It is Jackson, not Jordan, who smooths Bulls' ride

THE BALTIMORE SUN

INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- Michael Jordan questioned the courage of his teammates, and several of the youthful Chicago Bulls looked scared.

Chicago was not acting like a team that had won a franchise-high 61 games during the regular season and swept the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Eastern Conference finals.

After a frustrating, two-point loss in the opening game of its championship series with the Los Angeles Lakers, the team needed a calming influence and unifying force, and found one in coach Phil Jackson, the son of two fundamentalist ministers from Montana.

"Moderation of lifestyle is the key to this game," Jackson said before his Bulls overwhelmed the Lakers, 107-86, Wednesday night to tie the best-of-seven series that resumes here tonight.

"You saw what happened to the Pistons. You saw how boisterous they were when they won and how negative they were when they lost.

They were riding an emotional roller coaster.

"Over a long season, you expect ups and downs. You can't get distraught and lose focus after a bad game, or it boils over into the next one. I feel I can give this team poise and self-determination."

Keeping the Bulls loose and on an even keel has been the key to Jackson's success in his two full seasons. He does it by quoting Kipling, distributing books to his players on lengthy road trips and splicing clips from "The Wizard of Oz" to enliven his game films.

Jackson's intellect, humor and even-handed approach is in dramatic contrast to the intense coaching style of his predecessor, Doug Collins, now an NBA commentator for TBS. His players have responded to his teachings and respect the fact that even Jordan, the team's superstar, is not treated with kid gloves.

"Phil has criticized me occasionally, and I respect that," said Jordan. "Coaches in the past were afraid to do that, but I accept criticism well when I make mistakes."

Said small forward Scottie Pippen, who blossomed into an All-Star under Jackson: "Phil gives me the freedom to play the way I want to play. I felt there were things I could do under Collins, but I didn't because of his emotional ways."

Perhaps Jackson's most daring move to begin this season was to convince Jordan, who has won five straight scoring titles, that the Bulls could win consistently without him dominating the offense.

"I felt that if we were going to rely on one guy to do from 50 to 80 percent of the work, we would have problems with other guys performing in critical times," said Jackson. "We told Michael, 'Maybe these other guys aren't as talented as you. But this is as good as they're going to be, and you have to take advantage of their skills."

Jordan followed his coach's philosophy precisely Wednesday night, attempting only a few shots early in the game while getting his less-celebrated teammates involved.

As a team, the Bulls shot 67 percent, with guard John Paxson 8-for-8 from the perimeter and forward Horace Grant almost as good (10-for-13) with his inside game.

After Sunday's loss, Jackson made two key adjustments to frustrate the Lakers. By trapping more aggressively, he neutralized their effective low-post game. He also switched defensive assignments, assigning Pippen to guard Magic Johnson through most of the second half when the Bulls turned the game into a rout.

Adaptability always has been a strong suit for Jackson, a free spirit who admits to having experimented with LSD during his playing career as a defensive forward for the New York Knicks.

"I spent a lot of time being spaced out," wrote Jackson in his autobiography, "Maverick." "I was using some of the popular head drugs of the time. I was involved in trying to deal with my own inadequacies. But if I hadn't gone through those things, I wouldn't be where I am today. I don't regret my past. It's just who I am."

In a sense, it was Jackson's way of rebelling against his strict upbringing in Deer Lodge, Mont., where he grew up without television and movies. There were no cigarettes or alcohol in his home, not even aspirin. Whenever he felt flu-like symptoms, his father conjured up a concoction of honey, deer lard and sulphur that for days hung like a cloud over the house.

Jackson, a gangly youth with shoulders like coat hangers, found outlets for his nervous energy playing baseball and basketball and recalls hitting a double off legendary Satchel Paige on one of his barnstorming trips through Montana.

He focused on playing basketball at the University of North Dakota and was drafted by New York, playing a key reserve role on the Knicks 1973 championship team.

Bulls general manager Jerry Krause was a scout for the Baltimore Bullets in 1967 when Jackson graduated from college, and remembers his first unsuccessful effort to obtain his services.

"His college coach, who happened to be Bill Fitch [now the boss of the New Jersey Nets], pulls me out into the snow and says 'Watch what this kid can do!' Jackson is in the back seat of an old Ford. He reached over and opened both front doors at the same time. It was amazing. I wanted him bad, but the Knicks grabbed him under my nose."

Krause made certain Jackson would not escape again after Stan Albeck rejected him as an assistant coach of the Bulls in 1985. Two years later, Krause convinced Collins to hire a now-beardless Jackson. When Collins was fired in 1989, Jackson took control. "I felt Phil would be an easy coach to play for," Krause said. "He had spent five years in Albany coaching all those characters in the Continental Basketball Association and running the whole show.

"But what I like most about Phil is that he's a good listener. We already had two of the best minds in basketball sitting on the bench in Tex Winter and Johnny Bach. Phil incorporated Tex's offensive strategy and then added some wrinkles of his own, plus his 'Desert Storm' defense."

Most of all, Jackson gave Jordan's supporting cast a sense of pride and accomplishment. His mother recalls calling him "Lubricating oil" for his ability, even as a young man, to grease all the parts and keep the engine working.

Now the Bulls are back in high gear, and Jackson, the one-time hippie, says, "It's almost a responsibility now for us to win the whole thing."

NBA Finals

L.A. Lakers 93, Chicago Bulls 91

Chicago Bulls 107, L.A. Lakers 86

Today, at L.A., 9 p.m., Chs. 2, 4

Sunday, at L.A., 7 p.m., Chs. 2, 4

Tuesday, at L.A., 9 p.m., Chs. 2, 4

June 14, at Chi., 9 p.m.*, Chs. 2, 4

June 16, at Chi., 7 p.m.*, Chs. 2, 4

* -- if necessary.

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