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Jackson Doesn't Sound Over, Out

May 16, 2003|Steve Henson | Times Staff Writer

After a whirlwind week of the likes he had never experienced, Laker Coach Phil Jackson could say one thing with certainty when he woke up this morning.

He was, indeed, awake.

He is, indeed, alive.

His Lakers were beaten, but his heart is beating.

Jackson learned long ago that when the sun sets on a dynasty, the same sun rises the next day. The angioplasty last week was an unnecessary reminder.

But reminded he will be in coming days as he reflects on the inglorious end to a title run and the long-term health of the Lakers and himself.

"The deeper you go in the playoffs, it strikes you that you are one of the only teams still playing," he said. "You can sit in your office and turn on your TV, and the only things on are baseball and racing."

And until today, for nine seasons since 1990-91, his team.

Jackson's first run of three consecutive NBA titles came with the Chicago Bulls from 1991-93. Two years later the Bulls embarked on another three-peat.

And although he bolted the Bulls before the night Chicago died, he knows why the best of teams finally sputter and expire, as the Lakers did Thursday night against the San Antonio Spurs in ending their title reign at three in a row.

It was a bitter pill, but this is no bitter Phil.

"We've had a great run," he said. "In the locker room I told the team we've talked about making the correct steps to get in position to win. This year we couldn't make the correct steps. We stumbled, we fell, and we paid the price for it."

Jackson, 57, waved to the Staples Center crowd as he walked off the court. No one should interpret it as a wave goodbye.

"I anticipate coming back and coaching this team," he said.

Then came the proviso: As long as his health cooperates.

If kidney stones in February that required two painful procedures to eradicate didn't remind the Laker coach of his mortality, the angioplasty that caused him to watch Game 4 against the Spurs from a hospital bed surely did.

His latest reminder was one nobody needed. Dave DeBusschere, a former teammate of Jackson, died Wednesday of a heart attack.

"That a teammate five years older than me succumbed to a heart attack was certainly shocking," Jackson said.

There has been enough doom and gloom, in fact, that no one could blame him for feeling like calling it quits. After all, nine championships and the NBA's highest career winning percentages in the regular season and the playoffs is a life's work worth savoring, from a ranch in Montana or a beachside home in Playa del Rey.

"This was my most difficult year as a basketball coach," he said. "I felt that way early in the season. There were so many East Coast road trips early. It was very fatiguing.

"Energy deprivation kept me from feeling the way I want to feel coaching basketball. I never felt I was on top of my game until this week."

The heart procedure gave Jackson vigor he hadn't felt all season. Now he wants to return, to overhaul the Laker roster, to push Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal to greater heights, to win a 10th championship.

The competitive juices still flow. And maybe he's seeing red, as in Red Auerbach, the legendary former Boston Celtics coach who won nine titles in the 1950s and '60s, a record that Jackson tied last season. After the Lakers three-peat last season, Auerbach questioned Jackson's status as his equal.

"Different eras," was all Jackson said at the time.

The Lakers will embark on a new era beginning today. One without another banner to hang. One that does not include defending a title.

But one that Phil Jackson expects to usher in.

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