We were waiting for some scribe, be they Phil Jackson-friendly or otherwise, to come to the former Laker coach's defense as the Jerry West hype-machine turns over in the wake of West's new memoir. Jackson and West never got along in their lone season working together, if you'll recall, and the blame was mostly put on the smug, diffident, bearded-one for the cool back and forth. Yes, the Lakers won it all for the first time in 12 years in Jackson's first season as coach, but it cost the team Jerry West.
In a way.
In all the talk about West's fulminations and frustrations as Lakers executive, could there be no room for his own anxiety and pretense as a reason why the relationship went sour? After all, though we couldn't source it (the New York Post's online archives don't reach back that far, drat), we do recall an evocative and expletive-derivative description from West regarding Phil Jackson (that you'll read below) in the weeks leading up to the dismissal of eventual ex-Laker coach Kurt Rambis (whom Jackson saved from the scrap heap following his firing, it should be noted). It's not as if West brought Jackson in and left his cheeks hurting from smiling as a result. There was trepidation. He didn't want him.
And although 40-year Jackson confidante Charley Rosen is too close to the scene to be ably trusted … there's a lockout going on, and we're offering a truncated version of this original post. Also, trust Rosen, who swears he never even consulted Jackson before putting his column together. Nice work, Good Humor Man.
Here was West's response when Roland Lazenby brought that [Jackson as Laker coach] rumor to his attention: "BLEEP Phil Jackson!"
The very first inkling of West's bias against Jackson that I personally witnessed occurred just before the Lakers initial preseason practice session in October 1999. As a long time friend of Jackson's and casual acquaintance of West's, I felt obliged to offer West a small warning: "Phil's teams always start off slowly while they're learning the triangle."
West's sour response was this: "He's got six weeks."
Turned out that after six weeks, the Lakers were 31-6 and West's resentment grew. His most wished-for scenario was for the Lakers to collapse and for Buss to beg him to save the team. When West's dream turned into a nightmare, he began to actively undermine Jackson.
He leaked word to friendly local media that Jackson was a do-nothing coach, that the triangle was bogus, ands that Kobe was being underutilized. With West as the conduit, the hitherto fore secret news of Jackson's relationship with Jeannie Buss was fed to scandal-hungry rumor mongers in Chicago.
If it sounds too good to be true, well, you're (BLEEP).
As your resident triangle offense freak, you can trust me when I say I was shocked (even with the Lakers' loaded roster) that they took to and executed the triangle as expertly as they did in the team's first season under Jackson. Remember, the Portland Trail Blazers went into 1999-00 with as strong a chance at the title as the Lakers did, and anyone who paid attention to the 1989-90 Bulls team (with a rookie coach in Jackson at the helm) knew that the triangle took some time to get right.
Also, remember that Kobe Bryant(notes) didn't even play the first 16 games of the season. Even with that, and Jackson's new mid-level exception'ish contract (making more than the GM, as it turns out), West was pretending like he had the juice card to fire Phil Jackson (owner of eight championship rings between his time coaching the Bulls and beating West's Lakers as a player) after six weeks?
Jerry was never happy with Phil around. West did incredibly well to trade for Kobe Bryant and clear the cap space to bring Shaquille O'Neal(notes) on board, but he never was able to handle Phil Jackson's smug and, well, successful turn as Lakers coach. Jackson did what Del Harris and Rambis couldn't do -- the Lakers turned from an inside-out/two-to-a-side attack into something special with all five parts moving at once and with a purpose. Jackson made a difference, and that difference showed up on the court and in the standings.
And as smug as Jackson was, West was petulant. It was in the papers (which actually were online) back then, and it was in the air. Yes, Jackson was treated as the savior at the time … but he was. Those 1999 Lakers were as dysfunctional and as disappointing as teams get. They truly were embarrassing, even while making the second round of the playoffs.
And the next year's model, under Jackson? Brilliant. Sixty-seven wins, even without Kobe for a month, and a championship.
Jackson drives people batty. Sushi chefs, general managers, you name it. But he cleaned that Laker team up and drove it to championships. Could some other coach have done the same? Sure, eventually. But not to that degree of success. Not with the enmity that Kobe and Shaq had for each other hovering over everything.
Jerry West is right to kvetch and ruminate on his last, frustrating season with the Lakers. But Phil Jackson was also right to keep a tight locker room and work as he saw fit.
Championships, as they usually do, will out.