem to share Jackson’s love of Montana is his girlfriend Jeanie Buss, a team executive and the daughter of Lakers owner Jerry Buss. Jeanie Buss is a very L.A./ Southern California kind of girl who needs to stay close to the city due to her work with the team.
Buss also plays a substantial role in Jackson’s health by helping him maintain a healthy diet. She has even taken charge of how he dresses, cuts his hair and trims his beard.


A big part of the Lakers’ incentive for the upcoming season is the success of Shaquille O’Neal in winning another championship with the Miami Heat.
“I don’t think anybody regrets letting Shack go,” Winter said of the Lakers’ management team. “I don’t think they had any choice.”
Before leaving via a trade in 2004, O’Neal had been pushing the Lakers for a contract extension at approximately $30 million per season. He later signed a $20 million per season extension with the Heat, the kind of deal he wouldn’t even discuss with the Lakers.
If O’Neal had only asked $20 million per season from the Lakers (which would have been a pay cut), he and Bryant would likely be teammates today.
The irony, of course, is that Miami coach Pat Riley had come to Los Angeles in 2004 to talk with the Lakers about replacing Jackson. Riley had pitched himself as the ideal candidate to help Shaq and Kobe stay together.
However, Riley came away from his meetings with the Lakers with a key nugget—there was no way Jerry Buss was going to give Shaq the huge extension he wanted.
So Riley returned to Miami, where he was then an executive, and began working out the details of the trade that brought O’Neal to the Heat.
Riley later signed Shaq to the bargain price for four seasons, and in so doing set in motion the drive to the 2006 NBA championship.


Winter is quite pleased with the Lakers’ selection of UCLA guard Jordan Farmar in the draft.
In his physical tests with the team, Farmar “tested about as high as anyone ever has” in terms of speed, quickness, leaping, etc., Winter said.
However, there are other elements of Farmar’s game that please, the 84-year-old assistant coach, who has spent his life developing the triangle offense.
“He knows the game. He’ll be a good system player,” Winter said of Farmar. “I think he’s got a chance to be pretty good. I don’t know how long that will take.”
Winter was also pleased that the Lakers got journeyman guard Maurice Evans in a draft night trade. “I think he’s a lot better player than we could have gotten with the 51st pick of the draft,” he said. “Every team he’s been on, he’s been in a backup role, but when he did play, I was impressed.”
Evans could give the team some much-needed depth at guard, Winter said.
Winter said the recent draft results were clouded for many teams, except for Portland and Chicago who came out winners.
“I don’t know how much these other teams helped themselves,” he said. “Chicago did a good job. And I think Portland helped themselves. They did an awful lot of trading, but things ended up pretty good for them by the end of the night.”


Just how important will it be for the Lakers to own their own Development League team?
Well, all the details haven’t been worked out, but there are already plans for the Lakers’ D-League team to work out with the Lakers in their El Segundo training facility.
The Development League team offers the opportunity for the Lakers to teach players how to thrive in the triangle offense. Sometimes the Lakers have had trouble finding replacement parts for their offense. No other teams in the league run the triangle, and it often takes players a season or two to become familiar with the system that is based on the players making offensive reads rather than simply relying on set plays.
“It will be good to keep the group working out in our facility,” Winter said.

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, recently released by McGraw-Hill. He also has written Mindgames, a Phil Jackson biography.