Yeah, I can't believe it either, but he said it. He actually went there. The L-word.
(To be completely accurate, Kobe Bean Bryant merely accused his Lakers team of a tendency to "lollygag," about a week ago. But any devotee of Tim Robbins' legendary cinematic career knows this: You lollygag the ball around the infield. You lollygag your way down to first. You lollygag in and out of the dugout. That makes you, by definition, lollygaggers.)
Whatever happened to the good old days of Kobe Doin' Work?
OK, so Bryant being less than satisfied with his teammates is not exactly breaking news at this point. Still, it's apparent something must happen, the way they've been playing together. Some change must occur. Los Angeles must flip some internal switch, heading into these upcoming NBA playoffs (and Bryant is understandably worried about being able to do so). Otherwise, this season could end badly - and anything short of a title would be that.
But with this slump comes the specter of the idea that maybe these guys aren't really lollygagging, maybe this is just who they are. Maybe these Lakers aren't really a great team that doesn't try hard enough. But maybe instead they just have a great player and an all-time coach, chemistry problems, and not much of a bench. Maybe they're good, sure, but can look really bad, because they've got gaping flaws.
Maybe we were just fooled, and expect too much because of Kobe, Gasol, Artest and Odom - no, wait a minute. That's a lot of names, there.
No, these guys should be fine.
So where is Phil Jackson in all of this lollygagging, then? (And the public accusation of same?) Shouldn't he be setting roles, resolving conflicts, smoothing the ship? Isn't he the Master Motivator?
Well, no. He's spoken openly in the past about players tuning him out. About guys who - gasp! - don't even read the spiritual, inspirational tomes he gives them. But, no biggie. No, he is the Zen Master.
Don't make me break out the story about him driving the team bus.
So Jackson will needle and he will cajole and he will, as Pau Gasol might say, play with words. He's hung his possible retirement on this team's shoulders. He'll nudge them in a certain direction. But it appears Jackson is not going to be the guy to publicly give this group the proverbial kick in the pants before it's too late.
And sooner or later, it might be too late. But that just would not be Phil.
Jackson is the guy to give the players the room they need to figure things out for themselves.
"The smaller the corral, the more animals try and break out," Jackson told the L.A. Times' T.J. Simers.
(Anyone else hear music?)
Even now. Even with disheartening performances, and his star player breaking out the L-word.
But hey, Bryant being less than satisfied with his teammates is not exactly breaking news. And when the Lakers are in the Finals, the media will say that this was when Kobe Showed Real Leadership.
And the Lollyg - er, Lakers (who have shown they can play pretty well without him, by the way) will grin and bear it. Because sometimes we all make sacrifices to get to where we want to go.
Classic Jackson. Ignore the drama, and give them enough space to find their own way, to come back to you, to be prodigal sons.
The dawn of Zen was the famous Flower Sermon. In it, Gautama Buddha gathered his guys - let's call them his team - all around him. And then, he said ... nothing.
(Wait. This sounds familiar.)
Nothing! He kept them huddled around him, without a word. Wikipedia (and if you can't go to Wikipedia with questions about religion, where can you go?) says: "Some speculated that perhaps the Buddha was tired or ill."
But then, the Buddha held up a flower, wordlessly. And after a while, finally, one of his guys had what Oprah calls an aha! moment. He got it.
He got it.
So here are the Lakers, looking bad, possibly lollygagging, their star player disgusted, their coach saying not much.
The NBA playoffs are fast approaching, and still, Phil Jackson lets it all go. If this team doesn't win the title, it's his worst coaching job.
If they finally put it all together, it's his best.
We'll get to motorcycle maintenance next week.