To say that Phil Jackson’s 2003-2004 season as coach of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team was tumultuous is a bit like saying doughnuts are a little fattening. During the offseason, star player Kobe Bryant faced a lawsuit in Colorado about an alleged rape charge. Shaquille O’Neal, the team’s seven-foot center, was unhappy with Bryant’s ball-hogging during the previous season and was becoming quite vocal about it. The Lakers had added two new players for the season; one was Karl Malone, the aging warrior who saw this move as his only opportunity to win an NBA championship. The other was Gary Payton, the combustible guard who had worn out his welcome with his previous team. Add to this volatile mix Jackson’s romance with Jeanie Buss, his boss’s daughter. The book is a chronicle, in diary form, of Jackson’s take on the season that ended in bitter disappointment when the Lakers lost the championship to the Detroit Pistons.
The book is extremely candid in its portrait of a team in turmoil. Jackson holds nothing back in castigating Bryant as an immature and petulant individual blessed with a preternatural talent for shooting a basketball. He routinely disobeys Jackson’s orders in passing the ball at critical moments in the game, shows no leadership tendencies, and wears his jealousy of O’Neal on his sleeve. While Jackson lets his assistants, principally Tex Winter (the putative father of the triangle offense that accounted for much of the Chicago Bulls’ success), handle the game plans, his role appears to be to motivate the team, keep warring personalities apart, and somehow think of ways to give enough minutes to all his superstars, many of whom use their agents to publicly express their anger and frustration.
The book is not deep in its game analysis. Jackson often spends scant amounts of text describing critical plays. It is almost like he wants to unburden the feelings he has of that season. That is why his focus is on the key personalities – Bryant, Shaq, Malone, and Payton. He burns several bridges in his narrative, Kobe and his selfishness, Payton and his misplaced ego, several competing players and coaches in the NBA with their peccadilloes. Even team owner Dr. Jerry Buss is not spared. Apparently, the middle-aged Buss has a penchant for the company of nubile teens. Jackson, who announced his retirement from coaching at the conclusion of the season, probably felt that it was the right time for such a “tell-all” book. What is stunning is that, in the epilogue that is added to the paperback version, he explains how he came back to coach the team (now without Shaq, Malone, and Payton) for the 2005-2006 season, obviously somehow having made his peace with Bryant and others.
Jackson’s warts-and-all portrait of a season in professional basketball is an interesting read because it offers an insider’s account of the games and the players. While short on the nuances of game strategy and long on personalities, Jackson nevertheless describes clearly how a team loaded with talent, almost certain to reach the pinnacle, failed to do so because of a lack of chemistry.