Rudy T's biggest coaching challenge

Updated: July 12, 2004, 9:52 AM ET
By Ric Bucher | ESPN the Magazine

Rudy Tomjanovich, despite a long history of drinking and smoking, beat cancer and has a clean bill of health. Prior to that he recovered from a near-fatal blow to the head. In between, he coached the lowest seeded team ever to win an NBA championshp.

Rudy Tomjanovich
Shaq or no Shaq, Rudy Tomjanovich is confident he can win a title in L.A.
A man can develop a strong faith in dire straits turning into smooth-flowing rivers after experiences like that.

Which explains why Tomjanovich might be so eager to coach a Lakers' team whose future has as many shadows lurking beneath the surface as this one.

Those close to Tomjanovich have been saying since early spring that he was ready to return to coaching. They insist, though, that his attraction to the Lakers is not based on hasty get-back-in-the-game motives but firm, big-picture attributes: a storied franchise with solid ownership dedicated to winning. That's the basis for success, in his mind, leaving it to him to work out the rest. Issues such as whether or not Kobe Bryant or Shaquille O'Neal are part of the team's future might stand in the way of someone else. Rudy's confidence is such that he initially believed he could get Kobe and Shaq to resolve their differences. Then, when he discovered he couldn't, he was just as confident that another, as-of-yet undetermined successful combination could be fashioned from the wreckage.

It's clear that Rudy T doesn't allow his ego to get in the way of running a team, but that doesn't preclude him from having an unshakable belief that he is a winning coach. If owner Jerry Buss provides him with anything close to the requisite talent -- and Buss' track record offers no reason to believe he won't -- and sufficient time, Rudy fully expects to capture the two remaining championships Buss wants and needs to surpass the Boston Celtics for titles won by one franchise.

Of course, even optimists who see the glass as half-full prefer to know exactly what liquid the glass holds. That is the only plausible explanation -- other than not wanting to distract from the hue and cry over first-round draft pick Sasha Vujacic's introduction -- for Tomjanovich and the Lakers to reach a basic agreement earlier this week and hold off officially announcing it. The delay allowed Tomjanovich to explore his chance of convincing Shaq to rescind his trade demand and, having been rebuffed, be able to voice exactly what he'd like to see general manager Mitch Kupchak get in return. Could they have introduced Tomjanovich first? Maybe, but that would've put a heavier weight on the conversation. As someone interested in the job, rather than someone assuming it, Rudy could approach both Kobe and Shaq on far more informal terms. It didn't work, but it certainly was worth a try.

Now that it's clear O'Neal doesn't want to remain in L.A. under any terms, team officials from both conferences have confirmed that the Lakers have been aggressively looking to move O'Neal. One sticking point is that the team acquiring Shaq will want assurance he won't exercise his option after this season. It's not a likely scenario, what with Shaq due nearly $30 million for the 2005-2006 season, but with a team needing to give up at least half of its best talent to get the Diesel, having him walk as a free agent one year later would be a disaster -- far bigger, even, than Cavs GM Jim Paxson seeing Carlos Boozer go to Utah for nothing in return.

Even with the best of developments in the next few months, though, Rudy T faces the biggest challenge of his coaching career. He was a beloved figure in Houston, earning him an extra dollop of patience from fans, players and management alike. He won two championships with teams not expected to get there and fell short with teams that carried that burden. He was a personable guy in a place that measures you as much by the size of your howdy as your won-loss record.

That's not how it's played in L.A. The purple-and-gold faithful have been spoiled to the point that every one of their teams is either a title contender or beneath their devotion. Should the Lakers re-sign Kobe and the Heat agree to add Caron Butler to their offer of Lamar Odom and Brian Grant for Shaq to meet salary-cap requirements, Rudy will be expected to shape all that, combined with Gary Payton and Karl Malone, into a title contender. The Heat, after all, did reach the second round of the playoffs and make an impressive showing against the Pacers before bowing out. The Lakers did reach the NBA Finals. Never mind that the proposed Miami-LA conglomerate might have more trouble meshing effectively than last year's Lakers. Or that Heat rookie Dwyane Wade was the biggest part of Miami's success. Or had San Antonio had anyone who could knock down an uncontested 3-pointer more than once a game, the Lakers would have been second-round fodder, too.

"Never underestimate the heart of a champion," Rudy once said. It's a great line and people in L.A. have a particular fondness for punchy dialogue. They also, though, are addicted to happy endings. Right now, he's working with one of the more difficult scripts imaginable.

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine and collaborated with Rockets center Yao Ming on "Yao: A Life In Two Worlds," published by Miramax and available in bookstores beginning Sept. 22. Click here to send him a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Ric Bucher

NBA Reporter, ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer

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