I've developed a feeling of revulsion for the L.A. Lakers. I hate their arrogance, hate the gaggle of 25-year-old millionaires who refuse to play hard -- or play as a team -- until the last minute, until they absolutely have to.
Even so, they've won most of the time. Kobe Bryant ($15 million a year) is the best shooting guard in the league. Shaquille O'Neal ($30 million a year) is the most dominant player in the NBA, period. Phil Jackson ($6 million a year) has coached nine championship teams and holds the best winning percentage (.725) in NBA history. These three have been joined by a distinguished supporting cast that, in 2003, included future Hall of Famers Karl Malone and Gary Payton.
Jackson was hired by the Lakers in June of 1999 and led the team to three NBA championships over the next five years. Even so, watching the Lakers play basketball was like watching a herd of extremely tall humans slog up and down a hardwood floor while screaming, "Me! Me! Me!" Jackson puts it more elegantly, "The dribble, in fact, has replaced the pass as the primary means to move the ball towards the basket to generate shots."
So, when the Lakers lost to the no-name Detroit Pistons in this year's NBA championship series, I was pleased as punch. Soon afterward the team was disassembled and thrown into the wind.
Kobe Bryant, only 26, with another ten years of ticket sales left in him, let it be known that Shaq and Jackson had to go or he would -- this being his free-agency year -- sign with another team. So, Jackson was shown the door and Shaq went to Miami. It's Kobe's team now, all his.
Now, its publication timed to coincide with the start of NBA play, comes Phil Jackson's book, The Last Season: A Team in Search of Its Soul. One thinks, "It's payback time."
Jackson's first sentence is "The writing of a book about something as personal as a basketball team runs the risk of talking out of school."
Which is, of course, the entire purpose of Phil Jackson's book. By the way, the book was written "with" Michael Arkush. I wonder how much of Phil's time was actually spent on the project. His small book is set up as a diary, a collection of Jackson's thoughts as the Lakers' season rolls on. And I wonder if anyone on the Lakers squad knew Phil was writing a book about them?
Before we get further into Kobe as villain, I should note that Jackson had been trying to get rid of him since the beginning, in 1999. Jackson wanted to trade Bryant to Phoenix for Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion. Lakers owner Jerry Buss refused. Kobe was not amused.
Here are some quotes from The Last Season:
Page 18: Jackson decides to hire a therapist. "After receiving a few recommendations I selected a therapist who's dealt with narcissistic behavior in the Los Angeles public school system. He'll be right at home here."
Page 38: "Ask Shaq to do something and he'll say, 'No, I don't want to do that.' But after a little pouting, he will do it. Ask Kobe and he'll say, 'Okay,' and then he will do whatever he wants."
Jackson is upfront about his girlfriend, Jeanie Buss, and the fact that she is the owner's daughter and executive vice president of the Los Angeles Lakers. Did he tell her he was writing a book about the team?
Page 92: "Now, I was the one who was angry. I went upstairs to see Mitch [general manager Mitch Kupchak] in his office. Wasting no time, I went off on a tirade about the need to deal with Kobe before the trading deadline in mid-February, 'I won't coach this team next year if he's still here,' I said emphatically. 'He won't listen to anyone. I've had it with this kid.'"
This is the bust. There is no groundwork, no foreshadowing in the book that would give even a close reader a clue that Jackson has reached the point of "It's me or him" with Bryant. The basic question, "What caused a team that had played in the NBA finals four out of five years to go up in smoke?" is left for someone else to answer.
The Last Season is a dishonest, manipulative book that doesn't deliver on its promise of good gossip. Instead, it's flimflam the dumb public and don't burn any bridges to the NBA while you're at it.
Still -- and it pains me to say this --The Last Season is worth reading for its last 100 pages. This section follows the Lakers through three rounds of playoffs and the finals.
What you get is grade-A coach talk. The strategies, the plays, getting inside other coaches' heads, descriptions of the games, and so on. Jackson seems released, as if he's finally free to talk about what he wanted to talk about all along. Too bad he didn't start earlier.