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Published: Sunday, 6/18/2000

Familiar ring -- Jackson on verge of winning first title with Lakers

INDIANAPOLIS - Their first meeting as player and coach was a sight for sore eyes.

Los Angeles Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal doesn't normally make the first move. However, the opportunity to meet Phil Jackson away from the basketball court and in his natural surroundings was too tempting for O'Neal to resist.

Not long after Jackson was hired to coach the Lakers last June, O'Neal was in Montana on a charity outing, not far from Jackson's cabin.

To reach the cabin, O'Neal borrowed a boat and headed across a nearby lake. What a sight that must have been. O'Neal, all 330 pounds of him, paddling across the river in the woods of Montana.

Shaq Diesel, meet Paul Bunyan.

"When I rode up to his big log cabin, he had a window there and all in the window was his six championship balls," O'Neal said recently. "I jumped on the trampoline and hung out with his kids and he told me what he expected out of me."

Get in the best shape of your life, Jackson told O'Neal. Commit to playing defense and expect to dominate every game.

Jackson isn't the first coach to tell O'Neal to do those things. But Jackson is the first coach with six championship rings to make that request.

Shaq listened. The rest is history. "I did just what I was asked to do," O'Neal said.

Jackson brought with him to Los Angeles the reputation as a coach who worked in tandem with veteran stars like Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen with the Chicago Bulls. The Bulls were a team led by Jordan, who was driven to succeeed. With Jordan buying into Jackson's program, the rest of the players had no choice but to follow.

Coming to the Lakers, a talented but underachieving team featuring O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, Jackson put his reputation to the test.

Not regarded as a developer of young talent, Jackson has converted O'Neal into a believer of his complicated triangle offense and has helped the 21-year-old Bryant begin fulfilling the prodigious potential that at times is reminiscent of Jackson's most famous former player.

The Lakers can capture their first NBA title in 12 years with a win over the Indiana Pacers tomorrow night in Game 6 of the finals. L.A. leads the best-of-seven series 3-2.

"That team (Chicago) had to go through a lot more adversity in the playoffs ... then when it won, it won really big," Jackson said. "There was a time for (the Bulls)to merge, and they merged and just kind of waltzed through the finals.

"The Lakers don't have that same history as a group. I've been waiting for the "a-ha" light to go on in this team for some time and it comes and goes. They're putting it together right now, as a year goes by. But this is not a group that's been together outside of five players for any length of time. So this is all new to them."

Jackson is at his X-and-O best when the Lakers are at their worst. He keeps the players focused and confident when they would falter and crumble in past years under Del Harris and Kurt Rambis, who paid for the team's postseason failures with their jobs.

It is this unique quality that transforms Jackson into a special coach, among the best ever.

"There is a certain level of leadership and calmness and confidence that Phil brings to the team," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said. "That perhaps is what sets him apart from the other coaches."

O'Neal's willingness to cooperate and perform at the highest level - he led the league in scoring and was voted MVP for the first time - has accelerated the Lakers' transition from pretender to contender.

"Shaquille is really the apex of the triangle," Jackson said.

Jackson got O'Neal's attention early in the season when he gave him some of the works of Nietzche to read. What did O'Neal think about that?

"Nietzche was a difficult book to read," O'Neal said. "From what I gather, Nietzche was so unique that they thought he was crazy. So they put him in a mental home. Phil thinks I'm unique to a point where I might be crazy."

When the Lakers gathered for the first practice of their first postseason under Jackson, they were treated to one of his legendary film sessions.

Spliced into the game film were snippets from the movie American History X. It was Jackson's charge to his players to think deeply about the challenge they faced before tackling the gameplan.

Win the championship this year, and the Lakers will no longer be considered talented but incomplete.

"It keeps us entertained," Bryant said. "Phil always has something up his sleeve. I think we all know that.

"He used to do things like cleanse the room, get evil spirits out of the room by lighting incense and all this other stuff.

"We like it. We enjoy stuff like that. It keeps the team relaxed. It keeps it fun."

There is a method to Jackson's feigned madness.

He said he's not really impressed with becoming just the seventh coach to lead more than one team to the finals. He finds it much more challenging to become the second coach to win championships with different teams. Alex Hannum (St. Louis in 1958 and Philadelphia in 1967) is the other.

"Obviously,it's great for this franchise," Jackson said. "For me, it's satisfying but it's not a job done at all. This is not somewhere I'm going to pause and say, 'Isn't it great to be here? 'This is about winning the finals. That's why we're here."

John Harris is a Blade sports columnist.



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