It's my contention that big-name coaches are not a guarantee for success after leaving the safe harbor of their initial achievement. I pointed to Riley, Pitino, and Chuck Daly as examples. Dunn rightly noted that each of these guys, to varying degrees, went into drastic rebuilding projects, obviously not the case with the talented Lakers. He pretty much had me resigned to the impending dominance of the Western Triangle -- then I got e-mail from a reader. Never in nine years have I printed a letter to me, either because: they're dull, off point, filled with venomous personal insults about the Old Coach, or I simply pinch the good ones and turn them into a column. This letter was so good, I'm going to credit it, print it almost verbatim, and send it to Dunn:
"Dear Coach: Surprisingly, given my hard-line right-wing nature and my disdain for hippies and New Agers (he wouldn't like Dunn), I have nothing against Phil Jackson. He's a superb strategist who gets the most out of his players. So I think hiring him would be a smart move for almost any team. Jackson's only problem is this: In Chicago he was asked to build a team around Jordan, and in L.A., he's got to build a team around Shaquille O'Neal. Now Jordan and O'Neal are both phenomenal talents, and they both seem like decent enough guys, but they differ in one important regard. Michael Jordan hates losing and Shaquille doesn't.
"One of Jimmy Connors' few memorable quotes was that, essentially, a champion in any sport has to hate losing a lot more than he likes winning. To be a champion, you have to get sick to your stomach when you see some other son-of-a-bitch holding up your trophy. Jordan does hate losing that much. He hated losing so much he was willing to play a style of basketball that de-emphasized his role. He hated losing so much that when a few sportswriters questioned his abilities as a defender he went to work immediately at becoming one of the league's best defenders.
"Now, can you imagine Michael Jordan ever justifying himself by saying, 'I've been a winner everywhere but college and the pros'? I don't think so. It's clear Shaq's mighty pleased with himself, even if he's never been a champion. As noted, when people said Jordan wasn't a great defender he took it as both an insult and a challenge. He worked hard at correcting that one small weakness. Compare that to the way Shaq has approached free throw shooting. Look, Shaq will never be a great free throw shooter, which is understandable and even forgivable. But it's not forgivable that he's gotten progressively worse (his best year was as a rookie), and that he's out making bad rap CDs (and worse movies) instead of spending time in the gym.
"In Chicago, Phil Jackson had a star who was already supremely motivated to win. Once he was able to convince Jordan the Bulls would win with his game plan, everything was relatively easy. My hunch is Shaq will be a much harder sell. He doesn't just have to be sold on the triangle, he has to be sold on the idea that his performance to date has been inadequate.
"I don't say O'Neal will never win a championship. He certainly has the ability to dominate a game or a series. My armchair psychiatry is as dubious as anybody else's. I just think a championship team should be built around a player who abhors losing. Thus far I've seen nothing to suggest Shaq is such a player." --John Leavy
That's a good letter. I'm pleased John isn't bucking for my job.
I'll give GM Robert Barr and Rudy Tomjanovich high marks for loyalty and sweet thoughts, but flunk them in Rational Thinking 101 (i.e., the future of the Rocket franchise). The fast-aging Houston Rockets were offered a fountain-of-youth deal, Toronto's #5 and 12 picks, plus two serviceable veterans, for Hakeem Olajuwon. This seemed like an insane deal -- not for Houston, but for Toronto! Why the Raptors would trade away two #1s for what -- maybe a seventh seed in the playoffs and a badly aging superstar -- is beyond me. For the Rockets it was time to think of the franchise, which will be in sad, sad shape once Hakeem and Barkley retire. But alas, sentiment -- a fine thing indeed on Valentine's Day -- got in the way. As opposed to Chicago, who gutted its team but did it on their timetable, Houston will win the Boy Scout award -- but it won't count for much when the 20-win seasons start piling up.
Write to Coach at Coach36@aol.com