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J.A. Adande

From His Heart to Your Ears: Get Ready for the End of an Era

May 13, 2003|J.A. Adande

From the tests on Phil Jackson's heart to the words from his mouth, one theme keeps popping up: this is more serious than we thought.

The calm coach, impervious to everything around him, had his vulnerability spelled out in the coldest medical terms. They don't make phrases more ominous than "massive heart attack."

And a team that not too long ago looked ready to run laps around the NBA can suddenly see the end of the road ahead.

Jackson had to listen to the messages from his body and now we must acknowledge the signals from him that the Phil Jackson era in Los Angeles is coming to an end. After listening to Jackson on Monday and talking to his agent on Sunday, my feeling is that Jackson will be gone after the final year of his contract next season.

Time to take stock.

If Jackson's feeling "lucky" to be around after a procedure Saturday to clear an artery that was 90% blocked, everyone else in Lakerland should be grateful that he came here in the first place.

If he's wondering how long he can continue to coach, then everyone should brace for his departure.

The most stunning news from Jackson on Monday, in his first public comments since the procedure, was his revelation of two things that didn't happen.

First, that he almost skipped Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals Friday night. That's how bad his chest pains bothered him.

And that during this laborious season, in which he missed three games after a procedure to remove a kidney stone, then felt bothered by chest pains for the past month, he doubted he would be back next season.

His outlook seems much brighter now that the doctors have found and removed the source of his pain. He said that his heart is fine; now it's a matter of managing the cholesterol in his diet to keep it that way.

"It's something that actually is a happy spell for me," he said of the medical updates, "because I really had thought seriously that I wasn't going to be capable of going on from this year as a coach ... if we get through this year, this would be it for me."

Short term, he should be fine for the rest of this series. After missing Game 4 Sunday he was back at practice Monday and traveled to San Antonio for tonight's Game 5.

The difference in him was apparent from the moment he walked through the door and actually smiled at the sight of a thick crowd of reporters. He has always viewed his dealings with the media as a tedious obligation, but it's much better to have them asking you questions than writing your obituary.

But after traveling that far down the path toward retiring, it's going to be harder to reverse course and sign an extension beyond next season.

Do the Lakers need Jackson? Ask the Detroit Red Wings how much they missed Scotty Bowman this year.

Or ask Shaquille O'Neal.

O'Neal has said repeatedly that he doesn't want to stick around if Jackson isn't coaching the Lakers. It was probably more of a negotiating tactic on Jackson's behalf, just as Michael Jordan once claimed he wouldn't play for any coach other than Phil.

There was Jordan, suiting up for Doug Collins in Washington the last two seasons. And I fully expect O'Neal to be in a Laker uniform after Jackson is gone.

Already, O'Neal sounded different in light of the latest news.

"If he has to go for health reasons, I'm OK with that," O'Neal said.

"Not to me, it wouldn't be disappointing. Things like that happen."

It wouldn't be the first time O'Neal changed a hard-line stance. He said last week that he would never go away from his low-post power game no matter how many offensive fouls were called, then he moved to the high post and showed an array of finesse moves in games 3 and 4.

Four years ago, after getting broomed out of the playoffs by the Spurs, O'Neal went upstairs and demanded that a coach of Jackson's stature be brought in.

Who makes the call next time? Shaq? Kobe Bryant? And what if they disagree? Would Mitch Kupchak and Jerry Buss be forced to choose between their two superstars -- especially when Bryant can become a free agent after next season?

O'Neal doesn't have any early choices to follow Jackson. He doubts anyone can.

"Phil is the Master," O'Neal said. "Next in line can only be Son of the Master or Servant of the Master."

Here's my thing with Jackson. Yes, he's coached great players. But when have any of his teams underachieved? How many championships have those players won without him?

Jackson has won championships the last six seasons he has coached. He has won 39 of his last 41 playoff series.

Time to recognize -- and maybe even ease off.

For all of the teasing and even criticism he has endured for dating the owner's daughter, it's possible that he owes his life to Jeanie Buss. She's the one who called a doctor when he complained of chest pains, and she's the one who forced him to have it examined.

And all of the mystical stuff, the Buddhism and yoga that lends itself to easy stereotyping and column fodder? Maybe we should all be thankful for that as well.

He thinks it helped get him through this latest medical episode.

At the moment, "I feel more than like myself right now, actually," he said.

As for the future:

"I will consider whether I can do next year with the kind of fervor and desire and energy and all those other things I need to after the season is over," Jackson said.

Jackson looked good and his prognosis sounds good.

It's his long-term future with the Lakers I'm worried about.

*

J.A. Adande can be reached at j.a.adande@latimes.com.

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