Thursday, June 25, 2009

Jackson, Bryant put Lakers back on top;_ylt=AgoO5eIBBlSL8DoMJZbTddG8vLYF?slug=ap-championlakers&prov=ap&type=lgns

Jackson, Bryant put Lakers back on top
By TOM WITHERS, AP Sports Writer
Jun 15, 2009

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP)—The coach stood to the side and watched as his team executed its final play of the NBA season to perfection. It’s the one that had worked nine previous times. This wasn’t his famed triangle offense, this was the celebration circle.

Phil Jackson, the architect, smiled as his Los Angeles Lakers, each of them armed with a champagne bottle, popped corks and doused each other with bubbly late Sunday night after winning their 15th title—and first since 2002—with a 99-86 win over the Orlando Magic in Game 5.

United all year, the Lakers screamed as one.

Kobe Bryant then dragged Jackson into the frothy fray.

“It’s been a long time since he had a champagne bath,” said the brilliant Bryant, who enriched his legacy as one of the game’s all-time greats with a fourth title and finals MVP award. “I knew that so I made sure he became part of our circle and we got him pretty good.”

The Zen Master had his 10th title, one more than Red Auerbach.

Call him The Ten Master.

The Lakers, who drifted between disinterested and divine during stretches this season, put it all together in their final game, a no-doubt-about-it rout that was sealed with a 16-0 spurt in the second quarter that showcased the club’s depth, versatility and Bryant’s sheer will.

Jackson, who has been vague about his plans beyond this season, delighted in his teams’ development. Borrowing one of the mantras of his meditative training, he preached to them about staying in the moment. Don’t look back. Don’t look too far ahead. Don’t waste opportunity. Enjoy the journey.

The Lakers listened and learned.

“They came together this year and were self-motivated, and for a coach that’s a positive sign,” said Jackson, who won six titles in Chicago before taking over the Lakers in 1999. “When a team is ready, they’re aggressive, their learning curve is high and they wanted to win.”

Though he may not have shown it outwardly, Jackson wanted it too.

“You can see it in his eyes,” Bryant said.

Jackson sidestepped questions about his place in history and comparisons to Auerbach throughout the finals. The 64-year-old, has had both hips surgically replaced and struggles getting around, is at a time in his life when basketball, though still a passion, doesn’t burn as it once did.

The drive is still there, but it’s in a lower gear. With this Lakers squad, he would instruct and observe. Those days of getting out on the floor for demonstrations are few. He deferred to his assistants and to Bryant, his coach on the court.

“I’ve always felt as a coach you have to push your team,” Jackson said, “and I told them they had to push themselves. I wasn’t at the stage of my life where I could get out and do things that I had done 10 or 15 years ago to push a team. They pushed themselves and I feel really strongly that this is about them.”

During the postgame celebration, Jackson wore a gold Lakers cap—a gift from his children—with the Roman numeral “X” on the front to signify his double-digit titles.

“Almost incomprehensible,” Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy said of Jackson’s perfect 10.

Bryant can’t imagine playing for anyone but Jackson, his coach for nine seasons in L.A. Following Game 5, guard Derek Fisher(notes), who won his fourth ring, couldn’t picture the Lakers’ luxury liner without Jackson as its captain.

“I know it’s part of the business and it can happen, but to take away the chef who stirs the pot—it’ll be a different batch of stew, I’ll tell you that much,” Fisher said. “I have no idea what his plans are, and how tonight makes him feel, or where he feels he wants to go from here. I know for a fact that I want to play for him, next season and for as long as I’m capable of playing.

“That’s who I want to play for.”

As for Bryant, he may be just hitting his stride.

Now that he silenced all those who said he couldn’t win it all without former teammate Shaquille O’Neal(notes), Bryant can take aim at loftier goals.

He has become a true leader, hardly the “uncoachable” player as he was once labeled in a book by Jackson when their relationship was on the rocks. Bryant is driven to win championships, and just this side of his 31st birthday, he is just two away from matching Jordan.

Could Bryant eclipse Jordan as the modern game’s greatest player?

Such talk once seemed unfathomable. Not anymore. Bryant is beginning to make his case.

As long as they can sign free agents Lamar Odom and Trevor Ariza, the Lakers have enough talent to string together several championships over the next few years. If Bryant stays healthy and hungry, the Larry O’Brien Trophy could be settling out West for a while.

Bryant has two years remaining on a $136 million contract he can option out of beginning next month. He’s not going anywhere and said as much when his contract situation was raised a few days ago.

The Lakers are the only team he has known, and Los Angeles, which has waited seven years to celebrate another hoops title, is his town. Again.

The City of Angels can be unforgiving, even for the blessed.

“They won’t see us as losers,” Bryant said. “L.A. is brutal, man. Now when I go to Disneyland, I can enjoy the moment. I don’t have to answer questions about, ‘What the hell happened to you guys.’ From that standpoint, the summer is much more enjoyable.”

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