- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 12, 2000

The Lakers have found enlightenment because of the Zen master. Or so the story goes.

The Lakers are on a 15-game winning streak and have shown themselves to be the class of the NBA. Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant are discovering they can coexist, and Glen Rice is adjusting to his role as the third banana, and everyone else knows their place.

Derek Fisher knows to distribute the ball, A.C. Green knows to rebound and go after every loose ball, Robert Horry knows to provide energy, Rick Fox knows to take the 3-pointer, John Salley knows to lighten the mood, and Ron Harper knows to explain the intricacies of Zen and the triangle offense.

Phil Jackson takes his Zen, and himself, seriously, and because he wins basketball games, the temptation is to endorse the magical power of his incense.

Jackson may believe in mood rings and pet rocks, along with Bill Bradley, but mostly he believes in talent, which is why he landed in Los Angeles instead of Vancouver.

He was intrigued by the Lakers, and who couldn't be intrigued by the imposing presence of O'Neal?

Kurt Rambis, Jackson's predecessor, did not spout Zen but knew as much basketball as the next person.

Unlike Rambis, however, Jackson carries Michael Jordan's endorsement wherever he goes, and that is like being endorsed by the Pope.

Rambis and Jackson could dispense the same basketball principles, word for word. But it's Jackson, because of Jordan, who is destined to be perceived as wise and Rambis as just another coach to be tolerated.

Contrary to the sentiment fostered in the media and among the coaching fraternity, basketball is a relatively simple game. You don't have to be all that smart. As a coach, you need talent. As a player, you have to be tall, the taller the better, somewhat athletic and you must be willing to work on the game's skills.

People who work in or around basketball want to believe there is more to basketball than there really is, because it makes them look smart. People like to look smart.

Coaches, in particular, usually adopt a favorite element of the game just to show you how smart they are. It is never their team's ability to make shots from the perimeter or hit a high percentage of their free throw attempts that wins games. Inevitably, coaches talk about their team's defense or rebounding or energy level or, in the case of Jackson, Zen.

This is not to suggest that defense, rebounding and energy level are unimportant functions in a basketball game. This is only to suggest that, above all else, you have to be able to put the ball in the hole. If you have a couple of players who can put the ball in the hole, you're going to be successful, whether your off-court interest is Zen or transcendentalism or Marshall Applewhite trailing Hale-Bopp.

Jackson has three quality scorers at his disposal, which is three more than some of the worst teams in the NBA.

He had the ultimate weapon in Jordan during his championship seasons in Chicago, and now, arguably, he has the ultimate weapon in O'Neal.

O'Neal is not so much a gifted basketball player as he is an incredible physical specimen. He is just so darn massive and strong compared to everyone else. His basketball skills are mostly functional, hardly exceptional, while his free throw shooting remains atrocious.

O'Neal's free throw shooting, not Zen, promises to be the determining factor in the Lakers' season. They are good enough to win the championship, but they can't afford to be only 5-7 points better than the opposition in the playoffs, not as long as O'Neal is shooting below 50 percent from the free throw line. He usually gives away 5-7 points at the free throw line, and that statistic is a whole lot more significant in the postseason than in the regular season.

There is not much Zen to making a free throw attempt, although the Zen master probably would insist otherwise.

The Zen master has unveiled his Jordan-inspired portfolio to the Lakers, and they have responded in impressive fashion.

Jordan watched the Lakers overwhelm the Nuggets the other night, and he, in his own way, has been as pivotal to the team's dominance as the Zen master.

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