Phil Jackson stopped at midcourt moments after suffering perhaps the most embarrassing loss of an otherwise storied 19-year NBA coaching career bearing a slight smile on his face.
Plenty of things could’ve soured Jackson’s mood. The Lakers’ 112-86 Game 4 loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 Western Conference semifinals derailed the team’s hopes to three-peat. It also marked the end of an accomplished coaching stint that spanned 11 NBA championships, 13 NBA Finals appearances and 229 playoffs wins. Consider Jackson’s bemused reaction as nothing more than a moment of Zen.
“I’ve never been very good at dealing with loss. Like many competitors, one of the main driving forces in my life has been not just to win but to avoid losing,” Jackson wrote in his book, “Eleven Rings,” slated for a May 21 release. “Yet for some reason, this fiasco didn’t affect me as much as some of the other losses I’ve endured in my basketball life. In part, that was because this wasn’t the finals. It’s much easier coping with an early-round loss than a game in which you’re closing in on a ring. But even more than that, the way in which the Dallas finale unfolded was so over-the-top absurd, it was hard to take too seriously.”
There were plenty.
The Lakers shot 37.8 percent from the field and allowed Dallas to go 62.5 percent from three-point range. In a play that highlighted his limited mobility, the former Ron Artest couldn’t reach the rim on a fast-break, a play Jackson blamed for Artest appearing as if “he couldn’t decide what to do with the ball.” The lasting images behind such embarrassing play included Lamar Odom throwing a shoulder into Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki and center Andrew Bynum throwing a forearm at Dallas guard J.J. Barea in separate fourth-quarter incidents that earned them ejections. Jackson described Bynum’s tactics, which included stripping off his Lakers jersey, “as an embarrassing, bush league move.”
“I wasn’t pleased with how the players handled themselves at the end of the game,” Jackson said. “Still, as we gathered one last time in the locker room it didn’t feel right to deliver a lecture on NBA etiquette. ‘I think we played out of character tonight,’ I told them. ‘I don’t know why that happened at this particular time. The media will probably make a big deal out of this. But you shouldn’t look at this game as a measuring stick of your ability or your competitiveness. You’re better than this.'”
Jackson provides plenty of candor in his upcoming memoir, which touches briefly on his childhood growing up in North Dakota and his 13-year NBA career, most notably with the New York Knicks. But the book centers heavily on Jackson’s time with the Chicago Bulls (1989-1998) where he won six NBA titles and with the Lakers where he won five championships in two different stints (1999-2004, 2005-01).
After reading the entire book, it seems unlikely the Lakers will have much reaction toward Jackson’s revelations in the same fashion as his previous book, “The Last Season,” which he described Kobe Bryant as “uncoachable” during the 2003-04 year that ended in an NBA Finals loss to the Detroit Pistons. None of Jackson’s book touch on how the Lakers passed up his assistant Brian Shaw to replace him in favor of Mike Brown. Nor does Jackson go into his version on how the Lakers chose Mike D’Antoni over him this season after Brown’s firing despite Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak and vice president of player personnel Jim Buss meeting him at his Play del Rey residence. In fact, Jackson offers no criticisms in the book whatsoever toward Jim Buss.
But in the last of the book’s 22 chapters, Jackson appears forthcoming on why he believed the Lakers failed to win a third consecutive NBA championship in what amounted to his final season.
That included his revelation that he learned in March, 2011 that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Jackson planned to wait until after the playoffs to have surgery and noted doctors assured him he could control the cancer at least temporarily with drugs.
With the Lakers tied 2-2 in their first-round series against the New Orleans Hornets, Jackson recalled veteran guard Derek Fisher speaking up and questioning the team’s overall focus level. Jackson then decided to tell his players about his health.
“‘This has been a tough period for me,” Jackson recalled telling his players. “And I don’t know if it has affected my ability to give 100 percent to what I normally give you guys. But I know there’ve been times when I’ve been more withdrawn than usual.'”
In retrospect, Jackson suggested he regretted being so forthcoming.
