Why Is This Man Smiling? It wasn't Phil Jackson who decided that his stint as the Lakers' coach was over. But the ringmaster was happy to leave the circus behind

June 27, 2004

It is, when you think about it, a Machiavellian masterpiece. Kobe
Bryant engineered a coup that has resulted in the departure of
one of the greatest coaches of all time and a trade demand from
one of the greatest centers of all time. And Kobe himself may not
be a Los Angeles Laker next season--or even be a free citizen.

Truly the Lakers are a mess, and at week's end the top candidate
to straighten things out was the battle-tested Rudy Tomjanovich,
who was scheduled to interview for the coaching vacancy on
Tuesday. In 11 years as a player and 12 as a head coach, Rudy T.,
55, has seen it all, his vision sometimes blurred, the result of
having his face rearranged by a punch from Kermit Washington in
1977. Tomjanovich also battled back from bladder cancer in 2003.
And after many years of drinking, smoking and caffeining, he has
given up alcohol, cigarettes and coffee. Maybe coaching in that
purple-and-gold nuthouse wouldn't be so hard for him.

The problem for the next Lakers coach is this: Phil Jackson, who
negotiated the impermanent truce between Kobe and Shaq that
produced three championships in five seasons, made the job look
easy.

To Lakers owner Jerry Buss, however, Bryant is the sun around
which all else revolves, and Bryant wanted no more of a coach who
wouldn't make him the focus of the offense. So poof goes Jackson,
despite having the highest winning percentage of all time and
despite his romantic relationship with Buss's daughter, Jeanie, a
Lakers exec. O'Neal resented the power that Bryant had within the
organization and last week demanded that Los Angeles unload his
7'1", 345-pound body and his $29 million salary. General manager
Mitch Kupchak, no doubt speaking for Buss, said he would cast out
a line with Shaq as bait. Don't think he won't get some nibbles.
Indiana or Dallas could come up with a package of players to
entice Kupchak.

Bryant, of course, could still draw jail time if he's convicted
in his felony sexual assault case, or he could bolt to another
team via free agency. On top of that, an injured Karl Malone has
also decided to become a free agent and might not be back (which
is a problem), and Gary Payton has apparently decided not to
become a free agent and may very well be back (which is also a
problem). It's no wonder that Jackson was wearing a sly smile
after the 100-87 Game 5 loss that eliminated the Lakers on June
15. He hadn't yet met with Buss, but he seemed to know that it
was over.

"If that was your last game, Phil, you'll be missed," I told him
outside the locker room. "Sports has been dumbed down enough
without losing guys like you."

"I appreciate that," he said. He ambled away stiffly--perhaps
he'll go for those hip replacements now--and still smiling.

Jackson no doubt felt it was time to leave. Coaching years are
like dog years, particularly when you spend your days and nights
deconstructing the psyches of superstars as squirrelly as Bryant
and O'Neal. Jackson looks older than his 58 years. Winning three
championships with this bunch wasn't nearly as much fun as
winning six with the Bulls. His relationship with Shaq, his
principal Lakers ally, wasn't nearly as close as the one he had
with Michael Jordan, and he had almost no relationship with
Bryant.

Jackson told me six weeks ago that he would not coach another
team next season if he wasn't a Laker. But he also talked of
being a "Pete Newell type," referring to the NBA big-man
instructor who has consulted for several teams. After he chills
for a year, Jackson will be presented with many options, from
coaching to general guru-ing. Probably any of them will look more
attractive than what he's walking away from now.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY STEVE BRODNER

"In her book Marion Jones comes down hard on her ex-husband."
--WORD GAMES, PAGE 18

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