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Why Is This Man Smiling?
Jack McCallum
June 28, 2004
It wasn't Phil Jackson who decided that his stint as the Lakers' coach was over. But the ringmaster was happy to leave the circus behind
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June 28, 2004

Why Is This Man Smiling?

It wasn't Phil Jackson who decided that his stint as the Lakers' coach was over. But the ringmaster was happy to leave the circus behind

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It is, when you think about it, a Machiavellian masterpiece. Kobe Bryant engineered a coup that has resulted in the departure of one of the greatest coaches of all time and a trade demand from one of the greatest centers of all time. And Kobe himself may not be a Los Angeles Laker next season—or even be a free citizen.

Truly the Lakers are a mess, and at week's end the top candidate to straighten things out was the battle-tested Rudy Tomjanovich, who was scheduled to interview for the coaching vacancy on Tuesday. In 11 years as a player and 12 as a head coach, Rudy T., 55, has seen it all, his vision sometimes blurred, the result of having his face rearranged by a punch from Kermit Washington in 1977. Tomjanovich also battled back from bladder cancer in 2003. And after many years of drinking, smoking and caffeining, he has given up alcohol, cigarettes and coffee. Maybe coaching in that purple-and-gold nuthouse wouldn't be so hard for him.

The problem for the next Lakers coach is this: Phil Jackson, who negotiated the impermanent truce between Kobe and Shaq that produced three championships in five seasons, made the job look easy.

To Lakers owner Jerry Buss, however, Bryant is the sun around which all else revolves, and Bryant wanted no more of a coach who wouldn't make him the focus of the offense. So poof goes Jackson, despite having the highest winning percentage of all time and despite his romantic relationship with Buss's daughter, Jeanie, a Lakers exec. O'Neal resented the power that Bryant had within the organization and last week demanded that Los Angeles unload his 7'1", 345-pound body and his $29 million salary. General manager Mitch Kupchak, no doubt speaking for Buss, said he would cast out a line with Shaq as bait. Don't think he won't get some nibbles. Indiana or Dallas could come up with a package of players to entice Kupchak.

Bryant, of course, could still draw jail time if he's convicted in his felony sexual assault case, or he could bolt to another team via free agency. On top of that, an injured Karl Malone has also decided to become a free agent and might not be back (which is a problem), and Gary Payton has apparently decided not to become a free agent and may very well be back (which is also a problem). It's no wonder that Jackson was wearing a sly smile after the 100-87 Game 5 loss that eliminated the Lakers on June 15. He hadn't yet met with Buss, but he seemed to know that it was over.

"If that was your last game, Phil, you'll be missed," I told him outside the locker room. "Sports has been dumbed down enough without losing guys like you."

"I appreciate that," he said. He ambled away stiffly—perhaps he'll go for those hip replacements now—and still smiling.

Jackson no doubt felt it was time to leave. Coaching years are like dog years, particularly when you spend your days and nights deconstructing the psyches of superstars as squirrelly as Bryant and O'Neal. Jackson looks older than his 58 years. Winning three championships with this bunch wasn't nearly as much fun as winning six with the Bulls. His relationship with Shaq, his principal Lakers ally, wasn't nearly as close as the one he had with Michael Jordan, and he had almost no relationship with Bryant.

Jackson told me six weeks ago that he would not coach another team next season if he wasn't a Laker. But he also talked of being a " Pete Newell type," referring to the NBA big-man instructor who has consulted for several teams. After he chills for a year, Jackson will be presented with many options, from coaching to general guru-ing. Probably any of them will look more attractive than what he's walking away from now.