Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Phil Jackson for President

He's the only one laid-back enough to coach the Lakers

By Randy Horick

MAY 29, 2000:  Eventually nowadays, all head cases, squirrel nuts, malcontents, and incurable nonconformists in the NBA seem to gravitate to the Los Angeles Lakers. Even more so than their crosstown too-irrelevant-to-be-rivals, the Clippers, this team is basketball's Island of Lost Luggage.

This is my theory anyhow, based upon observation if not pure science. As supporting evidence, I offer the following exhibits Shaquille O'Neal, Cedric Ceballos, Robert Horry, Kobe Bryant, A.C. Green, and, of course, Dennis Rodman. Consider each briefly in turn.

There's Shaq, who, until his MVP performance this season, seemed to function as the world's biggest, slobberiest, most affectionate St. Bernard--a boundless reservoir of bounding, unfocused energy. Like Bill Clinton's attention at a Miss USA contest, Shaq appeared to meander from one interest to the next: hip-hop recordings, movies, cool cars with loud stereos, Shaq Fu, and, somewhere in the midst of everything else, basketball. Or at least the parts of basketball that did not include free-throw shooting.

There's Ceballos, the ex-Laker who once, while momentarily intoxicated with a sense of responsibility, phoned the team's management to let them know he had taken his girlfriend to Lake Havasu City and wouldn't be available for the next couple of games.

Then there's Horry, who's never AWOL but never quite there, either. When he's not remonstrating to the refs about some perceived injustice, he seems to operate on a different plane, or maybe even a different planet, from his teammates.

Kobe, who joined the Lakers as a teenage blank slate, soon came to recognize himself as the Air-Apparent to Michael Jordan, capable of swooping into the lane and converting into 2 points any ball flung in the general direction of the basket.

Green, meanwhile, officially holds the record for most consecutive games played and, unofficially, also owns the marks as the league's oldest virgin, oldest non-pot smoker, and oldest non-pot-smoking virgin. Those last three accomplishments, as laudable as you may find them, definitely set A.C. apart as a free spirit if not some radical subversive.

Do we even need to mention Rodman, whose own well-practiced weirdness seemed to upstage his teammates and therefore disrupted the Lakers' chemical imbalance?

Is this where we hear from Eddie Jones, whose very normalcy supports our thesis? (The Lakers found it necessary to trade him to Charlotte.)

Can you conceive of any position with greater job security than the team psychologist (or battery of psychologists, even) for this bunch?

Surely, you'll say, not every square peg in the NBA has worn the purple-and-electric yellow of the Lakers. But this proves nothing.

If my theory is correct, Rasheed Wallace, whose deportment in front of the refs makes Rodman look like a Promise Keeper, will migrate south from Portland within a few seasons. Likewise, there's still time for John Starks, the world's only portable volcano, to relocate to La-La Land. As for Charles Barkley, Vernon Maxwell, Prince Zandokan of the Planet Lovetron (a.k.a. Darryl Dawkins), Mark Aguirre, and Lloyd "World B." Free, well, they just ran out of time.

I raise this theory not to condemn the Lakers--whose Simpsons-esque chemistry would make them wonderfully entertaining to watch were it not for the noise hazard created by their uniforms. Rather, I offer it to announce my support for their coach, Phil Jackson, as the next president of the United States.

Astute readers may recall that Larry Joe Bird was endorsed in this space not two years ago for the highest office in the land. But the media are nothing if not fickle in favor. And, besides, changing times call for different leaders.

And besides all that, it wasn't until this year, his first with Los Angeles, that Jackson's superb qualifications became apparent.

In Chicago, it was easy to understate Phil's contributions--even though motivating Rodman for two seasons was a labor for which even the gods lacked the audacity to impose on Hercules. After all, didn't those championship teams possess the greatest basketball player in history?

And wasn't Michael like a coach himself, imposing his indomitable competitive spirit upon his teammates?

On the other hand, consider how much those pre-Jackson Bulls resembled the pre-Jackson Lakers: one unstoppable player surrounded by capable supporting characters who, together, never seemed to mesh into anything more than an intriguing pile of parts.

Del Harris, one of the NBA's most successful coaches, proved unable to coax any real consistency out of the Lakers. Even Magic Johnson, who as a player made everyone around him better, threw up his hands in despair after a brief stint as coach of his old team.

Today's players, Magic declared, were selfish, stubborn, and nearly impervious to direction. They can be like the participants in mule races described by William Faulkner, in which the winning mule invariably is the one whose chosen path happens to coincide with that of the track.

The experiences of Harris and Magic illuminate an unhappy truth about today's NBA: For coaches, the most reliable predictor of success is neither knowledge of strategy nor great accomplishments in the collegiate ranks. Just ask John Calipari, whose reputation transformed from genius to dim bulb during his stay in New Jersey. Or ask Rick Pitino, whose miserable Celtic squad no longer even listens to him.

More than anything, coaching in the NBA today demands the skills of someone who, like Mickey Mouse in the famous old cartoon, can conduct an orchestra within the vortex of a tornado. Motivating today's millionaires, at least half of whom see themselves as God's unique gift to basketball, requires a delicate balance between mollycoddling and cajoling. In this league, disciplinarian coaches soon change their styles or come to grief.

If you can't relate to today's players (paging P.J. Carlessimo), you'll find yourself relegated to the broadcaster's booth, or, worse, to coaching the Clippers or Warriors. Which means that, while you don't have to be only a step or two ahead of a straitjacket to coach in the NBA, it probably helps.

Which, of course, means that Jackson stands without equal among the suit boys on the sidelines.

His study of Buddhism makes him the only coach laid-back enough to remain unfazed by Rodman's antics, Shaq's incurable ineptitude at the foul line, and the unending parade of potential distractions presented by the capital of glitz and hype.

Scientists are as yet unable to replicate Jackson's precise formula--otherwise, rival coaches would be setting up their own little ashrams--but somehow his combination of Zen-dude mysticism and teaching of Sioux lore (quick, name one other NBA boss with a White Buffalo shrine) induces his mules to run in the same direction. In Chicago, for example, Jackson helped gain acceptance among the Bulls for Rodman by teaching that Dennis the Menace functioned as a Contrarian, a role that was tolerated and even respected among the Sioux.

Jackson's stunning success with the loopy Lakers makes you naturally wonder: What could this guy do with the even more unmanageable, more egomaniacal cast of blowhards, poseurs, and mountebanks in Washington?

With Phil getting everyone to focus on their karma, I can envision Trent Lott and Bill Clinton embracing as allies. I can imagine a peaceable kingdom in which the lion lies down with the lamb and Tom DeLay lies down, so to speak, with Barney Frank. I can picture the NRA and Million Mom Marchers working civilly.

W. and Al have it all wrong by rushing to the middle. In a culture like this, with movers and shakers who make the Lakers look like the residents of Walton's Mountain, we need somebody who's proudly way off center.

If Phil can't do it, no one can.


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