Lakers: The Servant of the Cause

He has an NBA ring for every finger. He loves to win but appreciates the lessons of losing. He solves problems by not solving them. Phil Jackson in 33 takes


1. PJ
At 56 He speaks of matters he has lately experienced. “The luster of watching your hair recede.” “Beginning to see the end of who you are.” “This light my mother had about her just before she died.” Each is or was, he says, “a very interesting process to watch.”

Note the usage: process, with its suggestion of inevitability; the clinical ring of interesting. Do not expect him to linger on the tyranny of limits. What engages him is possibility. That’s the way it’s always been. At 56, a man is who he is.

PJ considers a double vodka straight up, orders vodka with cranberry juice. It’s nearing midnight. He feels as worn as his sweater but doesn’t dwell on this.

On the next bar stool, Steve Kerr nurses a club soda. Kerr played on PJ’s Bulls during the championship runs of ’96, ’97, ’98. He’s the all-time three-point shooter, blond, blue-eyed, a white American in a sport where whites are generally coaches or Eastern Europeans. Like PJ, Kerr views the game with a certain impartiality despite his devotion to it or, perhaps, because of it. He now plays for the Portland Trail Blazers, the Lakers’ nemesis and the team that will beat them tomorrow.

PJ asks about Kerr’s children. He hasn’t seen them in a while but remembers names, ages, hobbies. Kerr’s oldest son plays basketball, PJ is delighted. How tall is he? he asks. Is he a shooter? It’s a conversation between friends but not equals. Even in a hotel bar, PJ does not—possibly cannot—relinquish the standing of teacher.

Someone taps PJ’s shoulder. It’s Bill Walton, sports analyst, former thorn in the side of the Knicks teams PJ played on in the 1970s. Walton’s presence stirs PJ’s competitive juices. But then, they are easily stirred.

“What sign are you?” PJ asks.

“Virgo,” says Walton. “What are you?”

“I don’t have a sign,” says PJ.

PJ recounts the night he scored 24 points for the Nets.

“I didn’t remember you played for New Jersey,” says Walton.

“Another night,” says PJ, “I went for a steal and missed. They took the ball down fast and scored on the other end.”

Yes, he still is chewing over a botched play from the 1970s. This amazes Kerr but doesn’t surprise him. That’s Phil, he thinks. Ten championship rings, and he’s pissed off by a missed steal in an unimportant game, 30 years ago.

Player, New York Knicks (1967-78). Player/Assistant Coach, New Jersey Nets (1978-80). Head Coach, CBA Albany Patroons (1982-87). Head Coach, Chicago Bulls (1989-98). Head Coach, Los Angeles Lakers (1999-present).

AS PLAYER: Two championships. AS COACH: Best record in regular season (Bulls, 1995-96). Best record in post-season (Lakers, 2000-01). Highest career winning percentage. Only coach to win multiple championships with two different teams. Eight championships, second only to storied coach Red Auerbach of the Boston Celtics.

PERSONAL: Two marriages, five children, twice divorced.

He makes his way from the isolation of the coaches room through the tunnel that leads to the Staples Center court. He looks neither left nor right. People strain across railings, reach out to slap hands, to touch him. He does not want to be touched. At this juncture, it can only deplete his energy.

If this gives offense, so be it. His fate is to be lionized by some, pilloried by others, granted no turf in the middle ground. They say: He is a genius, an inspirational leader. They say: He is the naked emperor leading the parade, purporting to be covered in finery.

Reporters tend to dislike him because he tends to dislike them. It’s not that he ignores them; he doesn’t seem to see them. He addresses them when he must: before games and after, often with the resigned, dutiful air of a man seasoning a meal he has no interest in eating.

Still, the press can suit his purposes. Tell them Kobe is pushing too hard or that Shaq isn’t pushing hard enough, and they will dispense the information, creating awareness of the problem among the public and the players. The press resents being used but cannot show their resentment, which they also resent.

His first season in Los Angeles, the Lakers play on Christmas Day He meets with the press, does not wish them Merry Christmas. On Mother’s Day he greets them by saying, “Happy Mother’s Day to all you mothers.”

The Laker players he most often seeks out are Brian Shaw and Rick Fox. Both are veterans known for being fair-minded, centered, perceptive.

