LOS ANGELES -- Tradition runs deep through the purple-and-gold veins of the Los Angeles Lakers. Back to their days in Minneapolis with a giant named George Mikan, through their move here nearly 40 years ago with twin heroes Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, to their legacy of one-named megastars. From Wilt to Kareem, from Magic to Shaq.
Now, there is Phil.
An awkwardly effective reserve on two championship teams in his 11 years with the New York Knicks, Phil Jackson carved his own Hall of Fame credentials with the six NBA titles he helped the Chicago Bulls win in nine seasons as their coach. He did it with his triangle offense. He did it with his Zen philosophies. He also did it with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
Now, he is being asked to do something else: rescue this talented but mostly untapped team from itself.
With the Lakers opening the 1999-2000 season tonight against the Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City, there is still much debate as to whether Jackson's highly structured offense will fit a bunch of players perceived for most of their careers to be undisciplined, a team that, given its payroll and expectations, has been the most underachieving in recent NBA memory.
"When we first used the offense in Chicago, we started 0-3," Jackson said one afternoon last week, a day between double-digit exhibition losses to the Phoenix Suns in Las Vegas and to the Jazz down the freeway in Anaheim. "I don't think I'm going to panic. If I don't panic, the players will remain calm. We're in no hurry. We're going to take this one step at a time."
Though he doesn't have the greatest player in the game's history as the focal point of the offense, Jackson has two weapons he never possessed during his tenure with the Bulls. He has a dominant center in Shaquille O'Neal, a player he fantasized about coaching as far back as 1994.
Even more important, he has power.
It comes mostly in the form of a five-year, $30 million contract bestowed on Jackson last June by owner Jerry Buss amid reports that West, now the well-respected executive vice president of operations, was grooming interim coach Kurt Rambis for the job.
"All good coaches have a very disciplined approach, and I think he's one of the best," Buss said last week in Las Vegas.
"He's the pre-eminent coach in the business," West has said.
All indications are that West, aware of Jackson's clash of egos with Bulls general manager Jerry Krause, will give his new coach free rein. The potential is there for Jackson to remove the cloud of skepticism for those who believe his reputation as the NBA's latest genius was derived strictly from coaching Jordan.
Those who know Jackson well say proving himself again had nothing to do with taking this job.
"I think that comes from the outside," said Charley Rosen, one of Jackson's closest friends, dating to their days as Deadheads in the early 1970s. "Michael Jordan was in the NBA for six years without winning anything. It's easy for civilians to say that."
This is what some other civilians, those who like to put money down in Vegas, are saying: Given a roster that includes O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, who will miss the first month of the season with a broken hand, the Lakers are a 7-2 pick to win the NBA championship next June.
The two young superstars were reportedly not on the friendliest terms last season, when the Lakers were swept out of the Western Conference semifinals by the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs. If they decide to freeze each other out, it could become the Bermuda Triangle offense.
"It's an old-fashioned offense being used with modern-day players," said Tex Winter, the 77-year-old Lakers assistant who designed it in the 1950s while he was coaching players such as Bob Boozer at Kansas State. "One of the reasons Michael accepted it so well was that he was coming out of a system at North Carolina. These guys will have to play within a system. They're used to demonstrating their individual talents."
But Winter, who stayed in Chicago last year after Jackson left for his forced hiatus and followed him here along with former Bulls assistants Jim Cleamons and Frank Hamblen, said that players who have been portrayed as lacking in fundamentals, and perhaps in heart, will look at their bearded, bifocaled coach as some 6-foot-8 Moses leading them to the promised land.
Well, maybe not Moses.
"I don't think Phil can part the Red Sea," said Bryant, the 21-year-old wunderkind now in his fourth season.
Jackson is a deceptively imposing presence for someone with a reputation as a players' coach. He might encourage his players to read books such as "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," but they had better understand the nuances of the new offense as well. The eight championship rings he possesses -- nine if you include the one for coaching the Albany Patroons to a CBA title in 1984-85 -- speak volumes.
"I'm a really stubborn person; either that or ignorant," Jackson said last month. "Right now, I'm bending their will to mine. Either they will figure it out or they're not going to be here. That's kind of my system. But I know in Chicago we helped get Toni [Kukoc] more comfortable by making some allowances."
Blessed Bryant injury?
Perhaps the most comfortable any player has been with accepting the triangle is Bryant, mostly because he can soak up the concepts without having to put them into action. Bryant's injury -- one that Jackson said "might be a blessing in disguise" -- has also given O'Neal the opportunity to attract most of the defensive attention as a 7-1, 325-pound decoy.