“I began to tear up while I was talking, and the players seemed genuinely moved,” Jackson wrote. “Still, looking back, I’m not sure this was the right decision. Although telling the truth is never a mistake, there can be serious repercussions. And timing matters.”
Jackson also questioned Kupchak’s timing in informing various team personnel before Game 4 of the Lakers’ first-round series against New Orleans that they wouldn’t be retained after their contracts expire at the end of June.
“Mitch met individually with the members of my staff and informed them that their contracts, which ran out in July 1, weren’t going to be renewed for the next season,” Jackson wrote. “This included all the assistant coaches, trainers, massage therapists, weight and conditioning instructors and the equipment manager – everyone except athletic trainer Gary Vitti, who had a two-year contract. Mitch’s intention was to give the staffers time to find new jobs, in light of the expected NBA lockout. But the timing of the announcement — in the middle of a tight first-round series — had a disruptive impact on the players as well as the staff.”
Jackson didn’t single out any particular player for the Lakers’ shortcomings. But he hardly held back on Pau Gasol, who averaged a tepid 13.1 points on 42.9% shooting and had no answer for Nowitzki.
“One of the biggest disappointments was the performance of Pau, who’d played well against the Mavs in the past,” Jackson wrote. “But the refs allowed Dallas forward Dirk Nowitzki to push Pau and prevent him from establishing a solid post-up position, which hurt us badly on offense. I urged Pau repeatedly to fight back, but he was grappling with a serious family issue and was distracted. True to form, the media made up stories to explain Pau’s less-than-stellar performance, including gossip that he’d broken up with his girlfriend and had had a falling out with Kobe [Bryant], neither of which was true. Still, the rumors disturbed Pau and compromised his focus.”
In other chapters, Jackson praised Gasol plenty for his versatile skillset and his role in bringing the Lakers two NBA championships in 2009 and 2010. Although he details some of his initial struggles coaching Bryant early in his career, Jackson also expresses gratitude for how the two patched up their relationship. Bryant also reveals in the book that “90 percent” of his leadership approach stems from Jackson’s influence.
“It’s not just a basketball way of leadership, but a philosophy of how to live,” Bryant said as an interview for the book. “Being present and enjoying each moment as it comes. Letting my children develop at their own pace and not trying to force them into doing something they’re not really comfortable with, but just nurturing and guiding them along. I learned that all from Phil.”
In fact, Jackson believes their relationship strengthened because of his insistence that Bryant either go light in practice or skip it all together because of persisting problems in his right knee that required surgery in the summer of 2011.
“Kobe was touched by my concern for his well-being, and the bond between us grew stronger,” Jackson wrote. “We often bounced around ideas during practices and spent time scrutinizing game videos together on the team plane.”
Jackson held no regret sitting Bryant out of practices. Nor does he fault Bryant for agreeing with the approach. But Jackson conceded Bryant’s frequent absence from practice during the 2010-11 season contributed to the team’s ongoing chemistry issues.
“That diminished the intensity of the practices, as well,” Jackson wrote. “But more important, it isolated Kobe from the team, which created a leadership vacuum late in the season.”
Jackson also believes his leadership somewhat waned partly because of his “initial trepidation” to return in the 2010-11 season.
He struggled moving after having knee replacement surgery in his right knee. Jackson said he had a “secret longing” to escape the grinding NBA schedule, including the constant travel, late-night meals and reduced sleep. After the late Lakers owner Jerry Buss informed him during the 2010 NBA playoffs he would need to take a paycut to offset potential losses during the pending lockout, Jackson only agreed after Bryant and Fisher convinced him otherwise.
Add all the variables up, and Jackson believed most of the team’s struggles applied to everyone.
“Fatigue was a big factor,” Jackson wrote. “It takes a lot of grit — physically, psychologically and spiritually — to win one championship. By the time you’re shooting for your third in a row, you’ve played so many games, it gets harder and harder to tap into the inner resources that make winning possible. What’s more, many of the key individuals on the team — including me — were distracted by personal issues that made it difficult for us to compete with the same invincible spirit we’d known before.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org