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Thursday, June 10, 2004
Updated: June 11, 11:10 AM ET
White Magic in the NBA

By Ralph Wiley
Page 2

All a man's got is the integrity of his work.

That goes for everyone from Kobe Bryant to Phil Jackson to Larry Brown to Rip Hamilton to Luke Walton to Ben Wallace to Larry Bird to Magic Johnson to Stephen A. Smith to Jim Gray to possibly even you and me.

Phil Jackson
Do nine NBA titles make Jackson the best coach in the league? In history?
Before we examine this premise, at least as it relates to Larry Brown and Phil Jackson (one of whom is the best coach in NBA history), let's first get down to other morbid fascinations making up this NBA Finals environment.

That Floston Paradise atmosphere thingie Dog and I surfed through at February's All-Star Game? Factor it upward by four. It's still golden in L.A.

Yes, once again I happened to be in Los Angeles, this time during the run-up to the first two Finals games at the Stapler. Let me break it down for you.

The Laker noblesse oblige permeated the entire atmosphere. Dog and I ended up watching Game 2 with our old friend Carlos, a native Angeleno who bleeds a rich, deep shape of purple and gold. After I wrote "The Laker Myth" on Page 2 a couple weeks back, he and a lot of other people, some polite and some not so, contacted me to ask me if I was insane for saying the Pistons, if of sound mind, should win, because, one through nine, as opposed to one through two, they were better. The Lakers will probably sweep, my respondents said, but it might go to five because sometimes they get distracted, don't concentrate, lose passion, whatever, until they get the wake-up call.

I thought to myself. "Caring and passion won't get your jump shot off over Detroit's defense."

TWO ON TWO
What's all the fuss about? Tune into ESPN tonight at 7 p.m. EST for "Two on Two" hosted by Jim Gray to find out.

The old guard of the NBA meets the new as Jim's guests include Hall of Famers Larry Bird and Magic Johnson and young stars LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony.

I said to Dog, "These people are beyond being in deep denial about the trouble the Lakers are in here," as celebrations were being staged and planned throughout the L.A. basin.

Even after the Pistons won Game 1 by 12 points, during Channel 2's cuts to an Anaheim sports bar, the fans there, regaled in purple and gold, cheered and tried to look happy -- although strangely so. They looked happy like the French did as the Germans marched down the Champs Elysee. Some assistant fluffed them to cheer before the cut to the location. A cheesing reporter said something like, "The people here know the Lakers will win, even though they just lost!"

It was weird. The people were not even allowed to express their sadness or to question this Stepford Lakers Wives-like action of smiling and cheering like automatons even though something ominous was clearly happening.

"The people are beyond being in deep denial about what is happening in this series with the Lakers; they're living in an alternate universe!" I thought.

Then I thought about Floston Paradise, the tenth annie of the Bronco Chase, and the post-O.J. apocalyptic world in which we now live. I thought, "Well, yes, you idiot. Of course they're living in an alternate universe. So are you."

Even though Dog was rooting for the Pistons, he was wearing a Laker hook-up, a shooting shirt and a royal blue white cursive script Laker throwback flat-bill ball cap. He was trying to fit in, which he did.

"Perpetrating," he called it.

"Ahh," Dog said. "Wait until the Pistons take Game 2."

"I know what you mean, old friend," I'd said, "They could take Game 2. But now we'll see what Kobe Bryant's got, because he's their only way. OK, Mr. I'm-On-Jordan's-Level. Let's see it. No, no, let's see it. He'll probably go for 40, which against Detroit is like 60. But they'll still barely win. If they do.

"Meantime, this entire populace should be called the L.A. Alexanders, or the L.A. British Royals, or maybe the Los Angeles Wierdlings," I said to Dog as we rode through some of the many precincts of the LA Basin accompanied by so many car flags and so much Laker merchandise sold hot off the street that it took your breath and some of your money away. Even I picked up a sleeveless Laker t-shirt, though I sense a hidden truth about these things.

All this was just before Dog ran into our old friend C-Los and we retired to a hotel suite to engage in the wonderful pursuit of watching the second of the best-of-seven games to determine the best basketball team in the world.

There are worse ways to occupy your time, believe me. In fact, I can't think of a better way, unless it involves getting children out of your house.

"I can't believe this is happening," C-Los said. We joshed and jumped up and down and cursed freely and happily, there being no FCC ban on it in hotel suites yet. Luke Walton came in from out of nowhere as if from an ethernet port and had seven points, five boards and eight assists.

Luke Walton
Without Walton, the Lakers are down 0-2.
"White Magic," I said idly.

Compared to the Lakers other guards, that's who Luke reminded me of. He hit Shaq with creative entry passes, got his on shot, went coast-to-caost for a layup, hit a bomb. What else is there? Plus, it's all relative. Plus, it was catchy. When I related this little nickname to Simba the Sports Guy, he said I needed bed rest. But I wasn't saying Luke was perfectly analogous to Magic. I just liked calling him that, the same way the Sports Guy likes calling himself Sexual Chocolate.

