I’m excited. You’re excited. America is excited. David Stern is excited. What are we all excited about? That’s right, we’re all excited about Lakers basketball. After suffering through three agonizing years of not making it past the first round of the playoffs we are finally back in championship contention.
I think the most amazing attribute Lakers fans and the Lakers organization have is our absolute disgust with being a loser. This is probably why we are the most hated fan base of the NBA. We whine and moan and demand our General Manager’s head on a pike just because we had three years of rebuilding while teams like the Rockets and Bulls have been spending the better part of a decade trying to return to form.
While that may sound like negative criticism, it is absolutely not. It’s the attitude of a winner and It’s also probably why we have 14 rings and 28 finals appearances.
So much credit has been passed around for this incredible turn around (most notably to Kobe and Pau, and to a lesser extent Derek Fisher) very few pundits offer much talk about Phil Jackson’s role in all this. I felt that snub was fairly undeserved and after finally reading The Last Season, I feel it much stronger now.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, watching the Smush/Kwame experience coming off of our period of utter dominance was a painful thing. It was so painful that I couldn’t bring myself to read Phil’s book even though it has always intrigued me because the last thing I wanted to deal with at that time was the chronicle of our team’s demise. I mean, who wants to go through the 03-04 season again? Well about a week ago, I finally felt emotionally ready to crack it open and to my surprise I found it to be (beyond being a very good read) far different than what I expected and surprisingly insightful to this new Lakers team.
First off, this book doesn’t really dwell on the Kobe and Shaq feud nearly as much as I presumed. Judging by the reputation this book has received (and the fairly erroneous synopsis on the back cover), I was expecting something that would read like a Lakers edition of the National Enquirer. That is very much not the case. That’s not to say it doesn’t contain it’s moments of Kobe and Shaq craziness (there’s a particularly hilarious story about how Kobe threatens the team by saying he’s going to leave and take Slava Medvedenko with him, to which Phil Jackson muses, “Of all the people on the team, why would he threaten to leave the team with Slava Medvedenko?”).
The vast majority of the book consists of post-game and pre-game analyses. If there is a true villain to this story it’s certainly not Kobe. It’s the screen roll. Divided into a series of diary entries (most of which are written post-game), he mentions the team’s poor defense on the screen roll on seemingly every entry. It gets pretty funny after a while.
With that in mind it’s amazing that this book became a New York Times bestseller. While I found it to be terribly fascinating, it is in essence a bunch of game notes. I really can’t imagine a non-basketball fan or a casual fan being too interested. For every dramatic episode there are probably three or four fairly technical sections about how he plans to break down the offenses and defenses of a particular team.
It’s definitely well written and very readable, but at the end of the day it still amounts to very readable pre-game and post-game notes (then again, Pamela Anderson’s novel became a bestseller so maybe the bestseller thing isn’t that amazing).
It’s a real shame that after the book’s release the only thing that anybody paid attention to was the bits of drama it had to offer. Even the subtitle of “A Team in Search of it’s Soul” seems overly sensational what it is.
For all the craziness that surrounded him, he always approached his players with a great degree of empathy which is by far the most poignant and insightful aspects of this story. Even when dealing with Kobe, who was pretty unbearable at the time, he always did his best to take into account the immense physical and mental strain he was under and his own culpability in their deteriorating relationship.
With his reputation for playing “mind games” and being Mr. Triangle offense, after reading this book, I feel it’s his humanity more than anything else that makes him the Hall of Fame coach he is today.
There’s a passage in the book where he contrasts the selfishness and bickering of his superstars with the hard work and modesty of Jannero Pargo that was particularly telling. He finds the bitter irony about him getting cut from the team and is genuinely sad about how players like Jannero slip through the cracks due to the business of basketball.
While I’m sure it’s hard for all coaches to see players leave the team, I think with Phil it might run a little deeper. Being very old school and team orientated probably from being a role player on the 70’s Knicks, perhaps the ultimate role player team, he seems to get really attached to the little guys. This goes a long way in explaining Smush Parker and Kwame Brown. Think about it, Kwame and Smush can’t get minutes on the Grizzlies and the Heat, yet Phil decided to start them. He even got decent performances out of them. Ironic that he has made his ability to deal with superstar egos his calling (or not. Who better to deal with superstars than a role player?).
In the end it’s this attachment to his players that makes the ending of the book so ironic. For a coach that loves team unity and old school work ethic above anything else, the fact that his team imploded due to very new school ego battles and selfishness is downright poetic. After his passages about the end of season, the book epilogues with him planning his life after basketball. Like an old western, it leaves the lingering image of an old broken down gunslinger fading off into the sunset. It was poignant then but in hindsight, it presents a very Jay-Z moment now.
I really hope he’s been keeping a diary this season; it would make a great sequel.
Terry Kim is a TLN Staff contributor, you can contact him at TerryKim@Vertigo-Go.com.