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The Challenge of a Career

Even with four future Hall of Famers, this team has tested all of Jackson's skills

June 06, 2004|J.A. Adande

No other coach besides Phil Jackson could have lasted this long without the aid of alcohol and hair-growth products.

Anyone else presented with so much drama would be staring at an increasingly balding head in the mirror, an empty liquor bottle by his side. Instead Jackson is looking at the chance to coach a team to a championship for the 10th time.

He is here because he strayed from some of the time-tested methods that won the first nine championships, because he turned a loss of control into an excuse to become more assertive.

The knock on Jackson is that he always benefited from good fortune, that the secret to his coaching success was his proximity to all-time great players at the peak of their careers. Even he says that his stunning collection of rings is "whimsy" or "a matter of happenstance."

The irony of this season is that his richest blessing of talent yet, a bounty of four players en route to the Hall of Fame, has presented some of his greatest challenges.

He had all four players together for less than half the season, part of a lengthy list of injuries that resulted in 18 starting lineups. When his superstars weren't feuding and his point guard wasn't pouting, his leading scorer was flying back and forth to courtrooms in Colorado.

And then, midway through the fifth and final year of his contract, the Lakers ended negotiations for an extension and Jackson had to spend the second half of the season as a lame duck.

Not even the uncertain future fazed Jackson.

After all, an open road is better than a closed artery.

True hardship is learning that a coronary passage is 90% blocked one week, then learning of a contemporary's death from a heart attack the next. In the middle of the playoffs, no less.

That was Jackson's May last year. He recovered from an angioplasty and the death of former New York Knick teammate Dave DeBusschere just in time to have his season end on a losing note for the first time since 1995 when the San Antonio Spurs eliminated the Lakers in the conference semifinals.

So while the off-season brought a revamped roster with the additions of Karl Malone and Gary Payton, it also brought a revitalized Jackson. He had to change his diet, take medication and cut down the cigar smoking after games, but it resulted in more energy -- and a better outlook.

"I think he really feels better, mentally and physically," Laker assistant coach Jim Cleamons said. "I think we realize that we're in situations right now that none of us control ... just enjoy it."

In the nine years he coached the Chicago Bulls, Jackson developed a reputation for the unorthodox. He pulled out one of his tricks at Laker training camp in Hawaii, when he took the team to an Air Force base and had the players engage in paintball battles. Jackson wanted to see who would gravitate toward leadership roles, who would shy away from risk and how well the players would bond. Veteran Horace Grant, who spent seven years with Jackson in Chicago, called this Jackson's best move by far.

But Jackson avoided some of the quirks that had worked in the past. He cut back on the yoga sessions. He did not have psychologist George Mumford address the players, because after five years, "I felt like he no longer had their ear," Jackson said.

Instead of choosing individual books for each player, he gave everyone the same book: "My Losing Season," Pat Conroy's reminiscence on his senior season on the basketball team at the Citadel.

"I wanted them to understand the impact the season had on players that had a losing year," Jackson said.

Conroy wrote that "Losing prepares you for the heartbreak, setback and tragedy that you will encounter in the world more than winning ever can. By licking your wounds, you learn how to avoid getting wounded the next time."

But losing wasn't an option for this team. And with three-fourths of the roster eligible for free agency this summer, there might not be a next time.

That went for Jackson as well.

In February, the Lakers announced that they had yanked their latest offer from the table. Some saw it as a sign that Jackson would be cast aside to placate Kobe Bryant. Jackson's greatest challenges since he arrived in 1999 were to get Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal to coexist and have Bryant utilize his talents within the team framework. Bryant, emboldened by his pending free agency, had made his dislike for Jackson known in practices and even in an interview.

Jackson took it as an excuse to assert himself.

"He was more vocal, more direct, not as easy on the egos as he's been in the past," forward Rick Fox said. "I think he's been one to recognize and acknowledge that we all have our egos, including him. But I think he definitely put a lot of the egos in check a lot quicker this year than maybe in the past few years. Similar maybe to the first year he was here.

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