Tuesday, February 1, 2005
Updated: February 2, 4:04 PM ET
A lot more than 'flu-like' symptoms
By Marc Stein
They are, in case anyone had forgotten, the most ominous words in the Laker dictionary.
That was the initial medical report which circulated in the fall of 1991, when the incomparable Magic Johnson missed a few games. Magic was soon seen standing behind a lectern at the famed Forum Club in Los Angeles, making his life- and league-altering retirement announcement.
I heard those words again over the past weekend, on a TV broadcast before the Lakers' victory Sunday over Charlotte. This time, the stress-ridden Rudy Tomjanovich, it was said, would miss that night's game because of flu-like symptoms, later described by the team as a stomach virus.
The specifics are drastically different in both cases, but both times we found out it was more than the flu. Much more.
On Monday, Tomjanovich told the Lakers he wanted to resign as coach, citing stress as the main force driving him away just over halfway through the first year of a five-year, $30 million contract to replace Phil Jackson. Although the Lakers, according to sources, asked Tomjanovich to spend the night reconsidering his plans, the formal announcement came Wednesday.
Meantime, under interim coach Frank Hamblen, the Lakers defeated the Portland Trail Blazers 92-79 at Staples Center on Tuesday night.
Team and league sources told ESPN.com on Tuesday night that Tomjanovich simply wasn't handling stress as well as he used to with the Houston Rockets. The pressure he felt -- much of it self-induced, sources say -- coaching the NBA's glamour franchise as it rebuilds was apparently too much for Rudy T on top of his personal challenges.
Tomjanovich, remember, is not simply the man who took over for Jackson when a run of three championships in five seasons was followed by an epic dismantling. He's also a cancer survivor and a recovering alcoholic, and sources say there were growing fears of health complications if he continued to coach.
Added up, it was a big load for Tomjanovich. Bigger than the 56-year-old anticipated, obviously, and leaving the Lakers -- while stunning players, coaches and colleagues all over the NBA map -- should lessen it dramatically.
The stress built steadily even though the Lakers, at 24-19, can be considered one of the league's surprise teams. Despite losing Shaquille O'Neal and Jackson and surrounding Kobe Bryant with an unbalanced and unheralded roster, L.A. is on course to claim the playoff spot many pundits (yours truly included) gave the Lakers little hope of landing. The Lakers have even hung tough with Bryant sidelined by an ankle injury, going 5-4 without him.
Yet Tomjanovich, friends say, scarcely celebrated L.A.'s victories while taking losses harder and harder. One pal said Tomjanovich kept heaping pressure on himself in part because he was so well-received by his new players and the organization.
That included Bryant. There will inevitably be speculation that Kobe was somehow unhappy with Rudy, but it's misplaced speculation. Tomjanovich has never had trouble connecting with superstars, and although it's my feeling that he erred badly by refusing to guarantee 10 to 15 post touches per game to Lamar Odom before Bryant got hurt -- to make Kobe's on-court life easier -- there was no evidence of any problems between the star and the coach.
My main doubts about Tomjanovich-to-the-Lakers going dealt with how Rudy T would handle the Hollywood spotlight more than the actual coaching. Houston was a tiny market by comparison, and Tomjanovich remains one of that city's prodigal sons, virtually bulletproof there. I was in training camp with the Lakers in October and took note of the media crush that rushed at Tomjanovich as if it feared it had to tackle him to make sure he stopped to talk after his first couple practices. Right then, I wondered if the peripheral pressures attached to the Laker job would be a bigger drain on Tomjanovich than anything he had experienced before.
Now it appears as if we all misdiagnosed the Hollywood pressure. We undersold it.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.