Shaquille O'Neal is crinkling his brow, trying to imagine himself sitting on the floor and folding his 340-pound frame into a pretzel. Informed that his new coach, Phil Jackson, wants the Los Angeles Lakers to incorporate yoga into their routine, he is chewing over the concepts of meditation and the lotus position. Suddenly, he looks up, smiles and nods his head.

Apparently, what Jackson says, goes. Even with Shaq.

"Whatever it takes to get me one of those rings--if that's what it takes, that's what I'll do," O'Neal said. "I have a new saying: 'To be the best, you have to listen to the best.' And he's the best."

This is the feeling around the Lakers these days, where the slate is clean and the mood is hopeful. A group of players who forced the ouster of two coaches last season are suddenly willing to buy into everything Jackson is selling--from a new offense to a new spiritual outlook--while those outside the team are simply calling the coach a savior. Considering the success Jackson has had in the past--six championships with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls--the new coach seems to be exactly the answer for this underachieving team of superstars.

At least, it seems that way now. Jackson is aware that the Lakers, who last reached the NBA Finals in 1991, have advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs only once since.

"They call me savior, but it's really up to the players," said Jackson, trying to deflect what has become an avalanche of expectations. "Let's see how they do."

So far, they have won three of four games, although many players are struggling to learn the triangle offense Jackson and assistant coach Tex Winter brought from Chicago. As Lakers vice president of basketball operations Jerry West said, "We have flashes of looking very good, and then five minutes later, you'll turn around and say, 'My gosh, these guys look confused and lost.' "

To give the offense a more solid foundation, Jackson has emphasized the most basic shooting and passing drills, something Los Angeles' last coach, Kurt Rambis, also tried. But unlike last season, when several players ignored Rambis's pleas to get back to basics, the Lakers are actually committing to Jackson's system and listening to what he has to say. And so far, they like what they hear.

"He talks about the way we should think as one team, one mentality, the warrior attitude--how everybody should be on the same page," said nine-year NBA veteran forward John Salley. "Other coaches say those kinds of things, but he really believes it, and that's what makes him more effective.

"He stresses that this is a family away from our family. A lot of other coaches don't want these guys in their family. But he does, and besides, he's got the rings. Guys see that once you buy into Phil, it works for you."

A Different Mind-Set

Jackson's philosophies certainly require some stretching for the average NBA player, who is not accustomed to his coach wanting to change everything from the style he plays to what he reads on road trips. On the court, Jackson wants players to learn the triangle, which calls for everyone to get involved in the offense, providing the maximum number of options to score. Players who haven't gotten many chances to handle the ball in the past love the new system, although some seem to have a hard time learning when to let the ball go again. Star players are having to learn to share the ball, especially with each other.

Moreover, Jackson wants players to learn the "tai chi of basketball," a theory he has devised from his studies of Buddhism.

"It's about working against the pressure instead of going at it directly, and it's a concept a lot of young minds have trouble with, because it's not a mano-a-mano type of an offense," Jackson explains. "It's an offense that says, 'We'll pick you apart by making you overplay us here and then cutting you up on the other side.' It's a subtle thing these players are learning, and it's going to take some time."

Off the court, Jackson wants players to become more in tune with each other, a new concept on a team where O'Neal and young star Kobe Bryant--currently out with a broken hand--have had a hard time even being in the same room. Jackson doesn't need them to love each other, he says, just realize how desperately they need each other. He wants players to learn to meditate--in Chicago, Jackson once held an entire "meditation practice" to encourage players to think about their game--and even do a little yoga.

And he wants them to read. With the Bulls, he gave books to each player. (Bill Cartwright got "Bonfire of the Vanities;" Dennis Rodman got "Motorcycle Mania.") He likes to distribute more fiction than philosophy, although he did give the 10-page "Primer to Zen" to each of the Bulls.

"Don't tell Phil, but I used to only read the introductions to most of those," said longtime Bulls star Scottie Pippen, now with Portland. "But I do still have the books at my house in Chicago, and I'll read them one day."

