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COVER STORY

Reedemer, Dragon, King Of The Zing: Phil Jackson

May 07, 2000|Mark Heisler | Mark Heisler covers the NBA for The Times

It's a sunny day in Lakerdom in the first year of the reign of Coach Phil Jackson, and nowhere is it brighter than the gated community atop the Santa Monica Mountains where Shaquille O'Neal has the neatest playhouse of any 7-foot, 330-pound kid, with a view, pool, tennis court and Superman logos sculpted into the window panes of the front door. O'Neal is playing the best basketball of his life under a coach who, when hired last summer, knew Shaq only as basketball's ultimate terror weapon, the giant who never quite achieved his potential. Jackson's up-close-and-personal introduction came when O'Neal visited the new coach in Montana, and wore out every toy the coach's now-grown sons had left behind. O'Neal also borrowed a jet ski from Jackson's neighbor and bounced off the trampoline in Jackson's yard with such abandon that the coach feared it would collapse.

Great. Jackson was supposed to create the next dynasty around the world's largest post-adolescent? Nine months later, the Lakers finished the National Basketball Assn.'s regular season with the league's best record. Jackson had taught the young stars what stardom requires, and he taught the role-players their roles. The team, once young and volatile, is efficient and professional. Kobe Bryant, a mere 21, is growing up on the job. He and O'Neal have reconciled, and O'Neal has become the player opponents always were afraid he might.

Instead of trying to dominate Jackson, as he had all coaches before, O'Neal responded to him, tolerating his unorthodox style. Early in the season, when Shaq was still launching free throws so hard that you were afraid he might break a backboard, Jackson would laugh out loud on the bench, nudging his venerable assistant and mentor, Tex Winter, as if to say, "Did you see that one?" O'Neal noticed. Jackson wanted him to. Amazingly enough, O'Neal held still for it.

Then again, maybe it wasn't so amazing, seeing as how Shaq had sent out for Jackson last summer as if he were a $30-million corned beef sandwich.

After the Lakers were swept out of the playoffs last spring, O'Neal fled to his summer home in Orlando, skipping the team's final meeting. The Lakers had lost like that before, and it wasn't the first meeting Shaq had skipped. In L.A., the Lakers were leaning toward rehiring Kurt Rambis as coach. Since his days as a Laker player, Rambis had been close to the family of team owner Jerry Buss and had taken over coaching duties when Del Harris was fired early in the season. Laker General Manager Jerry West told confidants that this was the Laker way, promoting one of their own. Besides, Buss was not keen on bringing in a high-salary outsider.

Then O'Neal weighed in. "I didn't really talk to them for a while, but then after it came up--what are we going to do about Kurt and should we look for somebody new?--they asked my opinion.

"I sorta gave the organization an ultimatum," O'Neal says. " 'This is my eighth year. I'm tired of winning 50, 60 games and going home early' " after being eliminated in the playoffs, he says he told them. " ' Get me somebody who can take us to the next level.' " West and Buss were being too patient, O'Neal says. "But I don't really believe in patience all the time. I'd rather get it done now."

O'Neal wanted Jackson, the former New York Knicks player who coached the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships in the 1990s before retiring. Suddenly, Buss did a 180. With Jackson on a fishing trip with one of his sons in Alaska, the Lakers skipped the interview and went right to the deal, agreeing with Jackson's agent to pay him an eye-popping $30 million over five years. Jackson, who hadn't taken a cell phone or a radio, flew out of the wilds to find he was a coach again.

*

Opening night, Nov. 2, 1999, Salt Lake City. This is the new regime? The Lakers have just finished losing five of seven preseason games. Jackson, installing his heralded "triangle" offense, says his players are in "remedial school" or are "autistic," and he won't even know what they've got 'til Christmas. "It will be a season," he tells the Chicago Tribune, "in which I'll probably be coming to Jerry West's office and saying , 'Jerry, there are some guys here who cannot learn what we're trying to do. . . . We're going to have to change some personnel to meet the kind of things we have to do. We don't have a power forward. We don't have another power player to go along with Shaq.' "

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