- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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SAN DIEGO -- If he is bothered by the ghost of Phil Jackson, or the questions about the ghost of Phil Jackson that come every day, Rudy Tomjanovich doesn't let anyone see.
Nor does he betray any worry about the threat of missing the playoffs after succeeding a guy with nine rings, or even the challenge of winning the backing of a very selective superstar named Kobe Bryant.
Rudy T? After surviving cancer ... and then somehow landing what he sees as the most prestigious job in American sport? One week into his life as a former Houston Rocket, and almost one year to the day he was pronounced cancer-free, Rudy T admits to only one fear.
Which is ...
Those unavoidable references he'll make to the Houston Lakers or the Los Angeles Rockets.
"Every time I say 'Lakers' I hesitate, because in my mind it's just automatic to say 'Rockets'," Tomjanovich says. "I've probably slipped up a few times already."
He follows up the confession with a laugh, sounding like a man with few real burdens. You expect him to speak at length about this new, strange environment, since it's still so weird to see him as anything other than Mr. Rocket. Tomjanovich, though, insists that the transition from a nearly four-decade association with one team to the league's glamour franchise has been as natural as it possibly could be.
And who wants to quibble with Rudy T?
"It's very hard not to like a guy like Rudy," Bryant says. "He has so much passion for the game; he really does. He just loves it so much. You would have to try not to like a guy like him."
Tomjanovich loves it so much that he scrapped his original plan to take at least two years away from the bench, even after his doctors told him last Oct. 13 that he had beaten bladder cancer. Tomjanovich never wanted to stop coaching the Rockets -- they used the health issues to nudge him into retirement because owner Les Alexander wanted to hire Jeff Van Gundy -- but had come to accept a simpler life of scouting and what he describes as "manly gardening."
He insists he was prepared to put suitors off for one more season until the approach came from what another Lakers newcomer, Lamar Odom, calls "the Yankees of basketball."
"I feel exactly the same way," Tomjanovich said. "This is a big deal.
"I didn't think it'd be this soon, but when the Lakers come calling ... I just said: 'I'm cancer-free, I'm feeling good. This ain't gonna be [available] next year when I think I'm ready.' "
Only the games that count will prove how ready he really is, but Bryant is really the figure shouldering the bulk of the pressure in Lakerland. No matter how many times Kobe denies it, the perception remains that Lakers owner Jerry Buss exiled Phil Jackson and Shaquille O'Neal because Bryant, a free agent, wouldn't re-sign unless he did. Tomjanovich, remember, likewise wasn't the coach Bryant called and lobbied to replace Jackson. That would be Duke's Mike Krzyzewski.
Yet you needn't expect problems between Rudy and Kobe, because clicking with stars is the one thing Tomjanovich probably does better than anyone, including the Zenmeister. Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Steve Francis and Yao Ming are personalities from four completely different molds, but they all loved the man.
If Karl Malone decides to return to the game later in the season, Rudy's presence will inevitably be one of the clinchers that brings him back to L.A., just as Rudy's presence is a big reason Gary Payton didn't want to leave, even after all the trouble GP had last season getting his hands on Kobe's ball.
"I fall in love with my players, that's what I do," Tomjanovich said when asked to explain the many amorous connections with stars in his past. "I think they see me enjoying what they do."
Cynics, of course, will suggest that Rudy wins that love by letting the big names do whatever they want. The word out of Lakers camp already, according to one rival Western Conference coach, is that "Rudy is running Kobe's system, not the other way around -- give Kobe the ball, and get out of the way."
A look at the Lakers' roster, mind you, suggests that there is little alternative. With Vlade Divac ailing, and given Brian Grant's offensive limitations, Chris Mihm is the closest thing Tomjanovich has to an interior post-up option. Bryant, Lamar Odom and possibly Caron Butler -- none of whom are true power players -- account for the only real firepower.
No surprise, then, that Tomjanovich is putting in plenty of isolation stuff for Bryant, and lots of pick-and-rolls as well. Bryant and Odom need to create the offensive openings if these Lakers are to have any shot at cracking the top eight in the West, where no less than 13 teams [except only Seattle and the L.A. Clippers] have varying degrees of playoff aspirations.
On the defensive side, in another departure from the Jackson playbook, Tomjanovich is looking at multiple zones and increasing L.A.'s full-court ball pressure. He knows Buss -- and Bryant -- wants to give the fans a team that runs. A team that excites.
"I don't get into the competition thing," Tomjanovich said. "I have tremendous respect for [Jackson]. I don't think anybody is going to top what the guy has done, so accept it. I'm my own individual. I'm different. I don't even know Phil, but I know I'm different.
"Everybody's got their own way of doing it, and I'm secure in the way that I do it. I coach the way I'd want to be coached."
Said Bryant: "He's the type of coach, he doesn't take his system and just use that system [with] every team. He kinds of adapts to the team he has. He's very good at adjusting."
Truth is, Kobe faces the bigger challenges. No matter how many times Rudy says Rockets when he means Lakers, or Houston when he means Hollywood, Bryant is the one who'll have to be Herculean if he wants to contend for a fourth championship any time soon.
"It's different going from expecting to win a championship every time you go to training camp to expecting to make the playoffs," said Lakers assistant coach Frank Hamblen, the only holdover from Jackson's staff ... and the man who drafted Tomjanovich as a San Diego Rocket in 1970.
Good word. It's a word you hear a lot these days when you're around, uh, Rudy T's Lakers.
"That's what the NBA has become to me," Tomjanovich said, agreeing with just about anyone who comes up and remarks about how weird it is to see him in purple and gold.
"Dealing with the unexpected."
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