- Ric Bucher, NBA Reporter, ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer
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It's not often anyone can return to the scene of an accident, unhook the mangled vehicles, review the mistakes made and resume the course they were on prior to the collision. Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant have that chance.
To pass on it -- or do anything less than their best to convince Los Angeles Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss to provide that chance -- would be a monumental mistake by both of them.
"It's unfinished business," says Lakers executive VP Jeanie Buss. "Kobe has a throne to take. Phil has something to prove. There's more to their story."
The thought that too much has happened or that Kobe and Phil already have made it abundantly clear they have no desire to work together is simply wrong. Kobe couldn't plead with Dr. Buss to re-sign Phil last year because he was a free agent. He wanted the chance to see what other opportunities existed, what other teams could offer. Stumping for Jackson would've undermined all that. It would have been an implicit commitment to return to the Lakers. How would it have looked had he told Buss to re-sign Phil and then opted not to return himself?
According to Jeanie, far too much also has been made of Jackson giving GM Mitch Kupchak a it's-him-or-me ultimatum midway through last season, an episode recounted in Jackson's book, "The Last Season."
"I heard every frustration he had with the team," Buss says. "When he made that statement about Kobe, I took it the same way I would my girlfriend telling me she was going to kill her husband. I wasn't calling 911. I knew it wasn't as definite as it sounded. My dad didn't hear about those frustrations on a daily basis, so when he heard that he took it to mean they were past the breaking point. But I know how Phil feels about Kobe. He still thinks any team that has him has a chance to win a championship."
Have they ever been friends? No. Will they ever be? Probably not. That's not important. What they do have is mutual respect and a belief that their chance of winning a championship is greatly enhanced by the other. In the midst of all the chaos, turmoil and results of the last two seasons, it's natural they might have lost sight of that. In light of all that has happened since last summer, it's also reasonable to expect them to see anew that what they had was unique, on par, say, with what Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich have in San Antonio, or Chauncey Billups and Larry Brown have (or had) in Detroit.
Buss, of course, has her own interests. She remains Jackson's significant other and the prospect of pogo-ing to Montana or New York -- with Jackson expressing interest in the Knicks -- to continue the relationship does not appeal to her. Jeanie was even open to seeing Jackson join the Kings because it would mean he could commute to Sacramento from L.A. with Ahnold the Governator on his private jet.
Jeanie also, of course, has been wrong before about what the future holds for Jackson, Kobe and the Lakers. After they reached the 2004 Finals, she was confident Phil and her father would reach agreement on a new deal. That was with the presumption, made by nearly everyone except myself and Tacoma News Tribune writer Frank Hughes, that the Lakers would thump Detroit and claim their fourth title in five years.
"In our business, losing is a catalyst for change," she says. "People were dumbfounded by the loss. My dad felt things crumbled and Phil didn't know what to do. He likes Phil and cares for him and still thinks he's the best coach in the NBA. But with Phil being uncertain about coming back and saying he didn't think he could coach Kobe anymore, my dad felt it was his job to make a decision and move the team in a new direction."
The road that stands before Kobe and Phil, should they rejoin forces, is indeed a different one. For starters, the previous one had to be shared with a Diesel, as in Shaquille O'Neal, which made for an entirely different traffic pattern. Jackson, understanding how beloved Shaq was in the locker room and how inordinately sensitive he is to criticism, never prodded him the way he did Kobe. Bryant resented that he took far more abuse, in light of how much harder he worked at being in shape and contributing at the defensive end.
That issue no longer exists. Kobe, by all accounts, is the most respected figure in the Lakers' locker room. Phil has admitted that his tactics, such as suggesting Kobe purposely manipulated his high school games in order to look like a hero at the end, were ill-advised. Kobe, in turn, endorsed Rudy Tomjanovich's idea of re-incorporating the triangle offense to create more movement and options than his penetrate-and-pitch tactics were producing. Absence indeed can make the heart grow fonder, apparently, about anything.
But rejoining forces isn't just about regaining what they had. It's also about adding a few new superlatives to their respective resumes. Jackson would have a chance to eliminate the knock that he is a closer, as in someone deft at making championship talent realize its potential, but not a developer, as in someone who can make the most of a flawed team. Like it or not, it's a criticism that has mightily undercut his stature as a coach, despite having won nine championships.
For Kobe, welcoming back Phil would do wonders for his image as a cold-hearted, power-hungry egomaniac. Unfair as it might be that he was blamed for Jackson's departure in the first place, perception is reality. This would come off as an act of humility, an acknowledgement that he doesn't know everything and is open to getting a little help and sharing the spotlight in his pursuit of another title. Instead of someone who is forever begrudgingly respected, who knows, he might even taste what it means to be beloved.
Maybe Dr. Buss, with the infinite wisdom of someone who has ably manned the Lakers' rudder for several decades now, will ultimately decide that bringing back Phil isn't the right move. I have no problem with that -- as long as Kobe and Phil make every effort to convince him otherwise. They owe it. To each other.
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. Click here to send him a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.
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