Shaw: “He’s not just giving us basketball knowledge. He opens up all kinds of areas. You come to practice thinking, What’s he going to teach me, what’s he going to show me?”

Fox: “He shows men how to be men. What I picked up is that having control over myself, having a focus, a growth process, translates into being a better basketball player. No coach ever told me that. No coach ever took the time to know me. Look at all the guys who’ve played on his teams. They seem to be on a greater plane mentally That’s because he gives them a greater understanding of themselves.”

Shaw: “When he was having us do yoga and tai chi, everybody kind of looked at each other at first and said, He’s crazy. Then you see it’s broadening your horizons. Then you get a 16-game winning streak, and everybody’s saying, Damn, he does know what he’s talking about.

He eats Chinese food, listens to bluegrass, plays Scrabble on the beach. He cooks. He reads constantly, mostly contemporary fiction. He is not interested in parties, premieres, and other staples of the local scene. Can the term “homebody” apply to a man who spends weekends, holidays, and at least 82 nights a year in a packed arena? If so, PJ is a homebody

Then there is Jeanie, whom he has in mind when saying, “It’s nice to have someone to share life with.” Jeanie Buss is the Lakers’ executive vice president of business operations. Also the daughter of Dr. Jerry Buss, the team’s owner.

When PJ joins the Lakers, the attraction is instant. She’s charmed, but smart and experienced enough to be a bit wary of a man newly separated from his wife. “You know in that situation,” she says, “that this person’s heart is not fully there.” The liaison, in conventional terms, is dicey. Before asking her out, PJ asks for Dr. Buss’s blessing.

There is about Jeanie a sunniness, which he admires but does not possess. During games she sits across the court in his line of vision. He wants to be able to see her.

“What I bring to him,” she says, “is that my feelings for him are unconditional. I understand the business he’s in. I’ve seen couples get eaten up by this industry The relationships are intense, then the other party leaves for a week. And then you’ve got to get back together and get back to where you were, but then they leave again. It causes a lot of turmoil. What makes us work is that I really just want to make his life as simple as possible. Things that can be made simple.

“I just like to hear him laugh. He’s just so kissable and lovable. And I don’t think anyone really ever told him that.”

Minutes before a game they are observed kissing in the tunnel. At this juncture, it can only increase his energy

He bakes cookies. Kitchen drawers open; measuring spoons, cups, eggs, and sugar materialize on counters. Can it be that baking is an antidote to uncertainty in general and the uncertainty of coaching in particular? He prepares a batter, adds ingredients by half cups and quarter teaspoons. Coaching has no such formula. In many respects it is impervious to laws of cause and effect. Use the finest ingredients with the greatest care and still you cannot predict the outcome. He likes that, of course. Ultimately; the formulaic is tedious. Perhaps that is why he improvises with mixed batter, tossing into it, in unspecified quantities, nuts, raisins, oatmeal, chocolate chips.

“He’s a paradox.”

As proof Kerr cites the Bulls’ motto: Never take less than success, yet don’t let success go to your head.

He cites the saying PJ posted in the team room: Treat your job and every day at work as if the fate of the world depended on it, but remember that nobody cares.

“He’s obsessed with basketball,” Kerr says, “yet doesn’t let it consume him.” But because PJ is a paradox, Kerr also recalls the satellite dish he installed outside his home in Chicago. “He’d come to practice and ask stuff like, `Did any of you guys see that Clippers-Vancouver game last night?’ We’d look at him like, You gotta be kidding.”

He believes that people operate from a basic premise. He calls these premises “baseboards.”

PJ’s baseboard: being raised in rural North Dakota by a mother and father who were ministers in the Pentecostal church. Pentecostals speak in tongues, believe this signifies possession by the Holy Spirit. They do not drink, smoke, dance, watch movies or television. They believe the day of judgment is imminent.

“My mother had this message,” he says. “It was a Second Coming message. When I was just a wee little kid, Israel became a state. This meant the Rapture was close. We were warned to be watchful, ready.”

He came home from school one afternoon and found no one there. He was sure the Rapture had taken place, that his parents and two brothers had ascended to heaven and left him alone on the imperfect earth.

“There’s the religion. The severity of it.

