It's a classic NBA one-on-one: a coach, Phil Jackson, with his reputation as the league's reigning genius, vs. a star-studded L.A. Lakers team that has played like a remake of "Dumb and Dumber." Since Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant arrived in L.A. three years ago and began their "who's the man?" duel, the Lakers have been the most disappointing team in the NBA. The two superstars were unwilling to talk off the court and incapable of communicating on it. As a result, the Lakers have bombed in the playoffs, including 4-0 sweeps by Utah and San Antonio the past two seasons. Swept away in the process were two coaches. But Jackson is clearly the man now. And by the end of last week he had kick-started the formerly brooding and feuding Lakers to a 5-2 record. With six championship rings from his Chicago Bulls tenure, bolstered by a five-year, $30 million deal, the new coach far exceeds his players in stature. "Jackson knows how to win so there's no more excuses," says O'Neal. "If we can't win now, there is nobody to blame but ourselves."
Perhaps. But there isn't a basketball coach alive who doesn't suspect that he might have won a championship ring with Jordan in his lineup. If Jackson fails to win without Michael, he could become another faded star in a town overrun with them. "It's something that I don't think about at all," insists the 54-year-old coach, in his stilted parlance. "I look forward to instituting a certain system of basketball that has a particular gloss and credence to see if another group of kids adapt to it and if it works like it did with the guys in Chicago."
But before Jackson could get to the "gloss" and "credence" stuff, his first priority was a truce, if not genuine camaraderie, between his two biggest stars. "Of course I'd heard about the so-called dispute between the two, the character issues and egos, but that didn't bother me," says Jackson. The coach had a long heart-to-heart with Bryant by phone the very day he signed his contract, and Shaq quickly made a pilgrimage to Jackson's Montana retreat. "Phil let them both know that he wasn't going to have any foolishness this year," says another Laker. Soon after, when Kobe celebrated his 21st birthday with a bash in West Hollywood, he surprised Shaq with an invite. Shaq returned the surprise by showing, and the two were center stage on the dance floor.
Still, it may be harder for O'Neal to accept all the changes, including assistant coach Tex Winter's famed triangle offense, imported from Chicago along with old man Winter, now 77. The offense, which is based on constant motion and swift ball movement, puts a premium on passing skills. It is not designed for O'Neal to hold the ball until he can bull his way to the basket. Jackson has tried to tantalize Shaq with tales of the late Wilt Chamberlain. Wilt, whose early career bears some resemblance to O'Neal's, finally won two championships by transforming himself from a scorer to a passer. "O'Neal came into the league with a lot of dominance, and I think he's lost that in the last couple of years," says the coach. He also questioned how O'Neal can be a team leader if he keeps missing critical free throws. (O'Neal, a career .535 percent foul-shooter, has so far this season dipped to an execrable .354 percent.) "We are still finding out what makes him tick," says Jackson.
Jackson seems far more certain about Kobe's adjustment, which officially began after a preseason scrimmage last month. Jackson referred to it in the press as "The Kobe Bryant Memorial Game"--"meaning the end of Kobe taking a lot of shots and showing off." And the beginning, Jackson believes, of a new disciplined approach that has Bryant also thinking pass before shoot. The coach insists that Bryant's leadership potential could rival Jordan's. "I see those abilities in him, and we're going to pull them out of him," Jackson says. Bryant, who is sidelined this month with a broken hand, says, "We're all in sync trying to work and win with Phil."
The coach is a fan of Zen meditations off the court. But on the court the only true way is "his way," says ex-Bull, current Laker guard Ron Harper. "It's his way or no way." But the Lakers have struggled with the complex offense, largely because, says Winter, "these guys lacked the fundamental skills of the game." Under Jackson, some of the Laker practices have resembled a high-school program, with the team devoting long sessions to basics; the coach even devoted a practice to two-hand chest passes. At practices, players appear earnest and attentive, a contrast to recent seasons when many of them literally nodded off during team meetings. Another Jackson fundamental has been, on the season's first long road trip, a gift of a different book to each player. But now the coach appears daunted by that prospect. "I'm not sure this is a big reading team," he says dryly.
It is a big partying team in the nation's premier party town. Two years ago, only hours after the team had been swept by Utah, most of the Lakers were ensconced in front-row seats for a performance by comic Steve Harvey. "Ain't you all 'shamed?" Harvey scolded them. "Didn't you all get your asses kicked 30 minutes ago? You beat me here!" When the team lost its final game to San Antonio last season, sharpshooter Glen Rice, who had arrived in a promising midseason trade, was equally appalled. As he yanked off his uniform Rice muttered, "I don't care if I ever put that jersey on again." Jackson understands that L.A. boasts many distractions for young players. "But we're going to get the right mixture of guys who can handle the pressure of a city like this," he says.
Despite the solid start, there are still signs of the kind of brainless play that has plagued past Laker teams. O'Neal, frustrated by roughhouse defensive tactics, the new offensive scheme and his free-throw woes, has twice had physical altercations with opponents, getting booted from two games and, as a result, suspended for a third. Jackson will learn quickly what everyone in Tinseltown already knows. Opening scenes are easy; happy endings much harder.