If you want Phil Jackson to criticize Kobe Bryant, you’ll have to refer to Pages 22, 47, 92, 105, 110, 138, 247 and 259 in “The Last Season.”
Don’t expect any fresh material in The Season After Last. Jackson’s return to the coach’s seat means he’s out of the Kobe-bashing business.
Jackson made that clear during a half-hour media session at the Lakers’ practice facility Wednesday. Feel free to ask about his health (feeling better, thank you) or personnel moves (don’t expect Latrell Sprewell in Lakerland), but save the questions about his relationship with Bryant.
“I told Kobe that’s the one area where I’ll try not to disclose,” Jackson said.
That might not be easy for a guy who went all Oprah-y in the middle of the 2004 playoffs, lamenting that he’d been too lenient with Bryant as the young guard contested a sexual assault charge that eventually was dismissed before trial.
“I felt at some times Kobe might have taken advantage of our flexibility,” Jackson said just before the Lakers eliminated the Houston Rockets in the first round. “That’s where it came to, I guess.
“I didn’t want to create an impediment in that situation. I wanted him to be productive. But it didn’t seem to be working in that direction. I think more attention was better than less.”
That wasn’t long after he said, “Sometimes Bryant’s needs overwhelm the rest of the ball club’s necessity,” and, “Kobe really could be the glue that holds us together. Or he could be the force that breaks us apart.”
A few months later, the then-ex-coach published his book in which he used words such as “narcissism,” “hypocrisy” and “selfish” to describe the Laker star and revealed that he asked General Manager Mitch Kupchak to trade Bryant because “He won’t listen to anyone. I’ve had it with this kid.”
Now it’s as if Jackson went through a 12-step program. Wednesday’s tune: “Kobe will be coachable and I think he’ll do what we have to get done to be competitive this year.”
We can’t say we weren’t warned.
The day Jackson officially returned to the Lakers in June he said, “We’re going to try to shut [the locker room whispers] down over the course of the next few years. I know it’s L.A. and we live on a lot of rumors and we enjoy our innuendos that come along, but we do want to close it down a little bit and I’m going to be one of the ones that develops that and emphasizes that trust.”
Which was pretty funny, coming from the one who blew it open. But I believe him when he says he’ll hold his tongue -- and his pen -- this year.
Remember, the reason he let his teams founder before calling timeouts, or allowed Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal to snipe at each other so often without intervening, was he wanted the players to find solutions on their own.
Bryant had a whole season on his own. A short, playoff-free season. Jackson won’t need to tweak him. He’ll just let Bryant’s pride kick in.
“For Kobe, it’s about on the court,” Jackson said. “It’s about re-establishing his dominance of the game.”
It’ll be easier for Bryant than the Lakers. That’s why Jackson’s setting the target at a modest 45 wins and a playoff appearance.
“It’s going to be a process with this team,” Jackson said. “So we’re not going to see a finished product for a while.”
That’s another change in Jackson. When he arrived in L.A. six years ago he wasn’t afraid to blast his team from day one, calling his players “autistic in some form or fashion.”
“I don’t mean to say that as a snide remark toward a certain population in our society,” Jackson said as the Lakers opened training camp in 1999. “But they have a limitation of their attention span, a lot of it probably due to too much rap music going in their ears and coming out their being. So they need to get a focal point that lasts longer than a TV commercial or one short 15-second span.”
Of course that was when Jackson was hired to whip a talented-but-underachieving group into championship shape.
This time, Jackson’s here to do, well, this -- generate stories about the Lakers, trying to stir interest for an otherwise ordinary team.
The ads for single-seat tickets that ran last week showed Jackson with the tagline: “Phil’s gonna be there ... Are you?”
Jackson’s wary of the Kobe-and-Phil story line, even while acknowledging the extraordinary situation.
“Coming back and working with this organization is a remarkable turnaround, from a personal standpoint and from an organization,” Jackson said. “There’s not too many things that happen like this.”
He offered George Steinbrenner’s on-again, off-again, on-again relationship with Billy Martin as a comparison.
“But I wouldn’t characterize Dr. Buss as a Steinbrenner, that’s for sure,” Jackson said.
We could use an imperialistic owner to liven things up around here.
With no O’Neal around to generate victories and controversies and Jackson pledging to be nice, how much longer can the Lakers maintain interest?
Before, even when the Lakers didn’t finish with the NBA’s best record, they still could lead the league in drama.
This group and this new attitude won’t produce many headlines.
Unfortunately, it’s what this town specializes in producing: Another sequel that didn’t live up to the original.
J.A. Adande can be reached at email@example.com. To read previous columns by Adande, go to latimes.com/adande.
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