Red comes up daily, both men -- competing for space and time in Phil Jackson's psyche.

The Red he still reveres passed away almost six years ago, at age 78. Red Holzman is the late New York Knicks coach, a firm, humble man who gave a gangly, free spirit from the early 1970s two gifts: minutes on an NBA championship team and a career blueprint after he could no longer play.

The other Red in Jackson's conscience is 86 years old, still proud and crass. Red Auerbach is the Boston Celtics' patriarch, who sucks on lit cigars and swears at his television in his condominium near American University. He sees that smirky intellectual with the coat-hanger shoulders taking aim at his record, lording over that "ready-made team" Jerry West packed in a school lunchbox for him.

Four more victories over the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals, which begin Sunday, and Jackson surpasses Auerbach's nine championships as a coach. Four more, and the Red who needles old Knicks may have to give Jackson his due.

Or not.

"It bothers me a little that he doesn't give anybody else credit," Auerbach said in a telephone interview from his apartment on Thursday night. "Like Jerry West," he added, of the former Lakers team president now making over Memphis.

"Jerry West built that ballclub. Why can't he just say, 'I'm a lucky SOB that Jerry West got me these guys?' You never hear him mention his assistants, either. He's a good coach, but . . ."

"That's just Red," Jackson said, sitting in a vacant bar of a Minneapolis hotel last week. "If I saw Red, he would be fine with it. But he's a gruff guy. When I was in the CBA, I brought my family over to watch a Michael Jordan game versus the Celtics in, like, 1986, before I came to the NBA.

"And Red saw me there, and he still had to get a punch in on me. He had to say something demeaning to me. It's just the rivalry. I can't remember what he said, but we got combative over it. That whole Knick-Celtic thing."

"That's maybe a little part of it," Auerbach conceded.

"Look, he's a unique kind of coach, but there's a modern way of doing things," he added. "He just doesn't get involved in the personnel. And after Chicago, he took a year off waiting for the right team. He could have had a lot of jobs. But he wouldn't go because they weren't good enough."

L.A. Soap

Maybe Phil Jackson needs to surpass a curmudgeonly Celtic to karmically right the hoop universe for the Red he reveres. Or perhaps he can just coach and staggeringly pile up titles because of the profound role both Reds played in his ascension.

The two Reds served in the navy together -- Auerbach once tried to help Holzman get into George Washington University. But they loathed losing to each other as NBA coaches. The rivalry began in earnest when the Knicks mounted a serious challenge to Boston's dominance over the league in the late 1960s. By the 1969-70 season, New York had its first title under Holzman. As a role player on that team and New York's 1973 championship team, Jackson saw the difference in men and styles.

Holzman was a caring, modest, no-excuses taskmaster. He espoused the good of the group, the melding of talents and egos, until five players became one. The other Red never rebuilt; Auerbach just reloaded, preaching tradition, revolving role players and all-stars around the greatest defensive player of all time, Bill Russell. He was a savvy manager of personnel, who often rubbed in victories over opposing teams by lighting a cigar in games' final moments.

No matter how much talent they had, neither took guff from a superstar. Neither has Jackson in coping with the egos of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, or as he had to do in Chicago with Jordan and Scottie Pippen. He now seems on the verge of ending his five-year association with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Three titles down and one to go later, it is not a daily grind as much as it is a drama grind.

"There have been times over the last three seasons that I've certainly said, 'Who needs it?' Just like that, 'Who needs that?' " Jackson said. "This year hasn't been like that. I've actually enjoyed this year. I got to coach great kids like Luke Walton and Kareem Rush when we had injuries. It was rather enjoyable, even with some of the early friction."

Bryant was charged with felony sexual assault last summer in Colorado and became almost unruly toward Jackson during early parts of the season. Bryant said he actually did not like his coach "as a person" over the all-star break, prompting speculation that one of them would have to leave.

"I wasn't bothered by it, because Kobe and I were having a very hard time," Jackson said. "I know we're through it now."

"At the time he was challenging authority on every point," he added. "I understood that this was something going on his life that really, you know, was such a focus that it was difficult to bring the rest of his life together. If he had been able to compartmentalize it, but everybody was either on his team or off his team. And I was trying to get him to move a little bit from. . . . I wouldn't say bitterness is the word. There was a certain amount of anger that was still going on there."

Jackson said he spoke to Bryant the day after the All-Star Game, telling his young star: "We can make this work. We've had a good relationship. We have resources to go back and draw from."

Then, prior to the playoffs, he asked Bryant to become the team's floor general, giving him more freedom to initiate the offense by himself. Since then, they have coexisted well, and Jackson has been as supportive of Bryant's status as a criminal defendant in a rape case as possible.

