Weekly Countdown (cont.)
On why he came back. As Bryant's partnership with Shaq was breaking up, Jackson stepped away from the Lakers for a season and watched them miss the 2004-05 playoffs under coaches Rudy Tomjanovich (who went 24-19) and his interim replacement, Frank Hamblen (10-29). Jackson returned the following season to take on the entirely new challenge of rebuilding with a young team. One reason he accepted the job -- apart from his $10 million salary -- was to claim a larger role over personnel.
"When I came back they said, 'You can help make all of those decisions,' " Jackson said. "Given that accord, I said fine, I can do this. The biggest thing was signing off on [the decision to spend a No. 10 pick for center] Andrew Bynum, a 17-year-old kid with very little experience as a player coming out of high school, when you're looking at the future of four years of coaching him or whatever.
"But all of these opportunities we talked about -- [acquiring] Pau Gasol the first year, we talked about Ron Artest the first year I came back, and all of these players that we have now. We talked about getting Derek Fisher back on our roster, because we knew that there were opportunities that might happen. And all of these opportunities have come to fruition, which is amazing when you think about it, that if you scheme or you dream, they come to reality."
When Bryant asked to be traded in 2007 because he was frustrated by the Lakers' failure to build a contending team around him, Jackson said he took up Bryant's side of the argument, which, in turn, helped result in the blockbuster acquisition of Gasol in February 2008 that immediately recast the Lakers as NBA finalists and eventual champions.
"The issue of Kobe Bryant, when there were rumors and insinuations that he wanted to be traded -- we sat for hours and worked out this situation, which brought this into what it is today," Jackson said. "It was painful. Even though Kobe and I had to end up on the other side of the coin in this deal, in which management and player and coach all kind of seemed to be on opposite sides, sometimes the coach has to have one side to support the player. I think that was really the strength that brought this [new championship era] into fruition."
Who is the greatest NBA coach? The argument of whether this honor belongs to Jackson or Auerbach is a non-starter. In fact, each presided over his own sharply defined era. Auerbach dominated in an age when players had little or no say over where they played and for how much money; the secret of Auerbach's transcendental success was that he treated his players with respect -- not as indentured servants but rather as free men. He did not lord his power over them.
Now that players are able to leverage the threat of free agency to negotiate enormous guaranteed salaries and scheme to have coaches fired if they so please, Jackson's long-standing reply as coach has been to offer his players freedom of choice. The triangle offense is not based on running the play as dictated by the coach. Instead it puts players in position to make their own decisions, with Jackson counseling them to ultimately do what is best for the team. He doesn't pretend that he can force them to do anything they don't choose to do for themselves. And so Michael and Shaq and Kobe each become his partner in a shared mission to win championships.
"That's an empowering place for the player to be in, once you finally understand as a player of his that he really is trusting you with this multitude of decisions out there on the court -- and now just go do it," Fisher said. "It's a great approach because we never feel like this is a job or we're obligated to do what we do for this team. Even though it is our job, and we get paid very well for it, he puts together an environment where we are allowed to make the choice to be successful, and it has worked."
If it is fair to note that Jackson has profited from his relationships with the league's best players, then it also is fair to ask whether Jordan, O'Neal and Bryant would be so respected if they had never played for Jackson. None of those players had won a championship before he came into their lives. Think of how Bryant was perceived following the 34-win season of 2004-05 -- as a pariah, a selfish scorer who couldn't relate to teammates while running Shaq out of town. Four short years later, Bryant is now viewed as a peer of Jordan's, a team leader within reach of equaling or surpassing Jordan's six championships. Whether or not you care for Bryant personally, you have to admit that his upside-down transformation has been almost miraculous.
On staying fresh. The mystique of Jackson, sitting on his high sideline chair to soothe his bad back, two long decades since his debut with the Bulls, is that he remains intrinsically young. He doesn't give off the vibe of a tired old man. He remains intuitive and fresh by working to keep the job simple.
"My concern is with my team," he said. "I watch the tapes of my games, and I let my assistant coaches watch the game tape of other teams. And then I try to understand the strengths and weaknesses, and how we can hide the weaknesses and embellish the strengths of our team. And I stay in tune with my players to that.
"I had to let go of the fact that I couldn't watch everything. At one time I did it in Chicago. I still was trying to work 12 hours a day to watch game tape and watch our own tape. And it gets overwhelming. You do that in the playoffs regardless, but in the regular season, you have to say, 'This is what we can do, and this is what we have to do well.' "
He knows when and how to focus the players' attention. Last Sunday morning, I waited at the Lakers' practice facility as Jackson walked them through their longest pregame shootaround of the year. That night they were playing the Mavericks, the current No. 2 seed in the West who, in October, embarrassed the Lakers with a 94-80 win in Los Angeles. More recently, the Lakers had been playing porous defense in the absence of Artest, but that night they held Dallas to 37.8 percent shooting in a 131-96 rout.
I asked Jackson how he has been able to keep renewing the joy in his work after all of these years. "Going through the first two years of coaching, coming back with this team taught me a lot about that aspect of it," he said of 2005-07, when his young Lakers went 87-77 with a pair of first-round losses in the playoffs. "How to nurture a team through a very difficult time and still come out and be competitive and get to the playoffs and all of that stuff, and know that this is not a championship-caliber team and that I can't demand the same competency from this group of guys that I did from the others."
The trick is to separate the money from the mission of creating a team that pursues goals that are larger than any one man can accomplish by himself. Which, again, is not to pretend that the money doesn't exist. Rather, its influence has a parallel existence all its own.
"Recently a reporter made mention of that," Jackson said of his salary. "I said I may not come back next year; I mean, they may not want to pay a coach to do what I'm doing, and with the NBA and other sports all feeling the pinch from this economy and television and things that all are shrinking, they may have to shrink the coach's salary. And I understand that, and that's why this is a process. But one reporter asked, 'Would you take a pay cut?' And I said back to him, 'Would you?'
"That kind of came off wrong -- it was one of my journalist friends, you know -- not really realizing that newspapers have been hit almost harder than anything else in our society right now. They have taken pay cuts. And we all are going to take a pay cut in the NBA as it goes on."
As with all aspects of Jackson's career, the conversation funnels its way back to the Jordan era, when the money poured in and the growth of the NBA seemed without end.
"The funny thing is that Tex Winter's wife, Nancy Winter, who is a very funny character, used to say, 'Be careful with the goose that laid the golden egg,' which she called Michael Jordan," Jackson said. "You know that the goose may be over at some point in time. We still have a tremendous market and a tremendous appeal. But I do think everything has been shrunken down."
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