Throwing the Book at Bryant
The “unavoidable” conflict between coach Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant led Jackson to ask the Lakers to trade Bryant in January and hampered the team’s shot at the 2004 championship, Jackson wrote in a soon-to-be-released diary of the season.
A 5,500-word excerpt of “The Last Season” will appear in the November issue of Los Angeles magazine, which will hit newsstands Monday. The book, published by Penguin Press, will come out this month. A copy of the magazine excerpt was made available to The Times on Monday.
Although the book is Jackson’s personal look at the tumultuous year, Bryant emerges as the central figure.
“I do know that there were many occasions this year when I felt like there was a psychological war going on between us,” Jackson wrote. “Amazingly, we came to a truce, even to a higher level of trust. Ultimately, though, I don’t believe we developed enough trust between us to win a championship.”
Jackson details their deteriorating relationship, marked by Bryant’s defiance and Jackson’s own budding prejudice against him.
The coach had a January “tirade” about Bryant in front of General Manager Mitch Kupchak in which Jackson demanded the team trade Bryant and said, “I won’t coach this team next year if he is still here. He won’t listen to anyone. I’ve had it with this kid.”
Jackson also revealed that he wanted to trade Bryant to the Phoenix Suns for Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion during the 1999-2000 season, Jackson’s first with the Lakers, but that Jerry West, then the team’s general manager, told him owner Jerry Buss would never trade Bryant. Jackson wrote that Kupchak told him the same thing last season.
Jackson suspected that the organization’s public announcement in February that it had suspended contract negotiations with him was a means of appealing to Bryant, who became a free agent at the end of the season.
In their final meeting, days after the Lakers lost to the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals, he asked Bryant whether Jackson’s return would influence his decision to re-sign with the Lakers, “He said I should make up my mind about my future independently of his decision,” Jackson wrote.
Jackson told him he was going to retire.
“Really?” Bryant asked, his eyebrows rising.
Then Jackson asked whether Shaquille O’Neal’s presence on the team would affect Bryant’s decision.
“Yes, it does,” Bryant said, according to Jackson.
Jackson told them they could play together, to which Bryant responded, according to Jackson: “There’s no doubt about that. I’ve done that for eight years with him, but I’m tired of being a sidekick.”
(Buss said over the summer that his decision to trade O’Neal -- he eventually was dealt to Miami for Lamar Odom, Brian Grant and Caron Butler -- was made independently of Bryant. Bryant said he had no role in either Jackson’s or O’Neal’s departures.)
Bryant’s relationship with O’Neal -- which slid from chilly to frozen -- was an unavoidable topic for Jackson as well.
In Jackson’s first meeting with Bryant before the season, Bryant said he would hold his ground in the public war of words with O’Neal.
“If he starts saying things in the press, I’ll fire back,” Bryant said. “I’m not afraid to go up against him. I’ve had it.”
Jackson wrote that after O’Neal and Bryant exchanged shots in the media two days before the start of the season, O’Neal was frustrated at what he perceived as an organizational favoritism toward Bryant and said: “I’d like to pound the chump.”
When O’Neal missed practice the day after the All-Star game, Bryant told Jackson: “That just shows you what kind of leader he is.”
“He was angry about the allowances the Lakers afford Shaq, failing to note the hypocrisy in his accusation,” Jackson wrote. “Nobody this year, or in any year I’ve coached, has received more ‘allowances’ than Kobe Bryant. At times the pettiness between the two of them can be unbelievably juvenile.”
Jackson and O’Neal had their own squabbles, but Jackson called coaching O’Neal “an experience I will cherish forever.”
He didn’t use those words for Bryant.
Among the “allowances” the organization made for Bryant was to pay part of the expense of Bryant’s taking private jets to and from Colorado for hearings in his sexual assault case. Jackson wrote, “Kobe was unhappy with the type of plane that was selected; he wanted one with higher status. He should feel fortunate that he’s not footing the bill himself.”
Jackson thought Bryant was disrespectful during the season, whether mocking him or flat-out defying orders. An incident when Bryant told Jackson he would do some running, then didn’t follow through, set off Jackson’s January trade demand.
But another incident showed Jackson how much of the battle was his own doing. In March, Bryant was late for a bus to the airport, by Jackson’s reckoning. Bryant insisted he was on time and Jackson should “get with the rest of the world” and synchronize his watch. Jackson later checked with a trainer and discovered that Bryant was right; Jackson’s watch was three minutes fast.
“The incident illustrated to me how conditioned I am to find fault with this kid, after everything I’ve gone through with him,” Jackson wrote. “I suppose the anger is deeper than I imagined.”
Jackson had reached the conclusion before the season that “a major confrontation between the two of us seems unavoidable.”
It prompted Jackson to hire a therapist “who has dealt with narcissistic behavior in the Los Angeles public school system” to consult during the season.
Jackson wrote that he knew he would be out of a job after he took the me-or-him stance with Bryant, and deep down inside it was what he wanted after the usual rigors of the NBA season and the unusual drama on “this dysfunctional team.” That decision was confirmed in his final meeting with Buss, when he was told the team wanted to scale back and would go in a direction that didn’t involve Jackson as coach.