Luke Walton recalls Phil Jackson’s mind games

Jeanie Buss and Phil Jackson talks to the media about the Lakers at a Time Warner event to honor the late Jerry Buss in Los Angeles.  Photo by David Crane/Los Angeles Daily News

Jeanie Buss and Phil Jackson talks to the media about the Lakers at a Time Warner event to honor the late Jerry Buss in Los Angeles. Photo by David Crane/Los Angeles Daily News

The mystique surrounding Phil Jackson goes beyond his 11 championship rings, how he handled the NBA’s top egos and whether he’ll ever have a large influence again within the Lakers organization.

Plenty of intrigue has always surrounded Jackson’s penchant for mind games, tweaking a player here and poking fun at an opponent there. These games were very real and always seemed to fill a specific purpose.

“He did it obviously to make you a stronger and better player,” former Lakers forward Luke Walton recalled Wednesday at the Lakers’ All-Access event at Staples Center, hosted by the LA Sports & Entertainment Commission. “He used to put the team in situations that they had to fight their way out of to help build a bond. While it was going on, it doesn’t make any sense. You want to win the game.”

Walton, who now serves as a player development coach for the D-Fenders and a part-time analyst for Time Warner Cable SportsNet, then offered a detailed story that left Kobe Bryant fuming at Jackson. And it hardly involved the so-called “Jedi Master,” as Walton described Jackson, calling Bryant uncoachable or needling him for not passing the ball enough.

“There was times he would purposely not call fouls for Kobe at practice,” Walton said. “Kobe would lose it. He would storm out of there yelling at people. Phil would have this little grin on this face. You’d ask him why. He’d say well, there’s going to be a time in a game he doesn’t get a foul he wants. He needs to know how to play through that. It’s little things like that he’d do purposefully all the time that would piss players off at times. But ultimately it made our team a lot better.”

Jackson has five NBA titles to show for that with the Lakers, compiling them in two different stints that included the unstoppable albeit tension filled Shaq-Kobe era (2000-2002) and Pau Gasol becoming the missing link to continue Bryant’s pursuit of championship greatness (2009-10). But for role players, such as Walton, Jackson also had a way of making them feel connected.

Back when Walton suffered chronic back problems in the 2009-10 season, Jackson boosted his spirits by doing something beyond saying a few soothing words.

“I was in a funk so Phil called me into the coaches’ meetings to meet with him and his staff. He pulled me aside and told me something similar had happened to him where when he got hurt, he started coaching until he got healthy again,” said Walton, who then began helping Jackson chart plays while sitting on the sideline. “That’s when I realized that’s something fun to do if and when the playing days ended.”

The coaching days have ended for Jackson, but he’s far from done trying to exert his influence.

Jackson recently authored his memoir “Eleven Rings,” a book that went beyond providing clarity on his preference for Michael Jordan over Bryant and how the Lakers’ standout eventually had a fruitful relationship with him. The book also detailed his various team concepts and motivational tactics to ensure a pack of self-interested stars can sacrifice themselves for the good of the team.

Jackson’s also not done playing mind games either.

He’s tweaked the Lakers from time to time, with subjects involving the team’s decision to pass over him to replace Mike Brown, executive vice president of player personnel Jim Buss and how Mike D’Antoni has used or misused the talent around him. Lakers president Jeanie Buss, Jackson’s fiance, also laughed noting how the famed coach often “trolls” on Twitter, including to former Chicago Bulls forward Scottie Pippen after he recently posted a photo of himself.

“Phil decided he had to chime in and remind Scottie that he was never really a good free throw shooter,” Buss recalled. “He was trolling on Twitter. He’s doing great. He’s watching all the games, not just the Lakers games. There’s almost too much basketball.”

So what was it like playing for the Jedi Master?,” emcee and Lakers’ play-by-play announcer Bill Macdonald asked.

“In hindsight,” Walton said, “it was the greatest experience ever.”


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