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J.A. Adande

The Piece Maker

Phil Jackson must meld A-list players with big egos into a cohesive unit to return the Lakers to glory

October 08, 2003|J.A. Adande

HONOLULU — The pool was to Phil Jackson's left, the ocean straight ahead and the pink blended drink on the table in front of him.

"This is paradise," Jackson said.

But what good is it to be in paradise if you can't walk on the sand?

Jackson's week in Hawaii was filled with practices, meetings, a speaking engagement and, um, interviews like this one. Total beach time in the first six days: about 30 minutes under an umbrella.

You wonder whether this training camp really is a preparation for the season, whether this whole year could be a tease filled with constant reminders of how much better life could be.

Kobe Bryant's weakened condition has kept him from joining Shaquille O'Neal, Gary Payton and Karl Malone in full-speed drills, or in Tuesday night's exhibition game against the Golden State Warriors. And his battle against a charge of felony sexual assault he says he did not commit could keep him off the court in the future.

Any sports prognostication relies on the presumption that the players will remain injury free, but this is the first one counting on the legal system's presumption of innocence.

"It has the potential to be a very difficult situation," Jackson said. "If the Kobe Bryant thing clears up, if the trial is put off until the [end] of June or whatever, it gives Kobe a whole season to just go out and play, and it gives him relief. If the trial is in the middle of the season and he's going to have to prep for that, it takes a lot of work to go through the trial, that could be a distraction."

And that doesn't even get to the basketball issues. From a team sense, Jackson said the quandary of keeping all of these A-list players satisfied was just as large.

"Both Gary and Karl are extremely compliant, very much a part of what we're doing. Although Shaq is not always real compliant as a player, he's kind of grudgingly come along under difficult circumstances -- he's been injured a little bit, there's some disappointing news for him a little bit" regarding a contract extension.

O'Neal's face barely changes expression when Jackson's name is mentioned. He constantly reiterates that he doesn't want to be a minimal part of the triangle offense, as Bill Cartwright and Luc Longley were in Chicago.

"My father told me a long time ago, 'You ain't gotta like me, but you gotta respect me,' " O'Neal said. "That's the same for [him and Jackson]. I ain't gotta like him, but I've gotta respect him. And I do respect him.

"I don't know how our relationship has grown. But I'm out here to do my job. I'm going to do my job because I've been doing it. But let me be me. Let the Diesel be the Diesel. If I'm in the [lane], give me the ball. If I'm open, I want the ball. That's it. Don't have me just doing stuff that I'm not used to doing. Bring it to me, I'll do what I always do."

In turn, Jackson has one request for O'Neal: Play like the NBA's most valuable player.

"Tim Duncan's won the award two years in a row," Jackson said. "You watch Shaq play against Tim Duncan in the four years since I've been with this team, and he's had the best of him three out of four years. Last year was Tim's year, and he rightfully deserved it. The year before, I'm not so sure. He was awarded it, but I'm not so sure he deserved it. Shaq's got to go out and claim it.

"I think we all believe in him. Now he's got to make that trust that we've had in him a reality. This offense is geared to getting the ball in to him. We want him to be as demanding a player as he's been. We know deep in our heart of hearts that defense and rebounding is going to win. That's what's going to win, not Shaquille scoring 50 points or 50 touches whatever a game. It's going to be rebounding and getting stops."

He said that he felt comfortable with his relationship with O'Neal, adding, "Whatever goes on, I think we've got, ultimately, a lot of respect for each other."

Now add to the mix Payton, who ran Paul Westphal -- probably the only NBA coach more laid-back than Jackson -- out of Seattle. It took Jackson all of 24 hours to learn "Gary's got a big mouth," but it's only taken a few practices for him to discover Payton also is a quick learner.

"I'm sure Gary's going to be a volatile player," Jackson said. "That's OK. I'm OK with guys that want to speak their piece, as long as they're speaking from a true space, they're being honest, it's not a selfish motive, a self-serving motive. It's a motive from the heart, of what we're trying to accomplish as a basketball team. I'm willing to listen and willing to help. I'm prepared for that."

This combination of strong personalities and dominant egos led many to believe that this would be Jackson's greatest coaching challenge. What we didn't realize is that he'd already been through the hard part.

He spent last season feeling sluggish and weak, wondering whether he could make it through another season. That problem was addressed in a May angioplasty to open a heart artery that had been 90% blocked. He also had a kidney stone removed in February.

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