Cleamons Simply Lives for Journey

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Before every Laker playoff game, assistant coach Jim Cleamons could be seen working out several Lakers. It didn't matter if they were starters Rick Fox or Derek Fisher or reserves Mike Penberthy or Devean George, Cleamons worked them on their individual skills just the same.

Teaching is what Cleamons does, and that's what he and the other Laker coaches expect to do even more to ensure the Lakers are still ahead of the pack when the NBA adopts a new set of rules for next season.

"You get into this [coaching] business because you enjoy teaching and you love basketball," said Cleamons, who has been a coach with the Lakers the last two seasons after being an assistant with the Chicago Bulls for six seasons (including three NBA championship teams) and a short stint as a head coach with the Dallas Mavericks.

"It never really ends. You enjoy the moment and then you move on," Cleamons said. "It'll start with summer league and then you start doing the same thing all over again."

That Cleamons is already thinking about helping the Lakers go for a three-peat is a story in itself. There have been 11 NBA head coaching vacancies over the last 16 months, with only the Portland job still available, and Cleamons remains an assistant.

Despite having six championship rings to his credit (one as a player with the 1971-72 Lakers and five as an assistant coach), Cleamons has not been a "must-hire" coach for any team looking for a coach, including the Trail Blazers or even the Cleveland Cavaliers, the team he helped lead into the playoffs as a player in the 1970s.

Some point to his disappointing 28-70 record leading the Mavericks, but Cleamons doesn't tout his accomplishments, either.

For now, Cleamons is happy in Los Angeles with his wife and two young daughters, Imani and Rose. He has been married six years and has moved seven times. Stability brings peace of mind to Cleamons.

"There's no such thing as job security in this profession," he said. "If I was to [accept a head coaching job] I would have to be working there a long time. . . . I'm not in a hurry to do anything but enjoy life. I love my family and I've always believed that everything will take care of itself."

Over this past season, the Lakers didn't take the easy road. But the coaching staff didn't panic. That's not Phil Jackson's style.

When the Bulls seemed dysfunctional with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in a constant battle with General Manager Jerry Krause before every championship run, consistency won out in the end, as it did for the Lakers this season. And to Cleamons, that's what coaching is all about.

"Keeping focus at the job at hand is the key," Cleamons said. "When you're champions, there are always going to be things going on and all types of distractions. . . . It's always a transformation. Players grow apart, they grow together and then they grow collectively. And through it all, you persevere. Then, to win it all, that's your validation. It's a source of pride."

Having such players as Robert Horry, Ron Harper, Brian Shaw, Fox and Fisher step up throughout the playoffs was a thing of beauty for the Laker coaches. Everyone usually expects such dominant players as Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant to step up, but it's always something when role players do it.

"The coaching staff had everyone prepared to make a championship run," Fisher said.

At 51, Cleamons still hopes to be a head coach again, even perhaps at the college level.

"Clem is a great coach, and a great guy," Harper said. "He loves the game and he has fun with it. I'm happy to be here with him. He may have had a hard time up there with [Dallas], but he and Phil have been friends for a long time. Phil has faith in him, and we do too."

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