Lakers' Jackson, Bryant Making the Most of Their Second Chance

Kobe Bryant and Lakers Coach Phil Jackson have formed a stronger bond in their second stint together, and hope to top it off with a championship.
Kobe Bryant and Lakers Coach Phil Jackson have formed a stronger bond in their second stint together, and hope to top it off with a championship. (By Chris Carlson -- Associated Press)
By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 14, 2009

ORLANDO, June 13 -- Theirs wasn't always the most seamless relationship -- the kind with free and open communication; where the bond is so tight that messages could be conveyed through looks and nods, not just words; where basketball discussions often take a back seat to those about life; and where they can survey the court and see the same thing.

Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson are nearing a fourth championship together that will cement their already impressive legacies as player and coach. Both recognize that after their public breakup-to-make-up earlier this decade, they needed each other to get to this moment. Through shared failure, and now success, a friendship has been forged.

"I think the second time around, it became more of a personal relationship, us having been around each other, then having this new group of guys, guys that we both had to lead," Bryant said. "I think the relationship has carried over to off the court, whereas in the past it's always just been more of an Xs and Os kind of relationship."

With the Los Angeles Lakers holding a 3-1 lead over the Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals, Bryant is one win from matching Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan with four titles and can begin making a stronger case for being recognized as the best player in the post-Michael Jordan era. Jackson can stand alone as the only coach with a ring for each finger and both thumbs.

"Well, you know, we try to work under the assumption that you're only successful the moment you perform a successful act, and in that regard, this has not been accomplished yet. So talking about futuristic things kind of throws me for a loop," Jackson said of possibly breaking his tie with Red Auerbach with nine championships. "I do know that it's a momentous thing."

The Lakers' ability to come out from a lottery abyss to the precipice of the franchise's 15th championship is also momentous, and partly because of greater understanding and chemistry between the two most accomplished people in this series. Bryant admitted this week that he has come to accept and endorse some of Jackson's practices -- such as meditation -- which he didn't fully understand early in his career. And with murmurs that Jackson's 10th title combined with his declining health could force to him to walk away from the game with that bowlegged, old cattle-rancher gait, Bryant said he couldn't see himself playing for another coach.

"I've been spoiled my whole career playing with Phil. It's hard to imagine playing for anybody else, obviously. I grew up with him," said Bryant.

When Jackson arrived in Los Angeles in 1999, he was intent on building his first championship team around a dominant big man, which often angered his 21-year-old shooting guard, who patterned his game after Jordan. Bryant returned each season, having worked harder in the summer to master another aspect of his game, but every time he expected Jackson to hand him the reins, it always came down to being an O'Neal-centric team. That is, until the summer of 2004, when Bryant was approaching free agency, Jackson was fired, O'Neal was traded and Bryant greeted the dismissals with a cold shrug.

They spent a year apart, Bryant's team plummeted to the lottery while Jackson was on a South Pacific sabbatical and scorching him in his tell-all book as "uncoachable." But when Jackson returned before the 2005-06 season, he resolved to gain Bryant's trust by criticizing him privately rather than through the media. And without the security of having the biggest, baddest center in the league, Jackson relied more on having the baddest perimeter player become the unquestioned leader of a young, inexperienced team.

Jackson also served as the buffer between management and Bryant in 2007, when the Lakers lost to Phoenix in the first round for the second year in a row and Bryant made a demonstrative and public trade demand. Jackson was able to calm Bryant, whose patience was rewarded later that season with a trade for Pau Gasol that immediately made the Lakers title contenders.

"I think this one is special because you rarely have the opportunity to get back up to the mountain twice in a career," Bryant said. "In other words, you have your first run and then you hit rock bottom, and then you've got to build back up and get back to the top again."

A former teammate said Bryant once told him that his goal was to win eight championships. Closing in on getting halfway there, Bryant was asked if it was important to catch Jordan, who won six. "I'm trying to get this fourth one," said Bryant, the 2007-08 NBA MVP. "That's the most important, the championships. It's a tough thing to do in team sports to have multiple championships. I mean, it's hard. So I think that's always the first thing that we remember because it's so difficult to do."

Bryant said he doesn't understand how some attempt to diminish what Jackson has accomplished because he got to coach the best players of their era while those players were in their primes. "That's phenomenal. That's phenomenal. I can't name one coach that won a championship with a bunch of scrubs, so that argument makes no sense," Bryant said. "I think, Coach Auerbach also had a lot of lucky, very fortunate situations. But you have to have that. They've got to go hand in hand. But in my opinion, [Phil]'s the best."

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