Chicago History

Reunited at a shoot-around before a preseason game last month, Pippen and Jackson hugged and laughed with each other, although there were times in the past the two were not so close. There were difficult years when Michael Jordan was away playing baseball, and there was that famous moment during the final seconds of a 1994 playoff game when Pippen refused to reenter the game because Jackson had called a play for someone else.

Those were the years that the whispers started, the ones saying that perhaps Jackson--merely a sixth man with the New York Knicks in his playing days--wasn't that great a coach after all. No Michael, no league titles in 1994 and 1995. But once Jordan returned to basketball, Jackson earned respect not only for leading the Bulls to three more consecutive championships, but also for managing the menagerie of egos that was the Jordan-Pippen-Rodman show. By the end, even Jordan was saying he would retire rather than play for anyone but Jackson.

Still, to some degree the coach with the bagful of team-centered philosophies was fighting the perception that his success was all because of one transcendent player. Jackson knows that if he can win with the Lakers, he will wipe away that impression completely. If he can't, he will tarnish his NBA-record .738 career regular season winning percentage.

It's a sizable gamble. But Jackson seems willing to do it because he just doesn't care very much what other people think of him, as long as he's doing something that makes him happy.

"I don't ever expect to emulate what's happened before," Jackson said. "You can only be successful for the moment you have that success. I've already enjoyed those successes. The success that is going to be there in L.A. may not ever be the same pinnacle as reached before, but yet I feel a comfort about what I'm doing and feel very optimistic about it. Yeah, it's a risk, but it's a wonderful risk to take."

Of course, a salary of $6 million a year for five years isn't a bad reason either. That's what it took for West to lure Jackson out of the year-long hiatus he took from basketball after leaving the Bulls in 1998. In his time off, Jackson built a house in Woodstock, N.Y., spent time at his primary home in Montana and took his first-ever winter vacation, to Hawaii.

He also spent time with former Knicks teammate Bill Bradley, now a Democratic presidential candidate. Bradley and Jackson have been close since their playing days in the early '70s, when they were odd roommates on a team of odd personalities. Bradley was the preppy Princeton graduate who had taken time off from basketball to attend Oxford, while Jackson was the long-haired idealist son of two Pentecostal ministers from North Dakota.

When Bradley saw his old teammate leave coaching, he offered him the chance to step into politics as the head of his campaign in the all-important state of Iowa. Jackson considered the offer, even traveling the state for a few days, but in the end, it was basketball that called him. As much as he supports Bradley--by speaking at fund-raisers and making a financial contribution to the campaign--he felt he had more to accomplish in his own world before trying to conquer anyone else's.

"Measuring the height of the Pacific Ocean--that'll be my job when Bill is president," Jackson joked. "Really, I just felt I had some of my own personal goals left to accomplish."

Family Life

Some of those goals involved the Lakers, although some were also closer to home. Jackson felt that the frenzy of the Bulls experience sometimes left him isolated from friends and family, and he is trying to fix that. His wife is living in their New York home while he stays in Los Angeles, but they visit each other often. This June, he spent time with his sons, taking them to Alaska to go fly-fishing.

Now that the season has started, Jackson is fully immersed in basketball again, constantly reminding the players to be a team, to be together, to have one heart. He is drilling them in fundamentals, passing and shooting exercises they haven't gone through since junior high school. And, yes, he is even asking them to meditate a little; and because he is Phil Jackson, they are doing it.

"I'm still not sure exactly how it's going to play out, exactly what my vision for this team is going to be," he said. "It's still coming along as I get to know the players, the limitations of who they are, how they play best, what they are actually going to look like in their movement on the floor.

"All those things are sitting there percolating right now, and I'm just waiting for it all to happen."

PHIL JACKSON FILE

Age: 54

Won 1973 NBA title as a member of the New York Knicks.

Led Albany Patroons to Continental Basketball Association title in 1984.

Led Bulls to NBA titles in 1991-93 and 1996-98.

.738 regular season winning percentage (545-193) is an NBA record.

.730 playoff winning percentage (111-41) is No. 2 all-time.