Here's the funny thing:
They pleaded with him for months to coach the team and gave him $30 million -- heck, the boss's daughter even fell for him -- but with their season three minutes from being cooked, the Los Angeles Lakers still had no idea whether Phil Jackson was worth all that time and money.
Chances are Jackson didn't, either. Couldn't. His team had just run off 15 straight points to erase a 15-point deficit against Portland, and the scrubs had done most of the work. Along with the almost 19,000 packed into the Staples Center on Sunday night, he had to wonder what was next.
Then Shaquille O'Neal made two free throws and a basket, Kobe Bryant made two more free throws and a basket, and the two combined on a spectacular alley-oop dunk to torch the Trail Blazers' season.
Another 40 or so seconds remained, but Game 7 had already exhausted its twists and turns. Soon, the Lakers picked up a new title, Western Conference champion, and Jackson hung onto an old one. He was still the Zen master, still an effective, if quirky leader, a motivational genius still worth every penny. At least until the Pacers come to town Wednesday.
''Game 7s are very interesting,'' Jackson said, ''but I've never seen any quite like that one before.''
Maybe so. But someone reminded the one-time coach of the six-time NBA champion Bulls of something similar. In the 1992 NBA Finals, Chicago began the fourth quarter trailing Portland by 15 points and the scrubs engineered a comeback, then turned it over to Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen to seal the win.
''However, I had much more confidence in that team at that time,'' Jackson recalled. ''They had won a championship. So they had that little bit in them.
''But,'' he added, ''I think this was a building stone for this team.''
That was Jackson's assignment in June, when Lakers owner Jerry Buss reeled him in: Take a chronically underachieving team and shake its fear of heights. Jackson started at the top, with O'Neal and Bryant. The two arrived in Los Angeles in 1996, won a flurry of regular-season games, but bombed out at the end of each season in the playoffs. They won only one game against Utah in the second round in 1997, none in the Western Conference finals the year after that. Glen Rice came in midway through last season, but the Lakers' exit was just as inglorious -- a second-round sweep by the eventual champions, the San Antonio Spurs.
Enter Jackson (with a five-year deal and most of his old Bulls assistants in tow). Then Ron Harper and John Salley, who played for him in Chicago, then seasoned vets like Brian Shaw and A.C. Green.
The fit was good from the start. Jackson taught everybody to play defense, to trust one another, then squeezed enough shots from the triangle offense to keep both his young superstars and his old guns content.
The Lakers ripped off consecutive streaks of 16, 19 and 11 games on the way to 67 regular-season wins. Then came the playoffs. And just as suddenly, Jackson seemed to have misplaced his touch.
He got drawn into needless squabbles in both the Sacramento and Phoenix series, antagonizing opponents and costing his own team some of the ''focus'' and ''energy'' Jackson so zealously guards. When the Lakers drew Portland in the conference finals, either desperation or arrogance pushed him even further. He got into a running battle with Pippen, his former player, and the gambit backfired, nearly costing the Lakers their season.
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