“There’s the austerity about life. The workman-like approach that my parents had to it. You work real hard to do what you have to do.

“There’s the fact that my parents gave their lives over to a cause. So your family’s dedicated to it, you’re dedicated to it. Your own needs don’t matter. You’re taught to be a servant of the cause.

“Those are the overwhelming things.”

He is an outsider, a preacher’s kid. His activities are the few his church deems wholesome: school plays, orchestra, choir, also sports and reading. Basketball and baseball allow him to enter the bounds of normalcy Reading allows him to exceed those bounds.

“By sixth grade I was taking books out of the library two or three times a week. Books became a reality to me.

“Books that mattered were Hemingway—The Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bell Tolls, such a difficult book to read. The Catcher in the Rye. Those books opened up a sense of wonderment. Abortion. I had never thought of the concept of abortion.”

Anatomy is fate. In high school PJ grows to six foot six. Later he grows two more inches. He’s so skinny his classmates call him “Bones.” He is athletic. Agile. Has remarkably long arms. He wants to get out of Williston, North Dakota. “I was always looking off to other areas,” he says. “New York City would be an experience I couldn’t wait to have.”

He wins a basketball scholarship to the University of North Dakota. In his junior year he averages 21.8 points a game. He’s team captain, two-time All-American.

He reads two novels by the Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis: “Zorba the Greek is about breaking free, about a guy who’s controlled by his religious background. That this guy could live life so riotously was astounding. The Last Temptation of Christ opened up a door to understanding the human side of Christ, the man who lived expressively, instinctively.”

What must Zorba’s cry “To dance!” convey to a young man to whom dancing is forbidden. What hope does Christ’s spontaneity represent to a young man who has had to suppress every impulse.

“By my religion, by my background, I had so many ideas ingrained in me. To break free, it took more than just living free like Zorba.”

He graduates in 1967. He’s drafted by the Knicks, the 17th pick overall. At last he’s in New York City. Yet breaking free produces a certain ambivalence. When he stops playing basketball, he tells his coach, he’s going to be a minister.

He comes off the bench, plays an energetic game. He’s not much of a scorer, but he’s quick and tough enough to be nicknamed “Action Jackson.” He likes rebounding and shot-blocking, things that help the team but get less attention than scoring.

PJ is quite a sight. He has bad teeth, a fuzzy beard. He yearns to be part of his generation, to do what he’s never done: belong. He lives in a loft, has a Spiro Agnew dartboard. He opposes the war in Vietnam, practices yoga, describes his game as “rolling with the flow.” Still. The counterculture’s excesses make him uneasy His shoulder-length hair makes his teammates uneasy. In the era’s parlance, belonging is not his thing.

“The fight I had as a Christian, when I stayed inside the Christian domain, is that it’s so overwhelmed with guilt, your sins, and your crude sins. We missed out on the grace aspect, which is what the Christ brought. It’s the same thing with Buddhism. It’s not asceticism. Buddhism is compassion. Christ is grace and love. I thought, these are the illuminating lights of East/West culture, the liberation from all these thousands of years of a belief structure that’s about guilt and punishment. That really made sense to me. So that’s how I came to the idea that I could be a Zen Christian.”

The Knicks’ coach, Red Holzman, is wise, fabled. PJ asks him, “How do you see the whole game?”

Holzman is not asked this question often. After games, he takes to asking PJ, “What did you see?”

PJ sees plenty. He sees that Holzman’s player and ball movement and emphasis on defense propel the Knicks to two championships. He sees that Holzman’s credo of team unity elevates basketball into something more than a game. When a back injury sidelines him for a season, he becomes Holzman’s unofficial assistant. “You could coach this game,” Holzman tells him.

Eleven years go by. It is time to let go of his life as a player. He grapples with the painful, predictable process he will call “the death of the professional athlete.” He considers becoming a lawyer or a professor of philosophy or religion. A career guidance test affirms his aptitude in these areas; it also notes he’d do well as a trail guide or a homemaker.

In the end, it’s all beside the point. “The game kept calling me back,” he says.

PJ interviews to be an assistant to the Bulls’ head coach, Stan Albeck. He shows up in a garish shirt, a Panama hat with a feather protruding from the brim. Albeck passes. The Nets’ coach, Larry Brown, also passes.

