- The Washington Times - Friday, June 17, 2005

Here we go again with the Zen master and Kobe, ego to ego, with the modest expectation of a playoff berth.

The Zen master is returning to the floor of the reluctant pupil, ever determined to show that he can win without Michael Jordan or Shaquille O’Neal.

To be fair, the Zen master demonstrated this capacity in 1994, in year one of Jordan’s baseball-induced retirement or gambling-induced exile, whichever explanation you prefer.

The Bulls managed to win 55 games with Scottie Pippen as the lead player and Horace Grant as the No.2 guy and might have advanced beyond the conference semifinals if not for the questionable whistle of Hue Hollins in Game5 against the Knicks.

The Knicks, of course, advanced to the NBA Finals that season, only to fall to the Rockets in seven games.

So the Jordan-less Bulls of 1994 were perhaps one whistle shy of a stirring season, and certainly no apologies were demanded from the Zen master. The Bulls were expected to endure a precipitous drop in the absence of Jordan, which turned out to be all of a two-game decline in the regular season.

At least Zen-Kobe, Part Deux, lacks the divisiveness of whose team it is, so long as Shaq remains in Miami.

It came to be Kobe’s team to a fault, the 34-48 Lakers of the season past, three games behind the other NBA occupant in Los Angeles. That possibly was the hardest fact to stomach in the Buss family, both Jerry and Jeannie.

The Zen master and Jeannie share an affinity for one another, which added intrigue to the closed-door negotiations. We only can imagine the exchanges between father and daughter, given how tricky father-daughter exchanges can be.

Jeannie loves both men and no doubt urged both to put their grievances aside.

She is the clear victor in all this, while Kobe’s outcome is uncertain.

Educating Kobe has been an arduous process, and the Zen master can only hope that Kobe is more receptive to instruction following the hard lesson of a 34-48 season.

Kobe was not all that. Or he was not all he thought he could be.

He was Allen Iverson Lite or Paul Pierce Lite, if that. After all, those one-man bands lead their respective organizations to the playoffs.

Applying logic to Kobe, newly chastened or not, is risky business.

He never has followed the smart thinking in the past, starting with his move to break up the Lakers in the midst of his rape trial. Given the circumstances, you would have thought he would be the last person to seek controversy.

The pattern persisted last season, when he accused Karl Malone of making inappropriate comments to his wife. Soon enough, Malone was out the same door as Shaq and the Zen master.

But maybe now Kobe has dropped far enough to realize that it is not his world, that even the highly gifted need direction and an occasional firm hand.

Kobe, who seemingly has been around forever, is all of 26, far too young not to evolve.

He is receiving one heck of a do-over from the Zen master, the game’s biggest coaching name and one of the few who will not yield to a star player’s me-first obsession.

There is not necessarily the happy ending of a championship in store for the Zen master and Kobe. But they have an opportunity to craft a better ending than the acrimonious one last June.

And both can satisfy their self-interests: the Zen master to show skeptics that he can roll up his sleeves and coach with the best and Kobe that he has learned a thing or three from his previous mistakes.

It is all on them, the Zen master and Kobe, given the limitations of the roster.

Lamar Odom is more suited in temperament and style to be a No.3 guy than a No.2. Who knows if Vlade Divac has another season left in his 37-year-old body? The rest of the personnel is mostly incidental.

The Zen master goes into it needing lots of luck and Kobe’s cooperation.

We’ll see.

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