Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A Coach In Search of His Soul

This appears on the NBA Philippines website.

A Coach In Search of His Soul
by rick olivares

When Phil Jackson was officially named as the New York Knicks’ president, I wondered if the Zen Master decided to take the “war” to another front.

You know, show the Los Angeles Lakers organization that he can consistently build a winner. Unlike his first two stops in Chicago and LA where he had young and talented rising stars to build and mold, he hasn’t much in New York. Sure there’s Carmelo Anthony but he has all these questions to answer as well.

As terrific a talent he is, when he was traded away from Denver (where he was supposed to be the franchise player), the Nuggets actually did better. There has been a spirited run in the playoffs in New York but you’d have to chalk up a large part of that to Linsanity.

Back to Jackson, I couldn’t help but think of his testy relationship with the Lakers and while he won many battles, he didn’t win the “war”.

A few days after the Knicks’ announcement of the return of the Prodigal Son, Jackson’s fiancée, Lakers President Jeanie Buss, made a statement about “being the boss” on a LA radio show. "In my position, I empower people that are in positions to do their jobs. (Executive vice president of player personnel) Jim Buss and (general manager) Mitch Kupchak are responsible for all basketball decisions. They are empowered to do that. My job is to make sure, as a boss, that I provide them the tools to do the job successfully. But it's up to them to make the day-to-day decisions on how they operate their area of the business. Ultimately I am the one voice. I am that person. I'm at the top of the food chain.”

If she’s the Boss, then why didn’t Phil get the job? In fact, in the light of her comments about her not knowing why Dwight Howard left LA in spite of an off-season courtship, I am all the more convinced that maybe – maybe – it’s best to leave the basketball stuff to those who know it.

Whether she took one for the team or not, I am convinced that LA management wanted to break away from Jackson and write a new chapter. One they could call their own.

Now what scion of a successful businessman or athlete doesn’t want to be able to equal if not surpass his parent’s achievements? Every child tries to put their own stamp on things; some stick to the formula that worked while others do it a little differently from what their parent did.

Case in points: Hal and Hank Steinbrenner of the New York Yankees. When their father, the late George Steinbrenner bought the team in the early 1970s, the team was floundering. In a few years’ time, The Boss, as the father was called, had turned the club around and into a winner. It was under The Boss where free agency in baseball first started and thrived (although I am sure that many owners are loathe to call it that).

As George Steinbrenner grew ill, much of the day-to-day operations of the baseball team were turned over to Hal. By November 2008, he was the man in charge. The following season, Hal did his father proud by providing the Yankees the free agents to help win the 2009 World Series.

It looks like it’s taking a little longer for the Busses.

Their father struck gold in his very first year with the team when Magic Johnson was drafted to join a talented Lakers team that already had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jamaal Wilkes, Norm Nixon and Michael Cooper. That LA team defeated Philadelphia for its first title since the Wilt Chamberlain-Jerry West years.

As much as the Lakers have become one of the world’s preeminent sports clubs under Jerry Buss’ watch, there have been low points when the team struggled in the mid-90s. So you know, the father isn’t infallible.

The events of recent weeks means that this the third time that Jackson has been “passed over” under auspicious circumstances.

Following the disastrous 2004 Finals where the Detroit Pistons beat the Lakers in five matches, Jackson lost the war with Kobe Bryant when Jerry Buss sided with the young Lakers star. The coach not only wanted his salary of $6 million doubled but he also wanted Bryant out of the team after a season of sniping at each other in the locker room and in the media. As is oft the case in pro sports, it is the coach who loses.

The icy relationship between Bryant and Jackson thawed and when Rudy Tomjanovich and Frank Hamblen couldn’t get the job done, the Zen Master was brought back.

Incredibly, the Lakers won two straight in 2009 and 2010. They were going for their third straight championship (and second wave of triple titles in the Jackson era) when they ran into a hungry Dallas Mavericks team in the Western Conference semis. The Mavs ousted them in four straight and sent Jackson into retirement.

However, in a situation that eerily mimicked the 2004-05 season when the Lakers saw two coaches in Tomjanovich and Hamblen try their luck, the 2011-12 saw Mike Brown and Bernie Bickerstaff patrol the purple and gold’s sidelines albeit under a lot of duress. Unlike Hamblen who couldn’t get the team to the playoffs as they finished fifth in the Pacific Division, Bickerstaff got the Lakers to the second round of the playoffs. But the young and talented Oklahoma City Thunder booted them in five.

After that season, just when it seemed like Jackson was primed for his third return to LA, it was announced that Mike D’Antoni got the job.

In my opinion, as much as Jackson brought a lot of glory to Los Angeles, his looming shadow and tall frame hung heavy over the organization. Eventually, Jim Buss wanted to build his own winner.

Jackson was his father’s pick. Jackson was his sister Jeanie’s (the Lakers’ President) fiancée. If Jackson reprised his winning ways with the Lakers, he and Jeanie would represent one powerful block.

I thought of former Bulls general manager Jerry Krause who feuded with Jackson and wanted recognition for himself (and owner Jerry Reinsdorf) in building a winner in the Windy City. Unfortunately, for them, they were viewed as villains in their own town by the fans who still believed they tore down the dynasty even before they were done.

Krause wanted to build a new winner with a team sans Jackson and Jordan (who was the one player he didn’t draft as the honor went to Rod Thorn). He misjudged the free agent market and players like Tracy McGrady, Grant Hill, Kevin Garnett and Eddie Jones snubbed Chicago. The Bulls sank into mediocrity until mid-2000s renaissance.

Unlike frosty Chicago, the Lakers, since Buss took over the team, has been viewed as one of the most desired destinations of players so it was no surprise that Dwight Howard fled Orlando for Hollywood. Steve Nash left Phoenix only he was broken down. This seemed like the 2003-04 season when Karl Malone and Gary Payton joined Shaquille O’Neal and Bryant except that this team bombed big time not even making the playoffs. 

So for the second straight year, the Lakers won’t be making the post-season. Their annus horriblis (with the cross-room Clippers being the toast of Tinsel Town for two years running) won’t be over even when their 82nd game is played. There’s the off-season and even part of the next until there’s a surefire winner in Lakerland.

But make no mistake, Los Angeles with its bloody divorce from Jackson, is charting a new destiny.

Over in his old stomping grounds of New York, the Zen Master is in for his biggest challenge. He won’t be coaching – at least not yet although there is speculation he will – but he still is looking to build a winner. He has hinted about playing the game the right way, preaching the tenets of the triangle if he can’t help it. But he has also said that he will go with what works.

Jackson’s legacy is secure. But if his return to New York is successful, this will be his biggest act.

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