It seems that PJ’s bohemian bent is too, well, bohemian for the NBA. The Continental Basketball Association, the sport’s minor league, is a different story He signs on with the Albany Patroons, makes $26,000 a year, wins a championship. He waits for someone to recognize that what qualifies him to be a coach are the same idiosyncrasies that make people think he’s not NBA material. He waits for five years. The person who recognizes this is Jerry Krause, general manager of the Chicago Bulls. PJ is hired as an assistant coach. It’s 1987. The Bulls are recruiting gifted players to serve as planets revolving around the sun that is the 24-year-old Michael Jordan.

Scottie Pippen is in his rookie year. He’s worked hard, made his way out of the rural South. He’s introverted, doesn’t trust easily Like his teammates, he’s leery of the head coach, Doug Collins. “He would come in the locker room at halftime,” says Pippen, “looking like he played the whole first half. Take his jacket off. Be soaking wet. Screamed at everybody on the court. Except for Michael.”

PJ at 42 is the Un-Collins, prematurely tranquil and wise. He’s assigned to work with Pippen. “Soon as I laid eyes on him,” says Pippen, “we had an automatic bond.” PJ plays one-on-one with him to refine his shooting. He gives Pippen an understanding of the game: how to discern the moment of truth, how to get the whole picture right in front of you. PJ asks him, “What are you thinking? How can you help the team?” He asks the question Holzman asked him: “What do you see?” Like PJ before him, Pippen sees plenty.

Pippen will cherish this training. “It’s one of those things,” he says, “that you can’t put a price on.” He will go on to be one of the greatest players in the game.

It’s 1989. Collins has lost the ear of his players. PJ gets the job. He wonders if he’s ready to coach an NBA team.

He instills toughness of mind, collective attitude; he teaches yoga, meditation, breathing together. His great strength is knowing his weaknesses. He’s not an accomplished offensive coach. His assistant coach Tex Winter is. Winter developed a system known as the mangle offense. It calls for sharing the ball, passing to the open man. It’s an egalitarian system that animates PJ’s concept of a team as a community of players; He calls the triangle “five-man tai chi.” For a coach who sees the game as an act of body, spirit, and mind, it’s the ideal system.

“I watch him during the regular season. He’ll ruin the same play the whole quarter. I can tell that he’s not going to show anything to the other team. He’s just baiting those guys. He cares whether we win or lose. But he’ll even tell you sometimes it’s not best to win right now. When he’s trying to win a game, he dictates the whole action.

“A lot of coaches have the focus: I gotta make the play-offs or make the second round. He coaches the regular season with the mentality of: I gotta find out who responds well to what situations.

“This game is about setting your opponent up to think they can stop you a certain way So he’ll call a solo to Shaq, which is just dump the ball in to Shaq. We’ll run 20, 30 percent of the game solo. It’s laughable. Because all he does in the locker room and at practice is scream about how we can’t just dump the ball in to Shaq. Other teams get a false sense of security. They think, Oh we got it figured out now. Then you come out in the play-offs and just blitz them, and they’re going, What happened? We thought we had it figured out.”

It’s 1991. The Bulls make it to the finals. Their opponent is Magic Johnson’s Lakers. The Lakers think they’ve got it figured out. “The pressure’s on,” says PJ. “You’re not supposed to win. Don’t play that way Go out there and seize it.”

It’s a best-of-seven series. It’s tied at 1-1 when the Bulls arrive in Los Angeles for three games.

At the start of the series PJ tells Jordan to look for John Paxson, a three-point shooter who’s getting open when Jordan draws a double team. Instead, Jordan does it all himself, forgets his teammates. They win game three, game four. They’re one win away from the title. In game five, with six minutes left, they’re down by one. PJ calls, “Who’s open, Michael?”

Jordan ignores him.

“Who’s open?” PJ calls. It’s turning into a showdown, which PJ generally avoids. Especially with a brilliant, impetuous player known to retaliate when backed into a corner.

PJ calls again, “Michael, who’s open?”

“Pax,” says Jordan.

Then get him the fucking ball.

Jordan gets Pax the fucking ball. Paxson scores ten points in four minutes. In the final seconds, with the Bulls up by two, Jordan gets the ball. He doesn’t head to the basket. He moves across the court. PJ wonders what he’s doing. He realizes he’s looking for Paxson. He finds him. Paxson hits a three. PJ becomes one of nine men in NBA history to win rings for coaching and for playing.

