Thursday, March 18, 2010
Updated: March 19, 6:00 PM ET
Beyond success for Jackson, Rambis
By Dave McMenamin
Between them, Phil Jackson and Kurt Rambis have 19 championship rings spanning their playing and coaching careers.
That would be enough to outfit all of Jerry Garcia's digits -- he lost his right index finger in a wood-chopping accident at age 4 -- were the lead singer of the Grateful Dead still alive and in attendance at Friday's game between the Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves.
Yet the absurd visual of a barefoot Garcia (of whom Jackson is a huge fan) strumming at his guitar with bling on every one of his fingers and toes might be one of the best ways to show how ridiculously successful Jackson and Rambis have been.
While winning at the highest level has seemingly shaped the coaching careers of the two, they both have experienced dreadfully tough periods of losing that have been just as important in rounding out their coaching resumes.
Minnesota comes to town with a 14-55 record, second-worst in the NBA. While that might make some re-think leaving a Lakers team now 50-18 and readying for a championship repeat run, Jackson said Thursday his former charge is up for the challenge.
"Kurt's had a real good mind-set towards that," Jackson said. "He always has. He went to an expansion team after playing for the Lakers. That expansion team did pretty well. They won 20-something games, I think in Charlotte in that first season. He ended up being on a Sacramento team that had some issues later on in his career before getting into assistant coaching with Phoenix at the end of his career."
The Hornets actually won 20 games in 1988-89 and the Kings won 25 in 1992-93. Jackson was a player-assistant on the 1977-78 New Jersey Nets team that won only 24 games.
"Having been there myself as an assistant coach of a team that lost  in a row, you see the heads drop and issues start with individual players and things happening where it becomes excuses after excuses because losing is very hard to deal with in this game, particularly when everything is generated out of winning," Jackson said.
Kobe Bryant said Rambis "knew what he was getting into when he went there in terms of the team trying to rebuild."
Bryant actually says he thinks things aren't as bad as they seem for his former assistant coach, despite Rambis' record with the Wolves.
"It's been a tough year for him, but they're executing extremely well, actually," Bryant said. "It's always a work in progress. ... They have a couple key pieces, so they should be fine."
When the two teams met earlier this season, the Lakers came in riding a 10-game winning streak and the Timberwolves were 3-18. But Minnesota trailed by only two points at halftime en route to a modest 12-point loss.
The Lakers say they miss having Rambis around. Jackson says he monitors Minnesota's season "a lot" and frequently texts his old bench mate, whom he called his defensive coordinator in Los Angeles. Bryant says assistant coach Brian Shaw has learned to speak up more often because Rambis was "extremely vocal for us."
As much as the Lakers and Timberwolves seasons are veering in different directions, Jackson had to employ the same coaching techniques recently when L.A. was trying to dig itself out of a three-game losing streak that Rambis has had to preach to his team all season long.
At the time, Jackson used practice to focus on execution, saying, "There's a slippage point where things aren't working well. Guys aren't picking up the ball off the dribble. They're not handling the ball when they get a shot. They're not making the correct pass in situations. They're not setting a good pick in execution."
When Jackson was asked what Rambis is doing to turn things around for the Timberwolves, he echoed the same step-by-step approach he recently used himself for his first-place team.
"It's got to be about individual things like one quarter at a time, one play [at a time]," Jackson said. "It's got to be about let's find a way to have fun in practice so it doesn't become drudgery and every day becomes an issue."
Garcia once sang, "What a long, strange trip it's been." For Jackson and Rambis, whose trips have been blessed by winning, the strange part is how much losing has been a part of their journeys as well.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.