LOS ANGELES -- He didn't view this as a special chance, because he already knows what he can do and he thinks you should, too. But Sunday was, to me, a no-win situation for Jim Cleamons. Win, and you're only doing what you're supposed to do on your home floor. Lose, and it would take folks about a nanosecond to look at the bench, see that Phil Jackson wasn't there and figure out some way to blame you.
"That's maybe why I was so relaxed," Cleamons said late Sunday, next to his team's locker room, a handful of cameras and writers waiting for him to be free, the demands of moving over six inches on the Lakers' bench having changed everyone's expectations. "I was going to do my best. If we went down 3-1, so be it. But I was going to coach the best I could. I knew the guys would play the best they could. And maybe in the midst of that, we would be successful."
The Lakers were successful on Sunday, winning 99-95 over San Antonio to tie this series at 2-all -- anyone out there think the winner of this tilt won't be holding up the O'Brien Trophy in a month? But the circumstances of L.A.'s win were even deeper than normal. A day earlier, Jackson had undergone an angioplastic procedure to open a 90 percent blockage in his left anterior descending artery. Everything else checked out fine, but there sat the plaque, getting closer and closer to blocking off the blood flow through that artery entirely.
"The risk was a massive heart attack," Lakers public relations director John Black had said Saturday, chilling words in their matter-of-factness.
Even though Jackson came through the two-hour procedure fine, and his prognosis is excellent, Jackson was ordered by doctors to go home when released from the hospital Sunday morning and not to attend the game. So the Four-Peat, facing its most critical test, was handed over to assistant coach Cleamons, Class of '71, Ohio State University, who has spent three decades being a student of the game waiting for another chance to show what he can do. After working his way to top assistant on Chicago's bench during its first four titles, Cleamons took the head job in Dallas in 1996. He was told he'd get four years to install the triangle and turn around the then-moribund Mavericks. He got a year and a half, saw each of the Three Js traded and got shown the door by new general manager Don Nelson.
"I don't think coach Cleamons got a fair shake," Jason Kidd says now, and that's telling, because the two did not see eye-to-eye when Kidd was the Mavericks' young, jump shot-less point guard.
But when Jackson came to L.A. in 2000, he brought Cleamons with him. Three more titles have followed. And if you add the ring Cleamons got in 1972 as a rookie guard with the Lakers, he's been part of eight championship teams. Yet, the good head coaching jobs still seem to pass him by. It's kind of like, either take this Clipper Gig or else.
So Cleamons has chosen to wait it out in LaLa. There are worse places to hang, I suppose.
"This is my 13th year" of coaching, Cleamons said. "I played this game nine years as a professional. If people don't know who I am by now, they don't know me. I'm happy here. Will I get another opportunity? Hopefully, one day, sooner or later. It doesn't make a difference. I'm happy with the job I do. I love our coaching staff. I'm not chasing a job. If someone wants to call, fine. If not, so be it."
But this is what frequently happens: out of sight, out of mind. New, hot young assistants come to the fore, and if you've been an assistant on the bench for eight years, nine years, 10 years, some folks start to wonder if that's all you want to do, or can do. It's a gamble that only those who are at peace in mind and spirit are willing to take. But Cleamons has learned from the likes of Bill Sharman, K.C. Jones, Dick Motta and Red Holzman. And Phil Jackson, who let Cleamons focus on defense. That was his intention again on Sunday as well; Tex Winter moved back from behind the bench to the third assistant's chair, ready to yell at Kobe Bryant when he broke off the triple post.
Cleamons was calm, well aware of the stakes, but no different in the locker room beforehand.
"He was fine," Brian Shaw said. "He was very confident. He was himself. But we have a veteran, experienced team, and there really wasn't anything he needed to say."
That changed during a terrible first half in which no one named O'Neal or Bryant scored for the Lakers until 5:30 remained in the second quarter. The Lakers were in mud. No one was moving. Bryant was forced to try and do too much himself. But the Lakers got a break when foul trouble sent Tim Duncan to the bench late in the half, and the Spurs stalled. A 16-point deficit was down to seven by intermission, and the Lakers had life.
And Cleamons had a phone call in the assistant coaches' office during the break. It was a certain long-limbed head coach, resting not-so-comfortably in Playa del Rey.
"He just told us how ugly we were playing, and we all agreed," Cleamons said. "Everything he was saying, we had told them in the huddles. But we weren't connecting."
But Cleamons made the link late in the third quarter. When the under-three minute timeout came, Bryant was on the floor with four fouls and the Spurs led by nine. Yet another team had the Lakers down, and nearly out, only needing to step on their necks to finish the job. Instead, Cleamons jumped his team.
"We told him if they had an all-antics team, he'd be the coach of that team," Shaw said. "He told everybody to sit down. He pulled his pants up, got down on his knees, told us to take a deep breath. Everyone was kind of (skeptical). He said 'No, take a deep breath.' Everybody took a deep breath. He said 'We're going to do it right now ... we're going to bring the energy, we're going to get it back, it starts with our active hands, and what we're going to do at the defensive end. But we're going to make it happen right now, so that we're in a position when the fourth quarter starts to make a run at this game.' "
It had the potential to blow up in his face. Speechifying usually doesn't work on guys making seven- and eight-figure salaries, especially if the speechifier isn't Big Chief Triangle. It was something out of Hoosiers.
Except, it worked.
The Lakers dug down and turned the game around at the defensive end. Derek Fisher came up with a steal, and Bryant finished it off with a thunderous dunk. Samaki Walker blocked a Stephen Jackson shot, and the next time down, Shaq swatted another one. L.A. went from seven down to four up in 2:54, taking a 71-67 edge at the end of the quarter when Shaw knocked down another of his ridiculous end-of-period threes.
"I was challenging them," Cleamons said. "I can only sit there so long. I'm still sometimes too competitive sometimes for my own being. But I was getting a little bit upset at the fact that we weren't showing any character. (He said) 'I can coach you, I can help you, but I don't know the team that's out there. You're not doing the things we practiced, you're not doing the things you know how to do ... the way that you're playing, I don't know who you guys are.' "
The fourth quarter, as with most NBA fourth quarters, didn't belong to the coaches. It was all Kobe, relentless as he attacked the rim, drawing double- and triple-teams as he beat Bruce Bowen off the dribble, forcing the action and keeping the Spurs on their heels. It was Bryant who put the Lakers ahead for good with a free throw with 48 seconds left, and it was Bryant who picked off Tony Parker's ill-advised lob of an inbounds pass to preserve the Lakers' series-tying victory.
And it will be Jackson who officially gets credit for the win. As Cleamons was the "acting" head coach, not the permanent one, the W will go in PJ's career column. Cleamons will have to wait for another day, and another chance. He wants an owner and a general manager who believe in him, who'll give him every chance to show what three decades and being on eight championship teams have taught him. He'll wait until it's just right, because at the end of the day, he's got a beautiful wife and two beautiful little girls, and he's on his second dynasty.
Life's not all that bad.
"I appreciate what a head coach goes through," he said in the hallway. "I'm hopeful that, the good Lord willing, that I'll get another opportunity. I'm just about being patient, learning my craft, and being the best assistant coach I can be. Because when I get my next opportunity, I'm going to be the best head coach I can be. I'm doing my due diligence. When the lights are on, somebody's home."
David Aldridge, who covers the NBA for ESPN, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.