“That kid is a great coach,” says Red Holzman.

It’s 1994. Jordan is on his baseball sabbatical. Pippen and the Bulls’ center, Bill Cartwright, carry the team through the regular season. Pippen helps and encourages other players. PJ’s pride in him is, he says, “almost parental.” Going into the play-offs, Pippen is a leading contender for league MVP.

The Bulls and the Knicks are tied 102-102 at the end of the third game of the Eastern Conference finals. With 26.6 seconds to play, PJ calls a play for Pippen.

“I said, `Take the clock all the way down. Shoot the shot at the end of the buzzer. Whatever happens, the Knicks won’t have recourse.’ So Scottie was taking the ball down, and we cleared the side out. But Toni Kukoc ran back into the cleared side, which meant that Scottie had to back out and shoot a three that didn’t hit the basket. So now the Knicks had two and a half seconds. They scored in two seconds. We had six-tenths of a second to play. Toni’s screwup had cost us what Scottie thought was a win. I designed the last play for Toni, and that put Scottie over the edge.”

The Bulls head onto the court. Pippen refuses to go back to the game. PJ is staggered. He can’t believe it. He turns to his assistant coach Jim Cleamons. “What do I do?” he asks.

“Fuck him. We play without him,” says Cleamons.

Kukoc makes the shot. The Bulls win. Pippen has relinquished his claim to be MVP.

PJ knows Pippen must be called to account. But who should confront him? “Players expect to be confronted by their Coach. Their defenses are already walled in. They’re ready to reject what you have to say.”

In the locker room Bill Cartwright is sobbing. All season he’s preached unity and teamwork, the principles that Pippen violated. “I can’t believe he did that,” Cartwright is saying.

PJ decides that the resolution of this situation must be left to Pippen’s peers. He tells the team that Pippen must answer to them. Before he leaves the locker room, he gathers all the players together and leads them in the Lord’s Prayer.

PJ is of the players’ world but not part of it. This is as it ought to be. They are all ballplayers, a natural bond, but he cannot allow this to interfere with his objectivity, his need to get the job done. “If you’re in this basketball life, you can’t just cry because somebody broke their leg or got left in battle. You’ve got to go on. That’s just part of it.”

Coaching is not without occupational’ hazards. “Through the pressures of the job,” says Jeanie, “he really built a wall around himself.”

He grows accustomed to the wall, feels—perhaps—safe behind it, takes it other places. Has PJ read Robert Frost on the subject of walls? “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out.”

Or are the dangers inherent in walls of interest only to poets?

One spring PJ’s youngest daughter writes a poem about him. “I’m home and the play-offs were on, and her high school graduation was coming, and she makes a comment, and I say, `Oh, that’s nice, dear,’ and walk out of the room. I was probably thinking about how I could play the screen-and-roll against the Knicks. I couldn’t be there in the moment with her. That poem cut through everything. It was very painful.”

It’s 1998. He knows a lot about winning. This is his time to learn about loss.

After 20 years, his second marriage is fragmenting. His 11-year tenure with the Bulls has soured. Some of this is his fault; some comes with the territory The NBA life is tough on wives. The Bulls’ general manager, Jerry Krause, begrudges PJ his legend, bandies about the slogan “Management wins championships.”

PJ calls his team together for a farewell ceremony In seven years they have won six NBA titles. He asks them to write a few words about what being on the team has meant. One by one, they read them. They do what guys don’t do: They say they love each other. When they finish their testimonials, they burn them in a coffee can.

For the first time in 16 years PJ is not coaching. The servant has no cause. His players wonder what will happen to him. “He doesn’t just love the game,” says Steve Kerr, “he depends on it, really.”

After years of cheering, PJ is left to silence. The silence prompts him to seek deeper silence. “I spent a month at a monastery,” he says. “I didn’t make it through. Actually, the relationship with my wife was in such a place that it was too difficult for me to settle in.”

In the next months he considers feelers from several teams. His wife’s reaction is unambiguous. “It let me know that if I went back to coaching, that would make it difficult for our relationship to continue.”

