Zen master's soul search

Times Staff Writer

A dozen days before the Lakers start a new NBA season, we are still wallowing in their last one. Call it Phil Jackson's long goodbye. More precisely, "The Last Season: A Team in Search of Its Soul," released today, is a rambling narrative by the retired-just-before-being-fired coach of the 2003-04 Lakers team that was supposed to lead the pack in victories and charisma but set new highs only in dysfunctional behavior.

Jackson says he learned of the rape allegation against Kobe Bryant by phone from Laker General Manager Mitch Kupchak. "Was I surprised? Yes, but not entirely," writes Jackson, who cites Bryant's anger and immaturity. His main theme is that the beloved No. 8 of Laker fans the world over is more villain than hero.

Enough portions of Jackson's book were leaked in the last several weeks to fan the flames of rivalry anew between Bryant and former Laker Shaquille O'Neal. Bryant took the high road, saying he wished everybody, including Jackson, well. O'Neal said only that "things will now start to come out" about Bryant, who will meet O'Neal's Miami Heat on the Staples Center court on Christmas.

The maestro of meditation as a means to slam dunks, Jackson had coached the Chicago Bulls to six NBA titles before being coaxed out of his Zen retirement to do the same for the Lakers. In Chicago, he had Michael Jordan, to whom he refers reverently throughout the book; in Los Angeles, he had O'Neal and Bryant, but neither is treated with the same reverence.

Jackson won titles with the Lakers in 2000, 2001 and 2002, then slipped against the San Antonio Spurs in 2003, setting up what the book jacket calls "the extraordinary ride of the 2003-2004 Los Angeles Lakers." That's accurate but falls well short of the full picture.

Before the Lakers began the season, they had acquired aging superstars Gary Payton and Karl Malone. Each had agreed to take NBA chump-change salaries just for the chance to play with O'Neal and Bryant -- and for Jackson. A championship seemed a given. But one basketball divided by four superstars doesn't compute well. And Bryant, off in Colorado without team permission to have knee surgery, had a sexual encounter with a young female hotel employee that Bryant called consensual and she called rape.

As if that weren't enough, O'Neal and Bryant stopped pretending to get along and sparred regularly in the media. Jackson, hoping vainly to handle the war a la Henry Kissinger, found safe harbor in an attractive former Playboy model named Jeanie Buss, whose father, Jerry, owns the team. In the end, he decided not to rehire Jackson when the season ended in a rout by the Detroit Pistons.

You can't make this stuff up.

Jackson, to his credit, knew a great story when he lived it. And so, back home in Montana with time on his hands (Jeanie remaining with the Lakers as an executive), he put pen to paper.

He offers interesting insights:

* Shaq had to play with heavy insets in his shoes, meaning he couldn't push off with his toes to jump.

* Jackson avoided timeout huddles for the first 45 seconds to give his team time alone to talk over, or even solve, the problems of the moment on their own, thereby promoting team unity.

* The "vibe" he got from the Chicago media was "one of adoration for Michael, or the team.... " The L.A. media was "different, more dangerous.... In L.A., the reporters want to know: [W]hat can I write that advances the drama for one more day."

* O'Neal sinks into a funk every season from Christmas to March 6, his birthday.

* In the locker room before the last game of the finals, just moments after Jackson had gotten his team focused and ready to play, Bryant's cellphone rang. Jackson was furious when Bryant took the call (from former teammate Brian Shaw), destroying the mood.

There is a surprising insight:

* Jackson was so overwhelmed by Bryant and his accompanying baggage that for almost every crisis, in a season full of them, he consulted a therapist (not named), who offered solutions such as breathing: "[A] vital part of the meditation process. Exhaling allows a person to let go and accept the next, new impulse of life." (Sadly for Jackson and Laker fans, the next new impulse was usually Bryant yanking up 35 shots while O'Neal and the rest of the Lakers stood around fuming.)

And then there are the knock-you-flat insights:

Jackson likens Bryant to the Sacramento Kings' Chris Webber, who "tends to hold onto the ball longer than necessary, causing the offense to stagnate." He makes fun of Bryant's story about cutting his finger while moving boxes in his garage, an injury that forced him to miss a few games. He calls Bryant's defense "overrated" and tells of Bryant bragging in the finals that he had been "kicking [Piston Rick Hamilton's] ass for ten years." In the same final series, he reveals that Bryant asked to guard Chauncey Billups, already assigned to Payton, because "I think [Payton] is scared." Perhaps more image-destroying are the Bryant quotes Jackson includes that are well sprinkled with expletives.

Jackson was so befuddled by his inability to handle Bryant that at one point he suggested to Kupchak that the Lakers suspend the young star. This backfired so badly that it cost Jackson his job. Kupchak reported Jackson's request to owner Buss, who concluded that if it took getting rid of Jackson and O'Neal to keep the more marketable Bryant happy, then that's the way the Lakers would go.

And so they have. End of story, albeit not necessarily a happy one.

Bill Dwyre, The Times' sports editor, can be reached at weekend@latimes.com.

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