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The Heart of a Champion

Jackson Finds Way to Put Postseason Into Perspective

May 11, 2003|Mark Heisler

In what seemed a minor absurdity but turned out to be a monument to irony, Phil Jackson was asked after Friday's victory over San Antonio if Devean George's comeback was reminiscent of Willis Reed's.

Jackson was Reed's teammate in 1970 when Willis got his hip shot up with enough painkillers to hobble through a few plays of Game 7 against the Lakers, making the two shots that helped make the New York Knicks champions and himself an immortal.

So Jackson grinned his little Cheshire Cat grin, noting they weren't really the same, because Devean was just coming back from a sprained ankle.

Only afterward did Jackson learn he'd been coaching with 90% blockage of a coronary artery, meaning he'd been at risk for what a team spokesman called "a massive heart attack."

Jackson found out Saturday morning, when he completed the test he had started the day before -- and left so he could coach. He then underwent an angioplasty, in which his artery was cleared and propped open with a stent. He was to stay overnight in Centinela Hospital Medical Center, with the team holding open the possibility he'll coach today's game against the Spurs.

Inevitably, the game and the health issue became intertwined, as if they were equal in importance.

They aren't, but for better and worse, that's the magic of the games they play, we report about and you follow.

They seem important -- until something important happens, like 9/11 or a war or someone we know learns he has a serious health issue. Then it suddenly dawns on us they're only games, and we get sheepish about the whole thing.

Then the bad news passes and we go back to the games until something happens and we're surprised, anew.

The Lakers knew about Jackson but didn't announce it until after Saturday morning's interview session, sparing their players the distraction of being asked about it.

Call it commitment, call it denial, but Jackson had enough inkling of a problem to tell his assistants, who then asked him how he was feeling during Friday's game, even to joke with Tex Winter that he was giving him a heart attack.

When a game becomes your life's work, it's not a game anymore, it's your life's work. A season feels like a little lifetime, so if they understand a heart problem is more important, a playoff series is still the culmination of a year's journey, which Jackson plans to rejoin as soon as he's cleared.

Then, there are the rest of us.

Basketball isn't our life's work, although it is in some way important enough to get us to invest deeply, forking out huge chunks of money and time.

This series was already a clinic in lost perspective, as Laker fans, their ranks swollen as never before by three titles, backed their never-more-embattled heroes.

In fact, this isn't the Lakers' most endearing team, which has turned in ever more casual efforts, falling all the way to an inglorious No. 5 finish in the Western Conference this season.

Nevertheless, their fans rose behind them, more passionate than ever when they were forced to watch them start each series on the road, returning from Minnesota, 1-1, then from San Antonio, 0-2, their low-water mark under Jackson.

Laker fans deserve their reputation for being laid-back and Staples Center is a hangar that swallows excitement, but this was wild, a party no one wanted to see end.

The hysteria crested Friday when Jack Nicholson sprang from his seat, berated referee Mark Wunderlich and, when the official threatened to eject him, did a full "Here's Johnny!" on him.

Nicholson is someone we'd like to think represents us too, although he's a movie star and, let's face it, we're not. On the screen, he's the one who says stuff we didn't think of, or wouldn't have dared to if we had.

Campy as the deranged character in "The Shining," or outright scary as the Marine colonel in "A Few Good Men," no one does rage like Jack and now he was doing it in real life, to the infinite delight of the crowd.

Fortunately, he went off on Wunderlich, rather than crew chief Steve Javie, a top-ranked ref (even Jackson said this was a crack crew) from the Earl Strom/Joey Crawford school of tossing them first and getting their names later. Javie has bounced Hoops, the Wizard mascot, and Boomer, the Pacer mascot, and would have called security by the time Jack sputtered his third syllable.

Of course, if anyone had ejected Nicholson, as referees are empowered to do with unruly fans, Jack could have been elected mayor on the spot.

But when did the Lakers start being the ones whining about the referees all the time?

Wasn't that for wannabes, like the Sacramento Kings, who were always decrying league plots in which referees were told to protect the big-market Lakers?

When the Kings beat the Lakers in March, Jackson noted, "If they're unhappy with the refereeing every time we play them, they obviously are carrying something inside that says they have to have the referees to win the game or something."

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