Jordan's reunion isn't all laughter

He, Bryant and Collins, Jackson have issues

Pro Basketball

February 13, 2002|By Sam Smith | Sam Smith,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Late game: Last night's game between the Washington Wizards and Lakers in Los Angeles ended too late to be included in this edition. A complete report can be found in later editions or on the Internet at http://www.sunspot.net.

LOS ANGELES - Let's see if we can sort this out.

Kobe wants to show up Michael, and Phil knows what Michael does. But Michael also knows Phil's mind games. Doug has had enough of them, and so did Johnny. Not Tex, now with Phil, but he never got along much with Doug.

It's the next Michael against the last Michael, the coach with all the rings against the coach who might have had them, the last coach Michael said he'd play for until he played for this one, the two-time champion against the six-time champion, perhaps time for a passing of the mythical torch. Or more likely for someone to get burned.

And don't forget about the return of Tyronn Lue.

"It should be fun," Michael Jordan said of last night's meeting with his former coach, Phil Jackson, and the challenger for his title as the league's premier player, Kobe Bryant. That was the backdrop when Jordan's Washington Wizards faced the Lakers of Jackson and Bryant at the Staples Center.

"There will be a lot of emotions in the game, I'm pretty sure," Jordan said.

And some of them are likely to involve Jordan, who saw Bryant steal the spotlight in Sunday's NBA All-Star Game, scoring 31 points and winning the MVP award. Jordan was self-effacing afterward and praised Bryant, but one could imagine the game's ultimate competitor thinking, "OK, you got the exhibition game, but I'll get the real one."

There was a time when Jordan could think like that. But Bryant simply is too good now, although with Shaquille O'Neal on the injured list the Wizards would be able to concentrate their defense on Bryant. After all, the Bulls won here last week with O'Neal out.

And wouldn't Jordan just love it, for it would enhance the myth that one never crosses Jordan and survives to revel in it.

The seminal slight was two years ago here, when there were no thoughts about a comeback and Jordan was a Wizards executive. Jordan was visiting Jackson and Jerry West, and the trio were sitting around smoking cigars in the coach's office after a game.

Bryant walked in and Jordan began making suggestions about how he might improve. Jordan got the shock of his life when Bryant stung Jordan with the kind of friendly taunting Jordan was accustomed to delivering. Bryant told Jordan to remain where he was, in the stands, that he was safer there than on the floor.

Jordan undoubtedly remembers, though whether he could do anything about it, or would be drawn into trying, made this one of the year's most anticipated games.

"It's not going to be Michael against Kobe," Jackson insisted Monday.

Last night's game wasn't one of those midseason playoff previews - unless the Wizards make a blockbuster deal, they're not expected to make the Finals. But it may be the most interesting game of the season given the subplots: Jordan facing the coach he credits for taking him to the six championships and Bryant, the player who has eagerly embraced the "next Jordan" label other young stars have run from.

There's Wizards coach Doug Collins, who was replaced by Jackson just before the championship run and who has since had his run-ins with Jackson. Last year, for instance, Jackson accused Collins of a conflict of interest for taking the Wizards' job while working for NBC.

There's Collins assistant John Bach, who worked for Jackson and left on bad terms when he blamed Jackson for not standing up for him against Chicago Bulls management. And Jackson assistant Tex Winter, who dueled with Collins over the triangle offense.

There's Jordan's knowledge of Jackson's methods and Jackson's knowledge of Jordan's tendencies.

"I'm just going to be coaching a game," Jackson said. "It's not our game plan [to go against Michael]."

But it may have well been Bryant's. He was distracted by being booed Sunday in his hometown of Philadelphia, but he certainly reveled in stealing the All-Star spotlight from Jordan, as he tried to do in what was thought to be Jordan's last All-Star Game in 1998. Jordan, though turning 39 this week, isn't quite done. He's seventh in the league in scoring (Bryant is second), and both average more than five assists and five rebounds and rank among the leaders in steals.

"Even though there's a lot of hoopla about the individual matchups, I'm here to win championships," Bryant said. "My focus is going to remain on that."

And if you believe that ...

"It's kind of like the student going against the teacher," Jordan said. "Although the teacher is not playing, he's got a pretty good student there who can illustrate his teachings. Obviously they're the team to beat.

"Because I respect Phil as a coach and I understand what he does as a coach, if I can disrupt what his coaching may be ... I look forward to it. I'm sure we're both looking forward to the challenge."

Sam Smith is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

Next for Wizards

Opponent: Sacramento Kings

Site: ARCO Arena, Sacramento, Calif.

When: Tomorrow, 10 p.m.

TV/Radio: CSN/WTEM (980 AM)

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