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MORE THAN A GAME; By Phil Jackson and Charley Rosen; Seven Stories Press: 320 pp.,$24.95

April 22, 2001|BILL PLASCHKE | Bill Plaschke is a Times sports columnist. He is the author of "Hard Knox: The Life of an NFL Coach" with Chuck Knox and "No More Mr. Nice Guy : A Life of Hardball " with Dick Williams

Forget the triangle offense. With the NBA playoffs beginning this weekend, the real triangle to watch is made up of Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and a third party being paid $6 million a year to monitor them. He is Phil Jackson, the Laker head coach and supposed island of calm and reason, yet anyone who finds the differences between O'Neal and Bryant unsettling, should be braced for the chasm between Jackson's words and his behavior. As if the paradoxes surrounding the coach weren't already obvious to Laker fans, they are clearly defined in "More Than a Game," his latest attempt to debunk them.

This does not make it a good book. It makes it a strange book. What was supposed to be the biggest advantage of the book is actually its biggest problem. It is being released in the shadow of Jackson's first-season Laker success. But, in view of his more troubled second season, that shadow has become darker than anyone imagined.

With seven NBA championship rings, including one from last year's Laker title, Jackson is considered one of the best coaches in NBA history. But this season he has been one of the most strangely inactive, allowing the Bryant-O'Neal feud to fester on the court while allowing Isaiah "J.R." Rider's attitude problems to infect the locker room. Critics say Jackson is behaving as if he has lost interest, sitting even longer before calling timeouts, making even fewer adjustments during games.

While Jackson himself claimed everything would be fine by the time the Lakers began the playoffs-and the Lakers' late-season surge has supported this claim-this year has nonetheless been as ungainly as his sore-back gait. This is reflected in a 320-page tome that is far more narcissistic than noble.

It is filled with wisdom about Jackson's rather pious view of the sanctity of the game, about his beliefs that a locker room is a community and that championships are won by families. Yet he violates that community with common, tell-all revelations about those family members-with one exception.

Though he freely writes of Bryant's snits and O'Neal's tantrums, not once does he comment on the juiciest tidbit about himself-his relationship with the boss' daughter. You don't have to be Jerry West to know that Jackson is dating Jeannie Buss, a Laker official and a daughter of owner Jerry Buss. It is a situation filled with potential conflicts and off-court drama. Yet Jackson does not mention Jeannie even once.

He is honest about choosing the Lakers over his second wife, June, who filed for divorce after essentially telling him it was the Lakers or her. He writes about pulling his car off a highway in the mountains and weeping "with both sorrow and joy" about this transition on his way from Montana to Los Angeles to begin his new job in the fall of 1999. Yet there is far too little of this sort of self-examination in a book that is quick to criticize others.

Early in the book, coauthor Charley Rosen quotes Jackson as saying, "In 'The Hobbit,' the Grand Wizard can blow smoke rings in all different colors. He just sits there and blows them to the ceiling. I can only aspire to that." Reading this book, one understands. The haze begins with the first chapter. Because this book's authors are listed as "Phil Jackson and Charley Rosen'-with Rosen's name smaller and less bold-the reader assumes that Rosen was simply the ghost writer. Yet of the 292 pages that exclude the glossary, 80 are written from the point of view of Rosen, a former minor-league basketball player and coach who has since become a celebrated basketball writer. Though Rosen has written several fine novels, it is unfulfilling to read him here. Often I found myself skipping the Rosen pages to get to the Jackson stuff.

This begins with Jackson's childhood, moves quickly to the NBA, skips (entirely, surprisingly) his six championships with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls and then, finally, on Page 163, gets to the Lakers. And compared to all the newspaper and magazine and national TV revelations about the Lakers this year, this is pretty tame stuff and, given that Jackson constantly complains about media access to his practices and preaches about the importance of a private locker room, some of it smacks of outright hypocrisy. Why would he rat on his own team? In one instance, he confirmed the widely reported story that after a game against Cleveland last season, O'Neal complained in a locker room meeting about Bryant, saying, "I think that Kobe is playing too selfishly for us to win." Considering that the locker room doors were closed at the time, one wonders how O'Neal felt about reading that here.

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