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Don't call him a rookie. It has been 18 years since Kurt Rambis was a rookie, and no matter how new he is to being a head coach in the postseason, that word doesn't fit him anymore. He's not some nervous newcomer, or he wouldn't have been out on the court at the Great Western Forum on Sunday, just two hours before his playoff debut, as coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, bopping his head to the beat of the Red Hot Chili Peppers as the band rehearsed the national anthem. If Rambis had been any more relaxed, he would have been playing air guitar. "I may not have been through the playoffs in this role before," he said, "but I'm not inexperienced."
After 119 postseason games and four championships in the 1980s as a hardworking forward for the Lakers, Rambis is well acquainted with the pressures of spring in the Forum. But maybe you remember the first time you moved from the backseat of the family car and slid behind the wheel—everything was familiar, yet nothing was quite the same. That's how Rambis has felt since replacing the fired Del Harris on Feb. 26. "The difference is that as a player, you come in, put in your two hours and leave," he says. "As a coach, you never really leave; at least your mind doesn't. One of the things I've learned is to keep a pad of paper near the bed so I can write down ideas that come to me in the middle of the night."
If other thoughts disturb Rambis's sleep—such as how former Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson might replace him—he's not letting on. But it's clear that the playoffs are his job interview, and he made a positive first impression in L.A.'s 101-100 victory over the Houston Rockets in Game 1 of their series. Rambis fought Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich to at least a draw in the strategic wars, designing the play on the Laker's last possession that freed Kobe Bryant, who was fouled by Sam Mack and made the two free throws that provided the winning points. Shaquille O'Neal then blocked rookie guard Cuttino Mobley's layup attempt at the buzzer.
Asked what he was thinking when Mobley drove the lane, Rambis shrugged his shoulders. "I guess I was hoping he'd miss it," he said. He has a self-deprecating way that makes it seem as if he still considers himself a small cog in the Lakers' grand scheme, the mellow fellow in the black-rimmed glasses who grabbed a few key rebounds and set some tough picks for Magic and Kareem, then grabbed his boogie board and headed for Manhattan Beach. But Rambis asserts his authority when necessary. During a timeout in a game against the Vancouver Grizzlies last month, he was so upset with the way LA. was playing that he shattered a clipboard.
There was no need for such a fit during his introduction to coaching in the postseason. "It was what I expected," Rambis said following Game 1. "Challenging, nerve-racking at times, exhilarating at times. Just like every playoff game I've ever been a part of."
Rambis gave a more succinct assessment of his experience when he hugged his son Jesse, 13, outside the locker room after the game. "Did you have fun?" he asked Jesse.
"Yeah," said Kurt. "Absolutely."