Little did I know that Larry Bird was about to make White Magic look really catchy. This would come by way of the good graces of Jim Gray, who was getting ready to pimp Bird so hard that the next time I see Gray I will be sure to call him Iceberg Jim. All this stunned 'Melo and LeBron, who sat with Bird and Magic in an Indiana high school gym for "Two On Two," an exercise in hilarity and discomfort to be televised tonight on ESPN.

The concept of race came up, and the young men seemed to handle it much more adroitly and appropriately -- i.e., they didn't give a s*** about it -- than the old men did. As Bird became more verbally entangled in Iceberg Jim's web, 'Melo and LeBron looked on incredulously, and I wondered if all this was much more our problem than theirs. But then I decided, nahhhhh ...


The arrogance, not of the Lakers (although they have it, too) but of the Laker fans, was and is not unique in the annals of American sport. But it is the current rendition of American sport ... four black men, the Musketeers, and their D'Artagnan, Kobe Bryant. But, in the post-O.J. world, a racial dynamic will always pivot the national attention.

This is why I mention the "Two On Two" program airing tonight. It's always good to interview men such as Magic and Bird and Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James, to see how they tick -- and from the league perspective, to see if such bounty as the Era of Bird and Magic spawned can ever be reproduced. David Stern would love it. Consciously or not, so would you. I myself once said on the L.A.-based show "Rome Is Burning" that everybody would probably get into it more if Carmelo Anthony, the foil for LeBron James, were a white kid instead of a black one. I didn't say it as an I-wish thing, or as a condemnation.

It is the first way people draw a rooting interest in our nation of fools.

But it is not the only way, as the Lakers joining the Pantheon of the Yankees, Notre Dame and the Dallas Cowboys as America's Teams shows.

Now we have Iceberg Jim asking Larry Bird, "Does the NBA lack enough white superstars, in your opinion?"

This, right after Bird is being one of the fellows, in his opinion, by saying he hated it when a white guy tried to guard him because he felt that was beneath him. There was laughter in this part of the segment, although it was nervous uncomfortable laughter from LeBron and 'Melo. Magic was laughing, but then he laughs at everything.

You know what's troubling about this? You and me. That's what the marketers think of us. Dangle the red meat of race in front of them, and they'll tune in and get the fruits and vegetables and all the stuff that's good for them but that they won't tune in for otherwise. That's No. 1.

No. 2, the timing. I mean, Gray asked this question, and elicits this answer, and there Luke Walton is! I mean, there he is, right in front of your eyes, as the only possible salvation of the Lakers in the NBA Finals! And you can't make a Luke Walton overnight. You can't I-wish up on one. It takes years and years and years of training, as well as many other variables falling exactly into place. It's just like when some of these know-nothings with ulterior motives ask, "Where are the American-born blacks in big league baseball?" And then I turn on the TV and there they are!

Somebody explain this to me.

Larry Bird
It seems the only one who cares that Larry is white, is Larry.
No. 3, and somehow most disquieting: A couple of days before, in the run-up to Game 2 in L.A., Iceberg Jim Gray, who is a colleague of mine, a long-time acquaintance, was asking Shaquille O'Neal questions about the Finals and the Laker season, questions that don't get nearly as much media mileage as "Does the NBA lack enough white superstars, in your opinion?" Near the conclusion of Gray's interview with O'Neal, Gray asked O'Neal to characterize the Laker season; and O'Neal did, with the last word he used being "enigmatic."

Good word. O'Neal seemed to try to humorize his use of it by smiling and saying Jim might not feel the use of such a word was appropriate -- if, in fact, he knew what it meant. O'Neal was sort of diffusing his own use of the word, as if Jim would take it as inappropriate, not as a word -- it was exactly the proper word -- but inappropriate for Shaq to use.

The word seemed to throw Jim Gray, who said to Shaq, "Spell that."

I was stunned. Almost as stunned as when O'Neal almost defiantly spelled it perfectly. He's lucky Shaq responded. Responded? He's lucky Shaq didn't drill him. Luckily for Iceberg Jim, Shaq's not that type. Spell that? What is that supposed to prove?

Wait. Don't answer that. Somehow I think it's going to lead to a question about race. Iceberg Jim is not so innocent here; but then again, few of us are. I do wish we'd stop infecting others, though. The moral here, if we can find one under the pile of horsecrap: Don't ask people if they think there should be more white superstar ballers (when they are right under your nose) without asking if there should be more black superstar lawyers, doctors, and sports interviewers who can spell "enigmatic."

Good freaking word, Shaq. Thank you.


