“This is so unlike the Lakers.”
I’ve seen that sentiment expressed a few times the past five days, as the Lakers fired Mike Brown five games into the season, a day after saying his job was safe. I saw it as the entire thing devolved into he said/office said/sources said, with Phil Jackson emerging as a front-runner, fans chanting “We Want Phil,” Mike Dunleavy’s name popping up in terrifying fashion, Lakers fans speculating about Jerry Sloan, Magic Johnson being tossed into the mix for being an instigator and Mike D’Antoni being named coach early Monday morning. What a debacle. So unLakerlike.
It certainly was something of a fiasco, though a necessary one. But in the world of the Lakers — or at least in the world of Jerry Buss’s Lakers — it really wasn’t that outlandish. This happens in Lakerland. The shine from those championship trophies perhaps distracts people from seeing the dirt.
Jerry Buss’s Lakers are not Jerry Jones’s Cowboys or George Steinbrenner’s Yankees. Buss is the best sports owner of the past 30 years and there’s really not much argument. He presided over 10 titles and 16 Finals appearances. He always seems to, eventually, make the right call, the crucial decision that makes the difference between title or failure, whether it’s not trading for Roy Tarpley or picking Kobe Bryant over Shaquille O’Neal.
But the occasional chaos intrudes on the championship parades, even when it precedes them. Buss’s Lakers aren’t Steinbrenner’s Yankees. But they also aren’t the Pittsburgh Steelers.
For the second time in 31 years, the Lakers fired a coach in the first month of the season following a game in Utah, which must be some sort of record. In November 1981, the Lakers fired Paul Westhead after 11 games, his final one being a road victory over the Jazz (that was actually his fifth victory in a row). That game is famous for the statements Magic Johnson made in the locker room, where he expressed displeasure with Westhead. The coach’s subsequent firing led to a bit of public outrage against Magic. As the story — or the legend — goes, Buss had decided to fire Westhead a few games earlier but gave him another week. Magic didn’t actually get Westhead fired but that’s the way the story went. Or perhaps that’s just a bit of post-firing spin, something the Lakers still do pretty well.
An unknown assistant named Pat Riley, who had also spent time as the mute lifeform seated next to Chick Hearn, took over, won the title that year, captured three more with the Lakers and became one of the greatest coaches in NBA history with the most famous hair in sports. We know how Riley’s story ended, but the beginning was nothing but confusion. Buss originally named Riley “offensive coach” and Jerry West coach, which West himself corrected at the press conference. The Lakers legend did spend time on the bench with Riley before finally stepping away.
In 1994, the Lakers fired Randy Pfund near the end of the season and hired Magic Johnson, a shocking decision that was the most confusing personnel choice involving Magic until television producers decided to give the Hall of Famer a talk show. Magic as coach lasted 16 games, five of which he won. His brief tenure is best remembered for the cell phone he smashed when it started ringing in the locker room.
Five years later the Lakers had recovered from Magic’s 1991 retirement, and his two returns to the court, not to mention his coaching career. The team had Shaquille O’Neal and a young Kobe but 12 games into the season, Buss fired Del Harris. And while all that was going on, the team signed Dennis Rodman, who would prove to be uncoachable by anyone other than Phil Jackson. Firing a coach 12 games into the season and bringing in the Worm? Was that Laker-like?
No, coaching chaos is nothing new for the Lakers, as the Rudy Tomjanovich saga also proved. But it always seemed to work out for Buss. The Riley hire led to Showtime. Even the Harris firing eventually led to Phil Jackson taking over before the 1999-2000 season, as he replaced Kurt Rambis, who was still a decade away from scheming a way to start Ryan Hollins over Kevin Love. That first Phil hiring led to three titles. When he returned before the 2006 season, the team was coming off a season when it missed the playoffs for the first time since the Pfund-Magic year. That second Phil hiring led to two more titles. It again all worked out for Buss.
What happens this time? Lakers fans believed a third Phil reign would have meant at least one more ring. Lakers fans probably would have been overjoyed to have Mike D’Antoni replace Mike Brown. Now it feels like he replaced Phil Jackson and they don’t like it. I always wanted Phil on the Lakers bench. I never wanted him to leave, not in ’04 and not in ’11, even though both seasons ended in humiliating fashion for the Lakers and all signs pointed to Phil being sick of the team and the team being tired of him. He brought an arrogance to the team and exuded confidence. He seemed like the smartest guy in the room, even if he sat in the big chair smirking during a blowout elimination loss in Phoenix or Boston or Dallas. It all seemed like part of a plan, even when it ended a season. Phil is famous for refusing to call timeouts when the opposition goes on big runs. He’s letting the team learn. It’s part of the plan. The blowout losses in elimination games felt the same way, as bizarre as that seems. Beyond the Xs and O’s, beyond the media quips and jabs, beyond the sideline interviews, beyond the books he hands out to players and the ones he writes calling them out, I think that’s what Lakers fans miss most about Jackson: The idea that everything would always be all right.
Who knows what to believe in the latest drama. The family dynamics add another element to all of it. Jim Buss and Jerry Buss are the major players for the Lakers but Jeanie Buss is Phil’s longtime girlfriend. Imagine Billy Martin dating George Steinbrenner’s daughter.
Whether Mike D’Antoni was the first choice all along or a backup pick doesn’t really matter now. Of course his style can win a title. Since 1982 — when that unknown assistant won a title with the Lakers — 11 NBA coaches have won a championship. Three guys won 20 of those. D’Antoni isn’t Riley, Jackson or Popovich. But why can’t he be a Billy Cunningham or a Rudy Tomjanovich or a Doc Rivers, guys who finally won titles when a team’s talent aligned with circumstances? D’Anonti was done in by injuries in 2005 and 2006 and Donaghy (possibly) and Stern (definitely) in 2007. In 2006, he took a team that had Raja Bell as its third-leading scorer all the way to Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals. That’s coaching. He has to deal with an older Steve Nash now, but he also gets a slight upgrade at shooting guard.
The stint in New York ended badly but everything since Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals has ended badly for the Knicks. That proved he couldn’t win with a franchise led by a son who took a business over from his father.
Ah. A son leading the franchise. There’s the problem with the Lakers now. That’s why there’s a chance this soap opera actually is fundamentally different than the ones that played out in the past. This is no longer primarily Jerry Buss’s team, even though he does still have final control. Jim Buss is now the man. Lakers fans trusted Jerry Buss’s instincts, an odd sentiment for an elderly man who dates teenage girls and gave the world coach Magic. But it always worked out in the end for him, no matter how chaotic the journey. People don’t have the same trust in Jim. But he is responsible for helping to bring in Howard and Nash. He did cut ties with Brown when it was obviously time to do so. Maybe he can be like his old man.
Many times a Lakers circus ends with a ring. If this one doesn’t? That would be unlike the Lakers. And this time, Phil won’t be there to save them.