Better together: Kobe and Phil
ORLANDO -- Maybe we need to start a new theme: Kobe Bryant can't win a championship without Phil Jackson.
The great irony of Bryant's drive for independence from Shaquille O'Neal was that it reinforced the philosophy that you can't do it on your own. Everyone needs help, and the method for Bryant to acquire the greatest individual reward of his career -- the 2009 NBA Finals MVP trophy -- was to buy into the wisdom of his coach and former nemesis. In turn, the final steps of Bryant's evolution allowed Jackson to stand alone as the coach with the most championships in the history of the league.
Over the five years during Jackson's first stint as Bryant's coach, the two had grown as distant as California and Maine. Jackson asked management to trade the young star. And when it looked like Jackson wouldn't be back after the 2003-04 season, Bryant's response was "I don't care."
Contrast that to the lovefest of recent days, when Bryant said, "I've been spoiled my whole career playing with Phil. It's hard to imagine playing for anyone else, obviously. I grew up with him."
Jackson praised Bryant's growth, recalling a conversation they had early in Bryant's career after yet another game in which the ascending star got caught up in his own agenda, this time a one-on-one battle with Vince Carter in Toronto:
"I talked to him a little bit about leadership and the quality and his ability to be a leader, and he said, 'I'm ready to be a captain right now.' And I said, 'But no one is ready to follow you.'
"In those eight years that have ensued from that period, he's learned how to become a leader in a way in which people want to follow him, and I think that's really important for him to have learned that, because he knew that he had to give to get back in return. And so he's become a giver rather than just a guy that's a demanding leader, and that's been great for him and great to watch."
How did they get to this point? They had to reach the bottom first.
He's become a giver rather than just a guy that's a demanding leader, and that's been great for him and great to watch.” -- Lakers coach Phil Jackson on Kobe
Jackson has always been about encouraging a path of self-discovery for his players, that there was education to be found in defeat just as well as in victory. He has demonstrated that he's willing to lose a regular-season game to prove a greater point. During the tumultuous 2003-04 campaign, with the Kobe-Shaq feud having surpassed the point of being reconcilable and Jackson's own future with the team in jeopardy, Derek Fisher wondered aloud whether Jackson would be willing to sacrifice the entire season to teach a lasting lesson.
The Lakers had more ammunition than ever before, with Gary Payton and Karl Malone joining O'Neal and Bryant, yet the older players were agitated by Bryant's frequent ventures into the Kobe Zone, where he'd try to do everything on his own. Jackson, wary of encroaching on Bryant while his young star dealt with his sexual assault case in Colorado, never reined Kobe in. He didn't do much of anything, really, while the team finally collapsed under its own weight during a five-game NBA Finals loss to the Detroit Pistons.
"I think it taught all of us a lot about the fact that you can't just put guys on a team and think that you're going to win just because guys have accomplished certain things in their careers," Fisher recalled, five years later. "Which is why it's always been weird to me that Phil's always been questioned about how good a coach he was. Because if it was just about talent we would have won a championship that year. There has to be a willingness to believe."
Jackson was gone within a week of the last game of the 2004 Finals. Within half a season the next year, Bryant and the Lakers would come to appreciate what they'd lost. It turned out the triangle offense, which Bryant had often found restrictive, was the best fit for him. Instead of placing him in the middle of the court, where double-teams could easily trap him, the triangle isolated him on the wing. So after the team floundered under Rudy Tomjanovich, he stepped aside as coach during the first year of his five-year contract. Jackson was off visiting former Bulls center Luc Longley in Australia when the news broke, and when a Los Angeles Times reporter reached him by e-mail, Jackson replied that he was having a good time body-surfing ... and would consider coming back to the Lakers.
This time Jackson got his terms -- an eight-figure salary -- and a more compliant Bryant, who had tried it his way and failed. Jackson allowed Bryant a year of indulgence, shooting at will and averaging 35 points a game, because the team wasn't ready to contend for a championship anyway. But after Fisher returned and Andrew Bynum improved and Pau Gasol arrived, the rules changed. Bryant went from demanding a trade to winning a Most Valuable Player award -- still in a Lakers jersey.
Hit the TiVo forward button a couple of times to get to Sunday night. In the quarter that delivered the championship -- when the Lakers outscored the Orlando Magic 30-18 in the second period of Game 5 -- Bryant scored only four points. And yet his imprint was all over the turnaround from a six-point deficit to a 12-point lead, as the Lakers put on a showcase of offensive efficiency and unyielding defense. He was setting up his teammates and he was driving them as well, exhorting them as they seized their opportunity to drive a stake through the Magic's heart.
Everyone on the court looked like a star, and this brings up something that Bryant and Jackson don't receive enough credit for: Players are at their best when they hook up with them. Look at Trevor Ariza, a bit player in New York and Orlando, now a valuable starter on a championship team. Shannon Brown, a throw-in during the money-saving trade of Vladimir Radmanovic to Charlotte, gave the Lakers some productive playoff minutes. Smush Parker averaged more than 11 points per game in his two seasons with the Lakers, then was out of the league two years after he left them.
What's it like to be around one of the best coach-player combinations ever?
"You find yourself almost in awe sometimes," said Brown, who was a Bulls fan growing up in Chicago. "When I first got here, it was like, this is one of the guys I grew up watching, coach six championships, where I'm from. I'm like, that's Phil Jackson, man. Then I look at Kobe, he's got three of them [rings] back to back to back, one of the greatest to ever touch the ball. And I get to learn from them.
"I've learned determination, confidence, just to seize the moment. It's stuff you already know, but when you get with a combination like that, it boosts it a little bit."
So many other Lakers were boosted in these Finals, with two strong finishing performances from Ariza, a shot for the ages by Fisher, and a demonstration of Gasol's skills, which Lamar Odom said rank "up there with the best post players ever."
Late in Game 5, Orlando called a 20-second timeout and the Lakers gathered by the bench, high-fiving and hugging. Jackson stood back and smiled like a proud parent. He doesn't spend a lot of time in the huddles in the first place, usually strategizing with his assistants before stepping in at the last minute to deliver instructions. This time he never joined them, allowing them to have their moment to themselves.
After the game Jackson would have a unique encounter: a handshake with Bill Russell, the only other former player and head coach with a double-digit championship ring collection. It was a brief exchange, no doubt iced by Russell's affinity for his coach, the late Red Auerbach, whom Jackson had just relegated to second place on the list of NBA championship coaches.
As Jackson went to the stage for the trophy presentation I asked his agent, Todd Musburger, if this would be the last time we'd see Jackson on an NBA court. Jackson, 63, has a year and $12 million left on his contract, but a variety of physical ailments have made the job more difficult. And at this point what's left to accomplish? So is this it?
"No," Musburger said. "We've had a number of discussions about what he'd do, win or lose. He didn't want to leave under either scenario."
Jackson has yet to give official confirmation that he is returning. Bryant can opt out of his contract as well, although Saturday he gave his strongest hint yet that he doesn't plan on leaving the Lakers even if he does opt out. The future can change quickly in the NBA.
One of Jackson's strongest themes is to stay in the moment and Sunday was theirs. Bryant said he lured Jackson into the team huddle in the locker room so they could douse him with champagne, the victors' bathing ritual that the aging coach had avoided after his more recent championships.
The players wanted him to be a part of it.
"He took his glasses off, threw his head back and soaked it all in," Bryant said. "Because this is a special time ... and for us to be the team that got him that 10th championship, that historic 10th championship, is special for us."
They locked in a tight embrace, the vast gap that once existed between them now completely erased. Sometimes dependence can feel pretty good.
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