June Jackson calls them her champagne shoes, the woven espadrille flats she wore at L.A.'s Great Western Forum 19 years ago, when she had no idea what she was stepping into. The shoes were christened that night, when the Bulls bested the Lakers and her husband collected his first championship as an NBA coach. But instead of buying a new pair she just kept slipping them on every spring as the bubbly chilled and another title appeared imminent. Through 10 damp celebrations, a move to L.A., even a divorce a decade ago, the shoes remained. Stains told the stories of games won and parties conquered.
Last Thursday night, after championship number 11, Lakers coach Phil Jackson strode into his private lounge at Staples Center, which is really just a spare locker room with black curtains covering the walls and 10 bar stools scattered about. The room was filled with children and grandchildren, sons- and daughters-in-law, pizza boxes and popcorn bowls. One of Jackson's twin sons, Charley, raised a glass of Moët. "Here's to another one," he said, and June kicked up her champagne shoes.
The family began to tick off all the nights they had gathered like this, impromptu reunions across the country, and the giddiness that ensued. The time Phil rolled down the window of his car leaving the United Center and yelled at the Chicago sky, "We are the champions!"; the time his middle daughter, Chelsea, went swimming with her friends in the fountain at the town square in Deerfield, Ill.; the time they shot pool until morning at the Harbor Room in Playa del Rey, Calif. They tried to match moments with years, but struggled to find a consensus. There had been, if possible, too many titles.
"When he first won I was 16," Chelsea says. "Now I'm 35. I've spent my entire adult life doing this."
In the sports world it is the recurring harbinger of summer, Jackson standing in another locker room with another commemorative cap on his head, Chelsea having bent the brim "so he doesn't look like a nerd." The scene is reassuring in its familiarity, as if a permanent date on the NBA calendar.
His 11th title seemed the stuff of routine—once again he had the best team and the best player—and yet at the end it was anything but.
The week the playoffs began, Jackson made a decision that would spur the Lakers to Game 7 of the Finals: Kobe Bryant would no longer have to practice. He stood in his black sweatsuit next to his coach and rested the ankle, finger and knee that had bothered him for months. Some assistant coaches worried that the players would lose their timing, since Bryant is the one who handles the ball the most, but Jackson understands better than anyone the value of a superstar at full strength.
Bryant erupted for 32.0 points per game in a second-round sweep of Utah. He averaged 33.7 in the Western Conference finals against Phoenix. He hit the 30-point threshold three times in the Finals against Boston. But with his heart racing in Game 7, his legs finally gave out and Jackson had to find another answer. "I was on E," Bryant said.
Jackson's friends like to joke that he could be in the middle of a tsunami and look no different than he does on the bench in the fourth quarter of a playoff game, sitting perfectly still in his padded orthopedic chair, a twinkle in his eye, a bemused smile across his face, "displaying the royalty of a king," says mentor and former coach Bill Fitch. But a Finals Game 7 would test even the Dalai Lama's composure, and despite Jackson's unparalleled success in June, last Thursday was the first Game 7 he had coached with a title on the line.
That it came against the Celtics, two years to the day after they vanquished the Lakers from the Finals with a 39-point thrashing, only added to the emotional onslaught. Jackson spent the summer of 2008 in a foul mood, thanks to Boston, even mentioning to girlfriend and Lakers executive Jeanie Buss that the Hall of Fame featured a disproportionate amount of Celtics memorabilia. Jackson is not driven by revenge, but the rivalry was stirring within him.