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It's a big, easy time with Jackson at lunch

March 30, 2010|T.J. SIMERS

NEW ORLEANS — Ordinarily, it is controlling coach and combative columnist sparring on Lakers' game day, and undoubtedly they will be doing so again.

But anyone sitting at the next table Monday afternoon would've just seen two old but proud guys exchanging photos of their grandchildren.

"Here she is driving a boat," says Phil Jackson, holding up his phone like he might a trophy with a picture of his 2-year-old granddaughter, one of his six grandchildren almost as cute as the Arizona Twins.

"We had twins, too, along with a 2- and 4-year-old at the same time," he says. "Now that was tough. That was my final year playing, maybe 15 games, but up twice a night. I just remember going through 24 diapers a day."

And so it went during nearly a two-hour lunch, a little Buddha enlightenment, lots of coaching philosophy, some laughs about previous differences, nary a barb exchanged, not a single brushoff, and as a pleasant a way to spend an afternoon as one can, especially when the other guy picks up the tab.

Jackson is 64, nowhere near as prickly when sipping an Arnold Palmer on the patio of a fancy hotel, an NBA icon still active and refreshingly talking reverentially about his parents, both ministers and inspiring in different ways.

He talks perspective, and yet he says there's nothing between "an 'A' and an 'F' for failure" for the Lakers this season.

He speaks about his life of non-conformity, which pretty much explains why he adopted the triangle offense, how he has trained himself to remain calm amid basketball chaos, and how he doesn't see himself as being arrogant as some others might.

"Shy maybe," he says. "I'm certainly not the chitchat type. My dad had a wooden plaque on his desk which I have now. It's a picture of a guy with a giant head that's a balloon attached to his body by a string. He has tiny feet. The inscription reads: 'The bigger your head the easier it is to fill your shoes.'

"The credit in this game goes to the players."

It's about six hours until tipoff with the New Orleans Hornets, the 1,550th regular-season game of Jackson's NBA coaching career and maybe only eight more of these regular-season games, depending on his health and the state of mind of his players.

"In one corner Jeanie [ Buss] wants me to continue on with next year being a big year, the NBA sitting at the edge of a precipice," he says in reference to the possibility of an owners' lockout after next season. "For the future of the franchise she would like me to continue.

"But if I don't feel comfortable how this team has advanced in the direction I'm trying to take it, then I will be willing to move aside. That means if we don't do well in the playoffs or do as well as I think in getting to the Finals."

And Jackson admits, "I'm mildly concerned," about the Lakers doing as well as he would like, "because Kobe Bryant's got some issues. You can't avoid it, he's got an ankle, knee and finger. And with [ Andrew Bynum] we can't pencil in the day he's going to be back. So yes, I'm concerned.

"I was telling my coaching staff about '93. We played a late-season game against the Knicks and lost. I got off on a tirade -- only I would think it a tirade with most of the guys probably thinking it was nothing -- but then Michael Jordan says, 'Hey P.J., don't worry, we're going to get these guys in the playoffs; we just had a bad night.'

"That's the kind of mood going on with these guys right now, but they haven't won two championships in a row like that team. That team had some real confidence in who they were."

Hard to have confidence in a team that struggles to put away teams residing at the bottom of the barrel, getting pounded by the upstarts from Oklahoma City a few days ago, and Monday night falling flat to a New Orleans outfit eliminated from the playoffs in its last game.

But there are no harsh statements offered to the media later, even though this was a game the Lakers had targeted as a victory knowing how difficult it will be to win in Atlanta.

"I was part of a team that lost 15 consecutive games," he says, "and I got to see the effect on the coach. He got bitter, got angry at the players and started blaming the players. I made a vow to myself I would never get into the position to start enumerating the limitations players have. I would try to see what they can do rather than what they can't do."

It's funny now, but Marv Albert gave him the nickname long ago, " Action Jackson," action the last thing anyone would expect of Chief Sitting Bull, as he was also known in Chicago.

He's the coach, after all, who always has the best players and just lets them play and win him championship trophies.

"The smaller the corral, the more animals try and break out," he says, and the guy from Montana ought to know. "The larger the pasture, the easier to control the horses and cattle.

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