Ex-coach Jackson opens book on Bryant, O'Neal & Co.

Lakers trials, tribulations recounted in `Soul' story

Pro Basketball

October 30, 2004|By Bill Dwyre | Bill Dwyre,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LOS ANGELES - Three days before the Los Angeles Lakers start a new NBA season, fans are still wallowing in the team's last one. Call it Phil Jackson's long goodbye.

More precisely, The Last Season: A Team in Search of Its Soul, a book released last week, is a rambling narrative by the retired-just-before-being-fired coach of the 2003-04 Lakers team that was supposed to lead the pack in victories and charisma but only set new highs in dysfunctional behavior.

Jackson said he learned of the rape allegation against Kobe Bryant by phone from Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak. "Was I surprised? Yes, but not entirely," wrote Jackson, who cited Bryant's anger and immaturity.

Enough portions of Jackson's book were leaked in the last several weeks to fan anew the flames of rivalry between Bryant and former Laker Shaquille O'Neal.

Bryant took the high road, saying he wished everybody, including Jackson, well. O'Neal said only that, "Things would now start to come out" about Bryant, who will meet O'Neal's Miami Heat in Los Angeles on Christmas Day.

Jackson coached the Chicago Bulls to six NBA titles before being coaxed out of retirement to coach the Lakers.

He won titles with the Lakers in 2000, '01 and '02, then slipped against the San Antonio Spurs in '03, setting up what the bookjacket calls "the extraordinary ride of the 2003-2004 Los Angeles Lakers." That's accurate, but falls well short of the full picture.

Jackson, to his credit, knew a great story when he lived it. And so, back home in Montana with time on his hands, he cranked out his book.

He offers interesting insights: O'Neal had to play with heavy inserts in his shoes, meaning he couldn't push off with his toes to jump.

The "vibe" he got from the Chicago press was "one of adoration for Michael [Jordan] or the team." The L.A. press is "different, more dangerous. In L.A., the reporters want to know: `[What] can I write that advances the drama for one more day.' "

O'Neal, said Jackson, sinks into a funk every season from Christmas to March 6, his birthday.

In the locker room before the last game of last season's finals against the Detroit Pistons, just moments after Jackson said he'd gotten his team focused and ready to play, Bryant's cell phone rang. Jackson was furious when Bryant took the call (from former teammate Brian Shaw), destroying the mood.

Jackson said he was so overwhelmed by Bryant and his baggage that, for after every crisis, in a season full of them, he consulted a therapist (not named), who offered solutions such as breathing: "[A] vital part of the meditation process. Exhaling allows a person to let go and accept the next, new impulse of life."

Jackson also likened Bryant to Sacramento's Chris Webber, who "tends to hold onto the ball longer than necessary, causing the offense to stagnate."

And he made fun of Bryant's story about cutting his finger while moving boxes in his garage, an injury that forced him to miss a few games.

He also termed Bryant's defense "overrated," telling of him bragging in the finals that he had been "kicking [Piston Rick Hamilton's] [rear end] for 10 years." During the same series, he said Bryant asked to guard Chauncey Billups, already assigned to Gary Payton, because "I think [Payton] is scared."

Perhaps more image-destroying are the Bryant quotes Jackson includes that are well-sprinkled with expletives.

Jackson said he was so befuddled by his inability to handle Bryant that at one point he suggested to Kupchak that the Lakers suspend the young star. This suggestion backfired so badly that it eventually cost Jackson his job.

Kupchak reported Jackson's request to owner Jerry Buss, who concluded that if it took getting rid of both Jackson and O'Neal to keep the more marketable Bryant happy, then that's the way the Lakers would go.

Bill Dwyre is the sports editor of the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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