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Sport: How I Lost The Lakers

4 minute read
Bill Saporito

Kobe Bryant was furious again. Waving a newspaper that held a teammate’s unflattering, anonymous quote, the Los Angeles Lakers star confronted each of the other players: “Right here and right now,” he said, seething, “I want to know who said this s___.” No wonder Lakers coach Phil Jackson tried to hire a team psychologist to help him douse the fire ravaging his squad.

But there would be no confronting Kobe about his anger and selfishness. And no championship trophy. In The Last Season (Penguin; 288 pages), the man who coached nine NBA champions in Chicago and Los Angeles describes the turbulent year that ended his career as leader of the Lakers. While the book is a hoot for basketball fans, Jackson’s experiences also offer lessons for anyone dealing with chaos at home or work.

Jackson, Zen master of hoops, spent a lifetime preaching the virtues of we over I, of the need for players to achieve oneness and stifle their egos to win as a team. It’s a philosophy with a strategy–the triangle offense, a system devised by his assistant Tex Winter. The triangle requires players to move in set patterns without the ball. It isn’t designed for a single player; it rewards the guy who gets into the best position for a shot.

As Jackson makes clear in the book, the interpersonal triangle that connected him, Bryant and center Shaquille O’Neal fell apart. Bryant was consumed with being Los Angeles’ alpha Laker and saw any Shaq gain as his loss. It was office politics at a whole other level. “These two guys had to be on the same wavelength,” Jackson tells TIME. “I don’t think there’s anything particularly that kept Kobe from throwing the ball into Shaq. But the opportunity for them to play together–give, go screen, roll–was never really fleshed out. So I thought it kept us from reaching our [potential].”

When Jackson coached the Chicago Bulls, superstar Michael Jordan not only learned to live with the triangle, he took command executing it. In Los Angeles, Jackson fought a losing battle getting players like Gary Payton, a former star with Seattle, to see its benefits. “Players would like to know that they are the target person in this particular time down the court, that they have an opportunity to conquer, demolish their opponent,” says Jackson. “They see it as an individualized action.”

The personnel issues got so intense that Jackson consulted a psychologist for conflict resolution. But the Lakers brass wouldn’t let him put the shrink on the roster. “That’s part of the reason the breakup happened,” Jackson says. “There wasn’t enough invested, basically, in a marriage counselor.”

That the Lakers even reached the finals is a tribute, of sorts, to Bryant’s staggering basketball skills. Despite commuting to Colorado to attend hearings pertaining to the sexual-assault charges against him, Kobe turned in 40point performances. And he still led the league in obstinacy. Only out of desperation, with the Lakers down 3-1 to Detroit, did Kobe give in. “You know how much I hate this f______ offense,” he tells Jackson in the book. “But I’ll settle in, and we’ll just execute the triangle and get the ball inside to Shaq.” Thanks, Kobe. Too late.

Playing family therapist and coach, Jackson admits, was too much for him. So the Zen master will be taking off a year and then look for another spot in basketball–not necessarily coaching–to apply his philosophy. Kobe, free from criminal culpability and armed with a new contract, will be leading the Lakers without Shaq, who is now in Miami. It’s Kobe’s team now. Maybe he’ll grow into it.

To read an excerpt, visit SPORTS ILLUSTRATED website si.com/nba

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