For years PJ has had to have the answers for his players. He would speak of the value of recognizing feelings and sharing them. And yet: “When someone had a conflict with me,” he says, “if they asked, `What do you feel?’ I would come up pretty empty.”

Had you asked what he wanted, he would have said “to emotionally connect, to listen, love, converse, care.” Does he lack the vitality to bring these desires into being? “I guess,” he says, “when you’re in the heat of a breakup situation all those things are in doubt.”

PJ has things to do but has no purpose. He does organizing for Bill Bradley’s presidential campaign, gives motivational talks. “The inactivity was just so stifling,” he says. “It was almost a matter of not paying allegiance to a way of life, to a gift I have that, if not used, would be atrophied.”

Note the almost, a qualifier orphaned in a phrase that is otherwise unequivocal.

PJ gets an offer from the Lakers. He knows what it will cost him. He also knows that he can’t live without a goal, a passion. Before leaving for Los Angeles, he takes his twin sons fishing in Alaska; the trip gives him hope that his children will not be lost to him. His marriage is another story

“I invited my wife to join me in Los Angeles if she wanted to.” She doesn’t want to.

His sorrow is pervasive. He will learn from it as he has learned, in the game, from loss of another sort. What is the precise cause of his sorrow? Does he grieve because of what he has lost or because, in the end, he was willing to lose it? He drives to Los Angeles from Montana, listening to a tape his daughters made for him. It’s filled with songs about loving again, starting over. Somewhere in the Sierra Nevada, he pulls off the road and cries.

In time he will say of his wife, “She was right about not joining me.”

The Lakers he inherits are a morass of underachievement, of egos either too bruised or too assertive. He is the morass’s designated savior, contracted for five years to perform miracles at the annual rate of $6 million.

He’s come to the Lakers an NBA legend, has kids older than Kobe Bryant. With the Bulls it was different: He grew up with those guys. The first day of training camp he challenges each player. Shaq needs to work harder; Kobe needs to mature; Glen Rice needs to get in shape; Robert Horry needs to get back to the level he played on with the championship Houston Rockets.

There’s just one problem: The players are gazing at the ceiling, at the floor, fiddling with their fingers. The most intellectual coach in the NBA has, it appears, unwittingly signed on to give remedial courses. “Stop what you’re doing,” he says. “Check your breath. Focus on what I’m saying.”

The Lakers go 67-15 in the regular season. They make it to the 1999-2000 Western Conference finals. Their opponent is the Portland Trail Blazers.

The Blazers’ new forward is Scottie Pippen. They’re counting on Pippen to get them to the finals, though no player knows better that championships are not won by a single man. Even Jordan did not win with the Bulls, Pippen would say on occasion, until he and Phil got there. Now it has come full circle: The coach and his pupil are about to vie for their first ring without Jordan.

The series goes to game seven. In the fourth quarter the Blazers are up by 15. The prize is within Pippen’s grasp. The Lakers surge. The Blazers are drained. Pippen fouls out. As the clock winds down he stands on the sidelines, rueful, suddenly defeated, as if making of himself a sacrificial offering. He is fierce, yes, not lacking in killer instinct. But there is in him a quality seen rarely in great athletes, something raw, even poetic, that has always intrigued PJ and moved him.

In sports each game ends in a small death and a small victory On this night the father wins by killing the son. This is not the ending PJ would have chosen. He made no secret when he came to the Lakers that Pippen was the player he most wanted for the team.

“Yes,” says Pippen, “we wanted each other.”

“My mother had a style that was unique. Hats were in when I was a kid. She made her own hats out of a variety of things. One day we were out driving. My father hit a pheasant on the road. She made him go back and get the pheasant. It was a male bird. Its feathers were brilliant, beautiful. She made them into a hat, sort of a skullcap. She had that ability to turn something that we look at as a shame into something beautiful and meaningful.”

The last year of his mother’s life was also the year his leading players feuded, the year he witnessed the dispiriting sight of his team imploding. When they resurrected themselves, it was in large measure because of what he gave them: room to learn from error, the understanding that their chances for victory were equal to the vigor with which they fused themselves into a community. When they came together at the last breath of the season, their game was an exercise in flow and harmony Their eventual victory was a triumph of spirit.

