Lakers Coach Phil Jackson is liked but not beloved
The way this town embraces Phil Jackson is the way Pau Gasol embraced him last week after Jackson became the winningest coach in Lakers history.
It was like he really wanted to, but he sort of couldn’t.
Does that make sense? Did you see it? Rich in symbolism, scarce in emotion, the scene was at once fascinating and unsettling.
Immediately after the Lakers’ victory over the Charlotte Bobcats, Gasol walked excitedly toward Jackson, then just stopped short. He tentatively stuck out his hand, Jackson tentatively grabbed it, then the two men briefly and awkwardly and barely embraced.
That could have been you, right? You want to shower Jackson with praise and affection, but the best you can work up is a back slap and a nod. You know he deserves it, but you’re just not sure he wants it, and the result is that he very rarely gets it.
Thus exists a bittersweet backdrop to a monumental achievement. For as much as this town respects and honors Jackson for his 10 seasons of 536 Lakers victories, he is simply not beloved.
He may have mastered Zen, but he has not mastered Los Angeles.
There will be no statue of him outside Staples Center. There might not ever be a night honoring his achievements. There will be very little fanfare when he retires, just as there was very little outcry when he left the team several years ago.
He is not Tom Lasorda. He is not Pete Carroll. He is not Mike Scioscia. He is not the sort of folksy personality that this town expects of its high-profile coaches.
More than anything else, he is not Pat Riley.
When longtime Lakers fans think of coaches, they still will think of Riley, even though he coached one fewer season here. Riley looked like Los Angeles. He acted like Los Angeles.
“Pat Riley is the L.A. story,” admitted Jeanie Buss, Lakers executive vice president and Jackson’s longtime girlfriend. “This was the birthplace of him as a coach and a leader, we watched it all happen, it’s like a mother and a child, any success that Pat has, we feel we have part of.”
“Before Phil came here, all I knew about him was that he was a freaky dude who left his job in Chicago on a motorcycle,” said Buss. “I thought that was strange. A freaky dude.”
That is still the way much of Los Angeles looks at Jackson, and that is too bad, because that freaky dude may be the greatest sports leader in this town’s history. That we haven’t completely embraced him is as much about the city as it is about the man.
“I think he is taken for granted sometimes,” said Buss. “Every Laker employee who does a good job likes to get patted on the back sometimes, and Phil is no exception, but that doesn’t always happen as much here.”
It starts with the end of the bench. Los Angeles likes sideline fire. Jackson just sits there.
“In my generation, you didn’t show any exuberance, there was no physical display of emotion on the court, you’re supposed to be out there like a warrior, emotionless and totally self-contained,” said Jackson, 64, in a recent interview. “To show emotion showed a weakness.”
In Chicago, where he coached one fewer season but will always be more appreciated, he was viewed as a rock. Here, that same demeanor is viewed as aloof.
“The way I act is very much how I coach,” he said. “Poise and self control are the keynotes of what I like to practice and teach.”
In other words, we want him to be strong and disciplined enough to control Kobe Bryant, but crazy enough to entertain the rest of us, and it just doesn’t work that way.
We want Jackson to show he likes us. But such displays, whether it be mixing with the fans or shaking hands in the community, also go against his nature.
“I’m shy, I’m a shy person,” Jackson admitted. “I don’t like to touch people before games, I don’t high-five people before games, I get away from all that.”
When I asked whether he even considered himself an Angeleno, he said no.
“I really don’t,” he said. “I’m a guy who sits on the beach, then drives to Staples Center for the game and looks down at that huge expanse of metropolitan area as you drive onto the 110 from the 105, it’s unbelievable, so many millions of people.”
Jackson is so un-hip, he has had surgeries on both of his hips. Jackson is so un-L.A., he abandons the beach for the summer, preferring to spend his free time in his Montana home.
“I get claustrophobic in cities if I’ve been there too long,” Jackson said. “I still have that country bumpkin kind of thing, I need some open spaces between me and people.”
But, no, he loves it here. He knows who he is. He knows what this town is. He’s fine with where he fits in. He’s feeling better than ever after his two surgeries, and, even though his contract expires this year -- he’s making $12 million -- he sounds as if he wants to come back.
“I have no regrets, people are very respectful, I receive ovations in restaurants, people treat me very warmly,” he said.
There is talk that, in this shrinking NBA economy, owner Jerry Buss would not want to pay him. Buss made that mistake once. His name was Rudy Tomjanovich. Here’s guessing that if the Lakers win another championship, Buss will not make that mistake again.
Phil Jackson doesn’t wow, but he wins, with a certain grace and dignity that is stronger than any smile and warmer than any hug. It is not Showtime. But it is enough.