LOS ANGELES -- Tradition runs deep through the purple-and-gold veins of the Los Angeles Lakers. Back to their days in Minneapolis with a giant named George Mikan, through their move here nearly 40 years ago with twin heroes Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, to their legacy of one-named megastars. From Wilt to Kareem, from Magic to Shaq.
Now, there is Phil.
An awkwardly effective reserve on two championship teams in his 11 years with the New York Knicks, Phil Jackson carved his own Hall of Fame credentials with the six NBA titles he helped the Chicago Bulls win in nine seasons as their coach. He did it with his triangle offense. He did it with his Zen philosophies. He also did it with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
Now, he is being asked to do something else: rescue this talented but mostly untapped team from itself.
With the Lakers opening the 1999-2000 season tonight against the Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City, there is still much debate as to whether Jackson's highly structured offense will fit a bunch of players perceived for most of their careers to be undisciplined, a team that, given its payroll and expectations, has been the most underachieving in recent NBA memory.
"When we first used the offense in Chicago, we started 0-3," Jackson said one afternoon last week, a day between double-digit exhibition losses to the Phoenix Suns in Las Vegas and to the Jazz down the freeway in Anaheim. "I don't think I'm going to panic. If I don't panic, the players will remain calm. We're in no hurry. We're going to take this one step at a time."
Though he doesn't have the greatest player in the game's history as the focal point of the offense, Jackson has two weapons he never possessed during his tenure with the Bulls. He has a dominant center in Shaquille O'Neal, a player he fantasized about coaching as far back as 1994.
Even more important, he has power.
It comes mostly in the form of a five-year, $30 million contract bestowed on Jackson last June by owner Jerry Buss amid reports that West, now the well-respected executive vice president of operations, was grooming interim coach Kurt Rambis for the job.
"All good coaches have a very disciplined approach, and I think he's one of the best," Buss said last week in Las Vegas.
"He's the pre-eminent coach in the business," West has said.
All indications are that West, aware of Jackson's clash of egos with Bulls general manager Jerry Krause, will give his new coach free rein. The potential is there for Jackson to remove the cloud of skepticism for those who believe his reputation as the NBA's latest genius was derived strictly from coaching Jordan.
Those who know Jackson well say proving himself again had nothing to do with taking this job.
"I think that comes from the outside," said Charley Rosen, one of Jackson's closest friends, dating to their days as Deadheads in the early 1970s. "Michael Jordan was in the NBA for six years without winning anything. It's easy for civilians to say that."
This is what some other civilians, those who like to put money down in Vegas, are saying: Given a roster that includes O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, who will miss the first month of the season with a broken hand, the Lakers are a 7-2 pick to win the NBA championship next June.
The two young superstars were reportedly not on the friendliest terms last season, when the Lakers were swept out of the Western Conference semifinals by the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs. If they decide to freeze each other out, it could become the Bermuda Triangle offense.
"It's an old-fashioned offense being used with modern-day players," said Tex Winter, the 77-year-old Lakers assistant who designed it in the 1950s while he was coaching players such as Bob Boozer at Kansas State. "One of the reasons Michael accepted it so well was that he was coming out of a system at North Carolina. These guys will have to play within a system. They're used to demonstrating their individual talents."
But Winter, who stayed in Chicago last year after Jackson left for his forced hiatus and followed him here along with former Bulls assistants Jim Cleamons and Frank Hamblen, said that players who have been portrayed as lacking in fundamentals, and perhaps in heart, will look at their bearded, bifocaled coach as some 6-foot-8 Moses leading them to the promised land.
Well, maybe not Moses.
"I don't think Phil can part the Red Sea," said Bryant, the 21-year-old wunderkind now in his fourth season.
Jackson is a deceptively imposing presence for someone with a reputation as a players' coach. He might encourage his players to read books such as "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," but they had better understand the nuances of the new offense as well. The eight championship rings he possesses -- nine if you include the one for coaching the Albany Patroons to a CBA title in 1984-85 -- speak volumes.