"You know, I don't know what went on in that room," Jackson said. "I don't know if she said no or not no or whatever else. I do know this: This boy is a very willful person. And in that situation, I wouldn't want to put myself . . . consensual sex is what he said he had. And one thing about Kobe I've always felt very comfortable about is that he's always spoke the truth, he doesn't badger about the truth. If he said it was consensual sex, I believe it."

Adaptation

Jackson's ability to bring the Lakers together through turmoil this season is a career hallmark of which Holzman would have been proud. He was flexible enough to use variations of the triangle offense in ways that have never been options for the Lakers. The spacing, flow and unselfishness that make the triangle work were sometimes scrapped for simple pick-and-roll basketball, so stubborn Karl Malone and Gary Payton could more easily adjust to their new team. Again, Jackson adapted his methods to the team rather than demanding the players adapt to him.

Still one of the best Jackson stories involves the time he gave his Bulls players separate sheets of paper with a bull's-eye. Each player was told to mark where they believed they were on the team in relation to the center. Pippen marked his spot way outside the five concentric circles, nearly off the paper. The players saw it, addressed Pippen's anger toward the team and Jackson, and brought him back inside the circle, closer to the center. Jackson never said a word.

"I've always searched for the most unusual ways for players to find that," he said. "It's called a sociological bull's-eye. They did that on their own. Every now and then you would get a situation like that, 'Are you crazy, you're closest person in the middle of the circle. How did you get yourself way outside?' The team understood that."

Jackson has developed this multi-layered approach to coaching -- spurting a profanity at practice like a drill sergeant one moment, breaking out yoga mats and motivational reading the next.

He actually developed a lore similar to Auerbach's through the wins and titles. Jordan became his Russell, the way O'Neal and Bryant became Jordan. And if he was not altogether aloof, he developed a knack for remaining above the fray, watching the peasants throw stones at him from atop the castle. Like Auerbach.

Beneath that new-age veneer he was also a stickler for discipline, for being on time. Like Holzman.

Beloved Red and Bombastic Red, now a part of Jackson's coaching legacy.

Rick Fox, the Lakers veteran forward, has viewed Jackson through the prism of his teammates the past five years. If his aura coming to Los Angeles in the summer of 1999 was seen as Gandalf-like -- the gray-bearded sage, summoning old-world mysticism to make his point -- Jackson today is seen by the Lakers as a straight-forward communicator.

"A few years ago, Phil's message would get in their subconsciously," Fox said. "Cats wouldn't know what the hell was going on; they would just do it. It was like you were watching a movie. Now, the message still gets in there, but you're like, 'Oh, okay, that's what he meant.' "

In that message, a larger theme has emerged: This could be the last run for the Lake Show. For Jackson, whose contract expires at season's end and who has not had contract talks with owner Jerry Buss since midseason. For Bryant, who is expected to opt out of his contract for free agency -- although no team can compensate him as well as the Lakers -- and he is still most likely facing a trial next fall. For Payton and Malone, the two aging veterans who are unsure if they will return.

"Phil had us in the locker room and told us a while back, 'This is it,' " Fox said. "This may be the end for a lot of us. A lot of free agents here. As far as all of us coming back, win or lose, I don't get that sense this year that that's a guarantee."

Said Jackson: "I feel comfortable if this was to be my last season. I feel very good about it. I've had enough. I've done enough. And it's been really great fun.

"But if there is a situation that arises where there is a groundswell, well, I've got to pay attention to that."

The stay-or-go dilemma takes on a personal nature because Jeanie Buss, the woman he has been seriously dating for several years and the owner's daughter, is tethered to the Lakers as a vice president. He also often daydreams this time of year about hooking and landing trophy salmon in Alaska, where he was vacationing when the Lakers came calling in 1999. He would like to spend more time with his family. Two of Jackson's daughters live in the Washington, D.C., area, including his daughter Chelsea, who coaches basketball and volleyball at a local high school.

Asked if he would remain in Los Angeles if the relationship with Jeanie proceeded to the next level, he said: "You know, I've always said I've been married, I've raised a family. We really have a good relationship as far as things go. But she's tied to her job and her work and her family business. Continuing to work and not to work is tied to the relationship."

Jackson believes his decision may literally come in the best-of-seven finals, where his teams are 9-0.

"I won't know until that moment," he said. "If I'm so lucky to move on and have success, I'm going to know somewhere in those moments."

Maybe then, the Red who begrudgingly respects him can gracefully let go of the record.

"Like I said, he's a damn good coach, no question about it," Auerbach said. "Regardless of the material you have, you can screw it up. He didn't screw it up."

"I feel comfortable if this was to be my last season," said Coach Phil Jackson, who has had to massage egos of Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal for five years.