Knicks, Lakers have their own playoffs going

April 28, 2005|By David Steele

IF YOU'RE looking for the soap opera in this year's NBA playoffs, remember: The head diva is absent. But not only might he be back soon, he also might be coming to one of the two stages big enough to handle the magnitude of his persona.

It's not that the NBA playoffs are somehow coming up short without Phil Jackson's looming presence. These playoffs have been great so far, and even the routs in progress have their share of dramatic tension and outsized personalities.

But no team has brought the spice to the meal that Jackson's teams have for the past decade. So if you have to pick one matchup to stick with throughout this postseason, make it ... the Knicks and Lakers, never mind that neither will play a game that matters for the next six months.

Jackson is being courted heavily by both teams, and all involved know that whoever wins becomes the center of the NBA universe, as the Bulls were after Michael Jordan un-retired in 1995 (that threepeat was a much-steeper roller coaster of tension and emotion than the previous one), and as the Lakers were for his five years nudging and prodding Shaq and Kobe.

The idea that it might be the Lakers again after the dynasty shattered to pieces during and after the loss to the Pistons in last year's Finals, is almost too juicy to believe. It also, for typically bizarre reasons, makes the most sense.

Has the future of a franchise ever been left hanging in the balance by the state of the relationship between the coach and the owner's daughter (who also is a team executive)? Yet people who delve deeply into these sorts of things assign the Lakers as the favorites largely because Jackson and Jeanie Buss are still an item, even though Jackson and her team went through an ugly divorce less than a year ago.

The Lakers kept custody of Kobe Bryant, though (or, more accurately, Bryant kept custody of the franchise), and therein lies the other tenuous relationship involved here. How do those two reconcile? Reports say that Jackson - who has gotten together with just about every other important person in the organization in the past few months - has a meeting with Bryant next on his agenda.

But the same reports say nothing is scheduled yet; it figures that putting the two in the same room is the biggest obstacle of all. If it ever happens, though, some smart network should televise it and blow the other playoff games out of the water.

Moreover, if they eventually agree to become player and coach again, some sharp operator has to revive the dream from last season that never came true: 24-hours-a-day, all-access pay per view of every Lakers game, practice, meeting, trip, team meal, everything. Talk about appointment television.

Would Jackson's presence as Knicks coach be that delectable? Maybe, if only because it would take place in New York, where "proportion" and "perspective" are four-letter words. Phil Jackson working for Isiah Thomas and coaching Stephon Marbury at Madison Square Garden, with the Knicks riding a 33-year streak without a championship? It would be the Yankees plus the Mets plus Donald Trump, squared.

Thomas met with Jackson in L.A. the day before Jerry Buss, owner and potential father-in-law, took his turn. This is the real thing. No one believes Jackson will turn down the money likely to be offered and sit out a second straight year, or resist the chance to coach the team he embraced so much as a player (the Knicks) or the one he broke with on such bad terms and with such a taint on his legacy (the Lakers).

Sure, Cleveland and Minnesota are mentioned as possible destinations, and in LeBron James and Kevin Garnett they offer Hall of Fame-level building blocks with which Jackson usually constructs a champion. They both also offer clean slates and far less baggage. They probably fit Jackson's coaching profile better than the 12-car pileups in New York or L.A.

Both, however, are considered long shots for Jackson's services. Plus, one can presume that the league office and the networks would be happier to see Jackson on one of the coasts. (Blame yourself for that, though; you're the ones who moaned that you were tired of seeing the Bulls and then the Lakers, then yawned and tuned out the Spurs and, later, the Pistons when they won.)

The entire landscape of the playoffs, exhilarating as it's been, still seems a little off-kilter, if only because unfamiliar teams are rising, postseason perennials are either exiting quickly or never made the field, and familiar faces (Shaq, Chris Webber, Vince Carter) are in unusual places. The one great potential grudge match, Shaq vs. Kobe, is a no-show, and the next on the list, Pistons vs. Pacers in the East semifinals, is the last thing the NBA wants to promote.

Most of all, no Zen master, his nine rings, his hunger for immortality and his ability to survive and thrive amid chaos, some of it his own doing.

Next year will be different. How different depends on who wins between the Knicks and Lakers.

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