Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
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.
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.