O'Neal, the surrogate son, would also be the ideal team commander. First, because the Triangle offense is prejudiced toward the center. But also: O'Neal is 27 now, starting his seventh season, approaching, one assumes, the height of his powers. (Weighing in at 340, well above what Jackson requested, he is indisputably at the breadth of his powers.) Moreover, every prideful instinct should inspire Shaq. He has never won a title, college or pro. He has seen himself surpassed by Tim Duncan, now recognized as the premier player in the NBA, and he surely cannot avoid noticing that even on his own team, the handsome and Peter Pan-ish Bryant has become the popular favorite. Then, too, because Bryant broke a bone in his right hand and will be out for several more weeks, O'Neal is provided with another opportunity to assume leadership.
Jackson, the white father, chooses these two interesting words to describe how he has found O'Neal: endearing and respectful. But he adds bluntly, "Yes, Shaquille would be the obvious choice, but because of his free throw situation, he can't be the leader."
You mean Wilt Chamberlain, scoring 35 or more a game, could never have been a leader of a team of yours?
"That's right. Look, you've got to deliver in the clutch if you're going to be the leader, and if you can't make free throws...."
Have you told Shaquille this?
(Pause.) "No, not yet."
Still, to coach the Lakers was a challenge Jackson couldn't pass up. He was offered the chance to prove himself outside of sport—"a real job, not a celebrity thing," he says—by running the campaign of his old friend and teammate, Bill Bradley, in Iowa, the crucial caucus state. He adores Bradley. "He's a man I respect in so many ways," Jackson says. "He's so compassionate—to humanity, to society in general. Bill is so smart. He can see things coming." And you?
"Well, yes, I'd like to think I'm good at that, too."
So he turned down serious politics to take the $6 million per because he foresaw that, yes, he could restore the Lakers to glory. "This is the right place for me," he says. "I believe they're a group of players who want to get there but don't know quite how. But I'm no savior. They have to be the savior of themselves." Jackson knows, though, that if he can't point the Lakers toward their salvation, he risks being remembered primarily as that attractive eccentric of a coach whom Michael Jordan carried to six championships. Surely, if this team fails him, Jackson can see that thing coming, too.
Jackson's devotion to Team goes beyond the usual coach's halftime platitudes. As a boy in North Dakota, teams were his social salvation. This was because he was not just a PK—a preacher's kid—but twice that, the child of two Pentecostal ministers. Jackson was raised in such a strict home that he did not see a movie till he was a senior in high school. But for all their piety, his parents encouraged their three sons to engage in their own updated form of old-fashioned Muscular Christianity. "Competition was an outlet for me, so I masked my aggression in the other aspects of life," Jackson says. In fact, while other Dakota boys camped before the TV on the long winter nights, Phil and his older brothers engaged in heated board games: Rook, Chinese checkers, Scrabble, chess and a game known as Caroms, which was delicately called "Christian pool." Even now, Phil's wife, June, refuses to play such simple games with him because he performs so intensely, so rudely.