NBA's Jackson is the champion Comeback Kid

June 16, 2005|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

There are comebacks, and then there is what Phil Jackson is doing.

The world of sports, of course, is full of examples of the former, what with Muhammad Ali coming back time and again to win the heavyweight boxing championship and Mike Tyson returning for six rounds last week.

But Jackson is not just coming back as coach of the Los Angeles Lakers -- he is returning to an organization that he unhappily parted ways with and that he promptly trash-talked in his 2004 autobiography, The Last Season.

Most people who rip their former employer and star employee in print (Jackson on Kobe Bryant: "A callous gun for hire." "Uncoachable." "I've had it with this kid.") typically are not invited to rejoin the company. Typically, they are never allowed back in the company parking lot. But Jackson won nine championships, including three with the Lakers. Still, he did some major bridge-burning.

"I just don't understand it. Why go back into the teeth of an old argument?" said Frank Deford, the author and Sports Illustrated writer. "Why would he think things will be any different with Kobe?"

Why, indeed?

"It's a bafflement," Deford says, "unless you consider love and money."

Money: Between $7 million and $10 million a year for three years. Love: Jeanie Buss, the club owner's daughter, is Jackson's long-time girlfriend. She has lobbied for his return.

"She turned his head," Deford says. "When you are in love, that's what happens."

Jackson calls his coaching return a "tremendous story -- a story of reconciliation and redemption." But the three-point question is how will Jackson and his former star Bryant get along. How will Jackson coach a player he so famously called uncoachable?

"This is not a slam-dunk success story. They are going to have to work out a separate peace," says social psychologist Stuart Fischoff. "They are not going to like each other, but they will have to get along."

In other words, both men will have to check their egos at the locker room, Fischoff says.

Both men do have something in common: a love of basketball -- even at its most humbling. Bryant, Fischoff says, must have been humbled by the fact that his Lakers failed to make the play-offs this year. And Jackson, the NBA's Zen master, must have been humbled by being let go.

"He can be as Zen as he wants to be," Fischoff says, "but he's still human."

Jackson joins a group of other human sports figures, entertainers and politicians who seemed to have burned bridges but managed to find their way back to their once and future positions.

Billy Martin was fired five times as the Yankees' skipper, despite winning two World Series in the 1970s. His serial firings became the butt of a popular TV commercial at the time featuring George Steinbrenner yelling "You're fired!"

After their 1979 "The Long Run" album, the Eagles acrimoniously split up and swore they would reunite when hell freezes over. At least they had the grace to name their album exactly that when they re-grouped in 1994.

"You won't have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore," said defeated California gubernatorial candidate Richard Nixon in 1962. Six years later, he was back, running for president.

"Anyone can rat, but it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to re-rat," said Winston Churchill on rejoining the Conservatives 20 years after leaving them for the Liberals.

There are second acts in dating, too. From New York magazine this week, we learn New Yorkers have a term for re-dating an ex: "blue-binning" as in recycling.

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