- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 20, 2001

The Zen master goes abracadabra, and the Lakers go to the head of the NBA, again.

His hocus-pocus sometimes includes a word of encouragement from Chief Crazy Horse, which is in contrast to the NBA's customary obsession with X's and O's and overnight television ratings.

Oddball or not, the Zen master is up to eight NBA championships, six with the Bulls and two with the Lakers, one behind Red Auerbach. He is expected to pass Auerbach in the seasons ahead, given the birth dates of Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.

The Zen master is said to be at one with the game, always at peace with the on-court chaos before him, often a picture of serenity. He coaches with either his eyes closed or with a smirk on his face. At least once, to break the monotony of the regular season, he filed his nails from a seat on the bench. Others rant. He yawns. Wake up and smell the incense.

Perhaps the Zen master was born under the right stars, so easily viewed in Deer Lodge, Mont., in Big Sky Country. He was a child of the '60s, a player with the Knicks who secured a championship ring in 1973, his second with the team if you count his back-induced season of inactivity in 1970. He also led the Albany (N.Y.) Patroons to the CBA championship in 1984. What's that, 11 championships?

Yet the context is tricky with the Zen master, if only because of the other fingerprints on his hardware. Michael Jordan was the best player of his generation, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant the best in the new millennium.

History undoubtedly will be kinder to the Zen master than those who vote for NBA Coach of the Year each season. The Zen master has earned that distinction only once, in 1996, and it required a record-setting 72-10 record by the Bulls.

The job is mostly about managing personalities and egos, which is usually done behind closed doors, away from the prying eyes of the media. How do you evaluate privacy, by osmosis?

The Zen master landed in Los Angeles at the appropriate time, with O'Neal and Bryant in a mood to listen following the aggravation of the 1999 season with Del Harris and Kurt Rambis.

The Zen master carried Jordan's stamp of approval at the time, held up as the only person for whom his Airness could play. That approval provided the Zen master with a certain access to the minds and hearts of O'Neal and Bryant. The endorsement didn't work for Glen Rice and Isaiah Rider, but third wheels are often tormented by their lot, wedged as they are between being a star and a role player.

Derek Fisher's impersonation of a third wheel turned out to be sufficient, and devoid of conflict. It was a step up for him. Rick Fox was not too bad, either.

The Zen master permitted the tedium of the regular season to be a growth experience for his players. He is big into that. He is not inclined to save his players with a timeout at the prescribed time in games. He did not even bother to call a timeout between O'Neal and Bryant. Why, he joined the fray himself, delivering a few well-placed zingers to Bryant.

If there was a method to the process, it escaped nearly everyone's notice. The sense of purpose did not return to the Lakers until April 1, April Fool's Day, appropriately enough, the start of the team's nearly flawless march to the championship.

The Zen master either orchestrated the ride or merely was along for the ride, secure in his legacy to the game either way.

As it is, he is breathing on Auerbach, poised to pass the coaching giant of a bygone era, his name destined to be inserted in place of Auerbach's, as so: Who do you think you are, Red Auerbach?

That is one of the old retorts of the playground, reserved for the annoying player-coach types.

An updated version is bound to be necessary, as long as O'Neal and Bryant stay healthy and on speaking terms.

The Zen master knows how to pick them, that's for sure, not counting his support of Bill Bradley's doomed presidential bid. His gal pal is the owner's daughter.

His motto: Don't worry; be meditative.

The Zen master. He is that.

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