You see that he is his mother’s son. He, too, has the ability to turn something that we look at as a shame into something of meaning and beauty.

PJ maintains that players are coachable only when they have some success and some failure. The two-time World Champion Lakers begin the 2001-2002 season with seven straight wins.

“What was a great streak,” says PJ’s agent, Todd Musburger.

“Yes,” says PJ, “and I’m damn happy it’s over.”

The season is oddly quiet. Events are difficult to interpret, elusive, as if played out underwater. There is, it seems, a hangover from the drama of last season’s Bryant-O’Neal colloquy This year’s Lakers are subdued, chastened; they are in drama recovery Early on, O’Neal flirts with old ways, hints of problems between PJ and himself, then abandons the topic. Perhaps he thinks better of it; perhaps he realizes that, weeks after September 11, nobody cares about the complaints of a man in reasonable health making more than $20 million a year.

The Lakers are a different team. Gone are Horace Grant and Ron Harper, grown men in a man’s game, the last of PJ’s Chicago Bulls to play for the Lakers. Without them, something is missing. The team is preoccupied with personal matters: O’Neal by an arthritic toe, Bryant by a new marriage, Horry by the limitations of a body that looks, PJ will say, “like it belongs to three different people.” They beat good teams, lose to every bottom dweller in the league. Often they seem bored by the regular season.

Bryant and O’Neal lash out at demons, real and imagined. Fists fly; technical fouls are assessed, suspensions levied. They demonstrate solidarity, wearing, on jerseys and sneakers, their ousted comrade’s number. This signals an obvious change. Other changes are less visible. Last season PJ gave Bryant a book, Corelli’s Mandolin, the story of an Italian soldier who falls in love and ceases to be an outsider. PJ gives books to all of his players. They are his way of saying I know who you are and what matters to you. Bryant’s novel suited a young man raised in Italy, about to get married, and resistant to the community of the team. “You know I’m not going to read it, man,” Bryant said at the time.

PJ got the message. “He doesn’t want anyone else’s ideas to penetrate his mind,” he said.

O’Neal’s book for last season, Siddhartha, is about the redemptive power of choosing love over hatred. O’Neal read it reluctantly “Why does Phil keep giving me these Harvard books?” he asked. “He knows I don’t have a big vocabulary.”

That was then. Midway into the season O’Neal takes a swing at the Bulls’ Brad Miller, gets ejected from the game. He waits for the team on the bus. While he waits, he reads this year’s book from PJ, a classic work about man’s spiritual liberation: Steppenwolf. Later he follows PJ’s suggestion to write a book report. It is, says PJ, among the best book reports he’s ever gotten.

This year he gave Bryant Ishmael, a novel that divides humankind into tribes called “Leavers” and “Takers.” “He responded to it,” says PJ.

“In the beginning,” says Brian Shaw, “you saw Kobe fighting Phil all the time. Then he started to get it. Now he believes in it. It gives you a warm feeling when you see that change.”

“Being a new person in a new place, being a single father of five kids, I had to reach out, connect, offer my place as a place to come visit. Now I’ve ended up with two kids living with me. It’s really wild. My kids are always coming out to visit me. Maybe it’s not me. L.A.’s a great place to visit. The reconnection gave me a lot of confidence … in my ability as a father, in my ability to do things I didn’t think I could: emotionally connect, listen, love, converse, care, those type of things.

“I know how I feel now. I’ve been able to identify my feelings. And I know that being cool is a lot of times just to compensate for what we really don’t have as a male, and that’s the emotional equipment. My players are into being warriors on the court and mentally cool off it. I tell them, `That’s okay As long as you know that you want to know more about how you feel. You’ll find your emotional center later on in life.'”

33. PJ AT 56
He never planned to coach past the age of 60. Months into the 2001-2002 season he says he will retire in two years when his contract expires. Days later he says he would stay in certain circumstances. Either way, the end is in sight.

If he chooses to go, what can we say of him? We can say that his abiding victory is, finally, not the kind calculated in statistics. The victory is that his life has become what the game has been for him all along: “a liberating exercise,” as he calls it, “a cathartic occupation.” And should he choose to go, we can say of him what he now says of Michael Jordan.

“He proved himself. He doesn’t have to come back if he doesn’t want to.”

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