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SPORTS EXTRA / NBA 2000-01 PREVIEW

WHAT WILL THE LAKERS DO FOR AN Encore?

What Won't Be Repeated Is the Uneasy Nature of Jackson-West Relationship

October 30, 2000|MARK HEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the front office, the saga continues.

They don't make victory celebrations the way they used to, either. Nobody said the Lakers' return to glory would be easy or like any title they'd ever won before.

A Laker icon--the Laker icon--Jerry West, left, walking away from the championship team he'd built just as it reached its zenith, forgoing $10 million in salary for a nice, but far more modest pension.

His place was taken, in effect, by Phil Jackson, like legends passing in the night, amid backstage speculation that the show's new management star pushed the old one out.

So what really happened? Did Jackson run West off?

It isn't simple but interviews with Jackson, West and people close to them suggest the answer is . . . no. Or not on purpose, anyway.

Jackson, says a friend, has no intention of running anyone's front office or moving here full-time. He liked having West running the basketball operation and had no thought of pushing him out.

Laker insiders note Jackson couldn't have pushed West out, even had he wanted to. This was still Jerry West, after all.

Of course, Jackson was Jackson and West was West. Even if they liked each other--friends of both men agree they did--they were different.

Jackson was brutally honest, acknowledging Laker weaknesses and tipping off their personnel intentions. And long before Jackson arrived, the needle on West's comfort meter had begun swinging wildly.

So they would have only one season together, triumphant as it was.

"I tell you what," West says, "it was very simple to work with him. . . .

"It's amazing to me. I had sort of wanted to step away quietly and for some reason they don't want me to and they want to have some other reason for me leaving."

Says Jackson, "There were never any words between us the whole season. I know I do things that are different than Jerry does and vice versa. But we'd sit down and talk and he'd tell me, 'People always ask me, how's it feel to be your boss? And I say, I don't look at it in that regard, I look at it as a mutual thing.'

"It was going on, I thought, very well, all the way through, until the Portland series, we saw the strain that basketball and the whole intensity of it was putting on his life. . . .

"When he told me that in June, right before the draft, of the possibility he'd step away from this game, I wasn't surprised. It didn't surprise me, although I had looked forward to working with him for the whole tenure I was going to be here."

They were different, all right.

West came from a simpler time and had a nervous system to match. He had spent all his time as a Laker player, coach and executive in this most pacific of markets. He hated controversy, bristling if the words, "Laker source," appeared in a newspaper, since that suggested disharmony in their family-style organization.

One season in the early '90s, he vowed for months that he'd quit out of pique at the short-lived National Sports Daily's NBA columnist. Every season, he'd say he was going to let his assistant, Mitch Kupchak, handle reporters.

In 1998, West announced his retirement. In 1999, after he came back, the Lakers signed Dennis Rodman and he started wishing he had gotten out when the getting was good.

Over the summer, he told a friend, "It was just time. It was probably time a year ago."

Jackson came from the turbulent Chicago Bull organization, where everyone was pitted against everyone else and success lay in leaping from one log to another, in the hope it didn't turn out to be an alligator.

Jackson's answer was candor and plenty of it. More than anyone, he confirmed the existence of the Bulls' schisms, fencing with his bosses, owner Jerry Reinsdorf and General Manager Jerry Krause--even fielding other offers one spring when his contract ran out--and survived to tell the tale.

Jackson challenged players too, even Michael Jordan, asking him to give up his annual scoring title for the good of the team. (Of course, Jordan blithely ignored that suggestion, en route to winning six more to go with his six championship rings.)

If confrontation was needed, Jackson did that too, as when he refused to cover up for Scottie Pippen for taking himself out of a playoff game, as most other coaches would have.

As Laker coach, Jackson got off the plane talking. He wanted to trade for Pippen, to sign Rodman--he claimed later he was only joking--the Portland Trail Blazers were the best team money could buy, Sacramento was semi-civilized, etc.

It was never dull with Jackson around and if there was one thing West didn't need in his life, it was more fireworks.

The Last Days of Mr. Clutch

This wasn't how West's friends wanted to see him go out but, in retrospect, why wouldn't he? He had suffered day by day through all other phases of his career, why was anything going to change now?

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