So Luke Walton came from out of nowhere, from the purgatory of DNP-CD, to give the Lakers a fighting chance to win in a series everyone had at first assumed was theirs by divine right. But the Three Musketeers and D'Artagnan -- Shaq, Payton, Malone and Kobe -- were in over their heads, at their collective ages, at the highest level of hoop in the word. When the game is between Shaq, Kobe, Rasheed and Ben Wallace and Chauncey Billups and Tay, that is rarefied air, at altitude, where, say, a Rip Hamilton is reduced to running around looking a chicken with his head cut off. There is no room for any pretense or any bluff here. Either you can play up there or you can't.

Guess what. Playing with Shaq and Kobe, Luke Walton is perfect. His eight assists and how he got them proved he can get the ball to Shaq in better and more creative and effective ways, on the move, outside of the confines of the triangle offense, better than anyone else on the Laker Team. White Magic.

See? That, too, is happening even as people are asking some of these discomfiting questions, and yet not asking some others.


Which is why Larry Brown and Phil Jackson both were at such a great advantage, and why ultimately they left the competition behind as NBA coaches. And why, if we're lucky, they are the prototypes for future coaches, maybe like this Doc Rivers guy. I don't have to tell you, that guy's good.

Let's make this brief. You can sum up the approaches of Jackson and Brown to an occurrence in Game 1. During a timeout, LB said to his team, "You can get any shot you want -- they (the Lakers) aren't guarding anybody."

This was equal parts truth and motivational tactic. Brown is excellent at this, not to mention excellent at drawing up in-bounds plays and creative defensive structures. He's mostly good with people in the game.

Jackson ran a tape of Brown saying this four or five times for his players after the game was over. Jackson is good at this psychological motivational thing, and he coaches by feel. It was Jackson, after all, who pushed the Luke Walton button -- admittedly in desperation -- in Game 2. It was hard for Phil to sit and try to look cool in the last 10 seconds of that game, before Kobe hit the Shot. Phil is an old Knick, a Golden Era Knick; and I would not abandon him. And no, it's not easy to coach talent. But it's a helluva lot easier than coaching a lack of talent, as Brown has done.

Phil Jackson has nine NBA championship rings. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were responsible for six of them; Shaq and Kobe for the other three. Shaq, Kobe and Luke, if there is to be a 10th ring for Phil this year.

Brown, on the other hand, took four freshman and a 6-foot-5 center named Mike Sanders to the NCAA title game in 1980, the first man to basically succeed at UCLA after John Wooden. He won a national title at Kansas, even though Oklahoma had more good players. He took the L.A. Clippers to the playoffs, for God's sake. Could Red Auerbach have done that alone? He took a much weaker Duncan-less version of the Spurs to the playoffs. He took the Nets to the playoffs when they played in Piscataway. He kept the Indiana Pacers in the playoffs routinely. And he took Allen Iverson to the highest plateau the Answer will ever experience as a professional player.

And now he and the Pistons stand in the way of the canonization of Jackson and the Lakers.

Larry Brown
Name the level, name the situation and Brown has coached a winner.
The Finals is a referendum on who is the best coach in NBA history.

For me (and I can only speak for myself), it's Larry Brown. I've told him so on occasion. "Larry, you're the best coach in this league." He smiled.

Which doesn't mean I don't like Phil. I love Phil. I just wish for his next motivational Zen tactic, he'd give copies of "Why Black People Tend To Shout," to Luke Walton, Shaq, Kobe, Larry Bird, and Iceberg Jim.

The Jackson Brown Conceit goes quite beyond any consideration of race. Theirs is a pure consideration of ball, and of ballers. The thing is, they do care. But they care about it all. Not just about if their team wins.

Larry Brown's quote extolling Kobe after he hit the game-winner in Game 2 said more about Brown than it did about Bryant: "That's why he's so special. After what the kid's been through all year, more power to him, because he's a great, great young man (whose on-court conduct) makes me proud ... "

That's not some bulls*** coach's quote. Brown didn't even waste time being defensive about not fouling Shaq in the last 10 seconds of Game 2, not bothering to explain that no coach would prep for that in the preceeding time-out because no coach would figure any team could be dumb enough to pass Shaq the ball. Plus, as Brown explained, a great defensive team doesn't need to foul in that situation.

Detroit just ended up, unfortunately, with Rip Head Ham, Kobe Bryant's personal b----, on Kobe, due to a switch; and Rip didn't get up into Kobe enough on defense. What was Rip doing, protecting against the drive?

Tch.

The first and last rule of coaching: Personnel.

Be able to play.

Then, such men as Brown and Jackson, as well as the Game itself, will find you.

Ralph Wiley has written articles for Sports Illustrated, Premiere, GQ, and National Geographic, and many national newspapers. He was one of the original NFL Insiders on NBC. His many books include "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir," "Why Black People Tend To Shout," "By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of Malcolm X" with Spike Lee, "Dark Witness," "Best Seat in the House" with Spike Lee, "Born to Play" with Eric Davis, and "Growing Up King" with Dexter Scott King and the children of Martin Luther King Jr. He contributes to many ESPN productions, and bats cleanup on a weekly basis for Page 2.