"I might not have to get 30 or 40 points a night for us to win," said O'Neal.
Then again, he might. Others, most notably small forward Glen Rice, have looked obtuse trying to figure out the triangle. A spot-up jump shooter coming off a disappointing season, Rice has often struggled to understand where he is supposed to be or how he's supposed to get there, often reverting to merely launching the first open 20-footer he can find.
"Sometimes when we play, we look like we've been running it for two years," said fourth-year point guard Derek Fisher, whose 40.6 career shooting percentage needs to improve for the offense to work. "The next game, it looks like it's the first day."
The Lakers lack more than fluidity in running their new offense. The absence of a true power forward is frightening in a Western Conference filled with All-Stars at that position, from Tim Duncan in San Antonio to Karl Malone in Utah to Chris Webber in Sacramento to Tom Gugliotta in Phoenix. There are also budding stars in Portland's Brian Grant and Denver's Antonio McDyess.
Jackson has already reshaped the roster to include former Bulls Ron Harper and John Salley, who came out of retirement and will back up O'Neal. Jackson also made an attempt to pry Pippen away from the Houston Rockets before the Trail Blazers shipped six players there for him. He has not closed the door completely on persuading West to give Dennis Rodman another shot with the Lakers.
But before any more changes are made, Jackson will have to take his chances that O'Neal will become the player the Lakers hoped for when they signed him before the 1996 season. Jackson often thought about what it would be like to have a dominant center, such as O'Neal, while using players such as Bill Cartwright, Will Perdue, Bill Wennington and Luc Longley in Chicago.
"We actually talked about it five years ago," recalled guard Steve Kerr, who left Chicago shortly after Jackson's departure and is now with the Spurs. "People forget that the ball is run through the low post. He is still going to score a lot, but he's a pretty good passer. It's also a really good offense for shooters. It's about how well you play together."
Breaking again with Bradley
Jackson admits to having a fascination with O'Neal, and their relationship was forged during an All-Star Game. He sees coming to Los Angeles to coach O'Neal as a "destiny thing for me."
Considering Jackson's other job option at the time, that of running former Sen. Bill Bradley's presidential campaign in Iowa, this might actually be more difficult.
"I drove through Iowa to feel it out, to see if I had any interest in living there," said Jackson, who had worked with his former Knicks teammate on the campaign since taking a trip with him to the Mediterranean last fall.
"I was there in late May, living in Des Moines to see if I could be there for the year," Jackson said. "Two weeks later, I got the call to come here. It was so much fun to be a part of that."
The year away, spent mostly with his wife, June, at their homes in upstate New York and in Montana, had not quite energized Jackson. He missed the camaraderie with his players and assistants, but not the constant grind of airports, hotels and arenas. He hurt his knee playing pickup basketball.
"I feel like I've aged being away from the game," he said.
Jackson recalled something his former Knicks coach, Red Holzman, once told him.
"He said what a great job we had that we could travel the country, that it was a shame we had to play the games," Jackson said.
Those who worked with or played for him in Chicago don't see much of a difference in his approach with the Lakers. He spent the early part of training camp working on things as fundamental as making chest passes. He has been noticeably distant with the media, allowing Sports Illustrated's Frank Deford the only one-on-one interview to date.
"I think he's more confident than he was his first few years in Chicago," Winter said. "He has the credentials to be a little authoritative. He has a very strong will and exerts that will on everybody. That comes from being successful."
Said Harper: "He's a guy who loves the game. He loves coming in every day and trying to teach guys. He knows how to get the best out of everybody. And if Phil didn't have a job, I wouldn't be here either."
New arena, old demands
Perhaps the toughest critics will be the fans coming to the brand-new, state-of-the-art, $375 million Staples Center on the edge of downtown, from Jack Nicholson and the other big-name stars in the front row to the Hollywood execs filling the triple-tier luxury boxes to the little kids wearing their Shaq and Kobe jerseys.
They are used to "Showtime," not slow-time. They are used to winning, if not NBA championships for a while, then at least a healthy number of games and a round or two of playoffs. That is not enough for the coach with the winningest percentage in NBA history both for the regular season and the playoffs. That is not enough for a coach with eight NBA championship rings.
Jackson is not into comparisons, because these Lakers don't look anything right now like those Bulls.
"I came here to bring change to the system rather than bring players to the championship," he said one night last week. "Don't forget the distinction."