I was watching a show about Scottie Pippen on ESPN today and it got me wondering about Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant. When you talk about Pippen’s career, you always have to cover the 1994 playoff game against the New York Knicks when Pippen refused to go back into the game with 1.8 seconds left on the clock. He was outraged that Phil Jackson had drawn up the game winning shot for Toni Kukoc instead of him.
This was a huge moment for Scottie Pippen. Michael Jordan had retired the season before and Pippen wanted to use this opportunity to come out of Jordan’s shadow and take his rightful place as one of the top NBA players in history. The Bulls had won 55 games during the regular season, Pippen was the MVP at the All-Star game and he came in third in voting for the league MVP. Everything was working out. Making the winning shot in a playoff game would be another big step. It would make him just like Mike.
Of course Phil Jackson knew all this. He had already coached Pippen and Jordan to three championships and he knew what it was like to be the teammate of someone as competitive and insufferable as Jordan. But he chose to give Kukoc the shot. He probably decided that Kukoc could create the best shot for himself. Pippen had a transcendent all round game that made everyone on his team better but he wasn’t the one-on-one player that Jordan was. Still, neither was anyone else and Kukoc was an NBA rookie so it must have hurt Pippen’s pride deeply to see the opportunity taken away. Pippen would still have an argument today. Kukoc has had a solid career but he’s never even been an All-Star.
Things are tough here in Lakerland. The team doesn’t play defense and the longest winning streak of the year is three games. One coach has left already and an interim coach is trying to teach them the triangle offense on the run. There are not a lot of NBA coaches out there that don’t seem like retreads. There is really only one available coaching star: Phil Jackson.
At the moment, Los Angeles is like a person who is in a bad relationship. You know it’s never going to work but you keep trying to find ways to convince yourself that it could work. We are all desperate for Phil to come back and coach the Lakers and we’re trying to convince ourselves that Phil would do it. That’s the first sign of desperation. Then we are trying to convince ourselves that Kobe Bryant would welcome Phil back. That’s the second sign.
Phil made it abundantly clear that the offense goes through Shaquille O’Neal during his tenure in Los Angeles. True, Kobe was given a lot of opportunities to make the last second shot but he knew he would never be able to reach his potential, or get the credit he was due, as long as he was Shaq’s teammate.
We are all desperate for Phil to come back and coach the Lakers and we’re trying to convince ourselves that Phil would do it. That’s the first sign of desperation.
I know Kobe watches ESPN. If he saw the show about Pippen today, he would have felt a kinship with him. He may agree with Jackson’s decision to give the shot to Kukoc, he may not. But he certainly doesn’t want to give Phil Jackson another opportunity to make a decision that might have such a huge effect on a player’s career. Especially his.
Don’t get me wrong here, basketball is a team game and the idea is to win. But the NBA brand depends on superstars and a superstar psyche depends on a big ego. That’s just the way it is.
Meanwhile, back here in Lakerland it’s time to move beyond our relationship with Phil. It’s over.