It's Not Cuckoo's Nest, but He Has a Great Seat

Special to the Times

Here it is from one man who can handle the truth, a conversation with three-time Academy Award winner and Laker fan extraordinaire Jack Nicholson.

The first of two parts:

Question: What do you think of the Lakers' season so far?

Answer: When we started off the way we did, with Shaq [O'Neal] out and then Rick [Fox]'s suspension, knowing the general temperament of the team, I thought, "Well, I'll just enjoy what happens until after the All-Star break," because you really won't know until then. But, you know, I'm like everybody else right now: One game I think, "OK, it's all right now." And then, the next one we'll go out and play real bad and end up with a loss. Then it worries me. There have been a few times this year where I thought they really just flat-out played bad. But, you know, you just can't tell. You can't tell what's going on in the NBA right now. I don't think anybody would want to play the Lakers in a series for the championship right now, as unorganized as they may seem at the moment.

Q: You have been a fan for such a long time; do you still enjoy the team and the games as much as you did in the past?

A: Well, you know, it's entertainment. I mean, it's like I can enjoy even this part of the season. Every year's different. They've placed themselves in great adversity. It's a great thing for someone like me to have to follow along all year and get out and be entertained by something that you don't know what the end is going to be. There are always new stories every year. I love that. You know, it's like anything: If you're an opera fan, the more you invest in it, the more you know, the more entertainment you get out of it.

Q: Now, there have been a lot of things that have been rumored and this one seems to have grown over the years. So is it true that when you are working on a movie, you have it in your contract that you get to get out in time to be at the Laker game, and that you won't miss any games due to the production of a film?

A: Absolutely untrue. You know, it's become known among production companies that I like to see the ballgames. But I always try to say to them, "Hey, look, that's entertainment for me. I know I got a serious job to do every day here. Let's not throw ourselves off stride." But I must say, I've missed very few games. They do try and be nice to me in that way and I haven't had to miss a lot of games, but I've missed some.

Q: Do you feel the image has been conveyed to sports fans that you are more of a symbol of the Lakers than any of the players?

A: Well, I don't know if that's true or not. I know I am definitely known as a Laker fan, but there are a lot of us. You know, I'm just watching the ballgame. I'm not much into the other part of it. It used to be, I traveled to some of the away games during the playoffs. I'm pretty good at standing off my section in the visiting arena if it comes to that. But I don't do that anymore. I'm a little too far along, let's say, to deal with that kind of pressure. But it's fun, you know? Everybody who is a basketball fan knows there's no more fun than getting your team going in the visiting arena.

Q: What do you make of the current NBA product?

A: Well, I'm getting used to it.... I used to be mad at this Laker team -- why don't they come out of the box like Magic's teams did or whatever -- but that's the way the game is played these days. Pretty much, you have to be aware that they're looking at the entire season. And sometimes what you don't understand in the game-by-game situation has to do with that. I think Phil [Jackson] is particularly strong in this area of keeping the goal in mind, of winning the championship. He's very good at dealing with the ups and downs of it all. I think Phil's still very underrated as a coach. I give him credit for the win last year, by the moves he made in Games 6 and 7 against Sacramento. You know, I think Phil's a great coach.

Q: Do you think that some of the great players in the NBA are great actors on the court, in terms of drawing fouls and playing to the officials?

A: I think one of the things I like about basketball is that the "game face" has so much to do with acting. I think they all act, and some are good and some are bad. But I think it's an ensemble. The Lakers' best acting job is pretending they're not angry at the calls, particularly Shaq. I think that's a part of a championship attitude: You gotta kind of walk through those calls and at the same time clarify with an official what direction he is gonna go in. You know, there are a lot of analogies to acting, in terms of what their attitude is when they play. There are some great actors.

Q: If you weren't an actor, would you have wanted to be an athlete?

A: Well, when I was a kid, I liked playing sports.... I never felt I had so-called big-league abilities, so that illusion kind of disappeared fairly young for me. But certainly I liked playing sports, so if I had the possibility of being a professional athlete, I certainly would have thought it would be a great career, although looking at it from where I am now, you know ... things turned pretty good.


Jim Gray is host of "Monday Night Football" on the Westwood One Radio network. He works for Showtime and is a contributor on NBC's "Today Show" and ESPN.

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