One reason the Lakers and Phil Jackson worked so well together is that they looked at the world the same way: gazing down their nose at it.
It always seemed that the high chair Jackson was perched upon on the Lakers’ bench, ostensibly to comfort his ailing hips, was a perfect metaphor. It was less a seat than a throne, a symbol of basketball royalty.
It was in keeping with a franchise for whom its front-row celebrities, its outrageous fortune in acquiring talent and (oh, yes) its 16 titles always seemed to be shouting out the same chorus: We are the Lakers and you are not.
And in case anyone needed a reminder, lo and behold, injured guard Steve Blake made it to a doctor’s appointment Monday by catching a lift with Kobe Bryant . . . in his helicopter.
Is this how it works in Milwaukee?
The Lakers will find out soon enough if this is how it works with Mike D’Antoni, whom they shockingly hired late Sunday night instead of Jackson, who had led the franchise to five titles since 2000.
There did not appear to be anyone outside the Lakers’ front office who did not believe that Jackson was a lock for the job after he was interviewed by vice president Jim Buss and general manager Mitch Kupchak, after fans at Staples Center chanted “We want Phil,” after Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson were giddy about the prospects of a reunification.
“Sure I did,” D’Antoni told New York Daily News columnist Mike Lupica. “For sure, I did. Didn’t everybody? When I got the call that it was me, my first reaction was, ‘Are you serious?'”
In many respects, D’Antoni is the anti-Jackson: self-deprecating, folksy, thin-skinned — just ask him about his teams’ defense, or lack of it — and not coming across as more invested in his paycheck than he is in coaching the team.
The Lakers will pay D’Antoni $12 million over the next three years — the same amount they paid Jackson when he last won a title in 2010 (and less than Brown earned) — to develop a Showtime-like offense like the one he orchestrated in Phoenix, with Steve Nash at the helm.
How that system, which is predicated on ball movement and spacing, will play with a star-studded but less-than-energetic roster with three players (Bryant, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol) who prefer to be in the post is an immediate question.
So, too, will be how much D’Antoni learned from his less-than-pleasant experience in New York where he suffered through two years of salary cap deconstruction only to have Carmelo Anthony and his ball-stopping ways foisted upon him.
While Nash is certainly elated to be working again with D’Antoni, and Bryant, who has known the coach from his days growing up in Italy, has endorsed the move, the one who has the most to gain — or lose — is Howard, who could be devastating on the pick-and-roll with Nash and an anchor to their defense.
Though Howard said that he was not consulted on the hiring, it is hard to believe that owner Jerry Buss or his son, Jim, did not make the move with an eye on what it would mean to Howard, who will be a free agent next summer.
D’Antoni, 61, seems much more likely to be around for the duration of Howard’s next contract— provided he wins. And while Howard would have fit nicely in the triangle offense that Jackson runs, it would have been another step along the path of Shaquille O’Neal. First, Orlando. Then the Lakers. And now Jackson?
That would be another comparison with O’Neal that Howard has increasingly — and understandably — tried to run from. (O’Neal took another jibe at Howard recently, calling the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan the best center in the Western Conference — no word yet on whether he has asserted that pigs can also fly.)
Ultimately, his relationship with Howard will be the one that D’Antoni must cultivate the most.
Because in the end, just as Howard is trying to run from O’Neal, D’Antoni is sure to be followed by the shadow of Jackson.
If you buy the version of the Lakers’ coaching search — the one that everybody involved is backpedaling from — that Jackson severely overplayed his hand by asking for an obscene amount of money, control over personnel decisions, and relief from a schedule that might be strenuous for a 67-year-old with bad knees, artificial hips and a fused spine, then the rest of this season (and perhaps beyond) will be colored by this account.
Attached to each loss, each bit of stunted development, and each step that ultimately stands between the Lakers and an NBA title will be a price tag that the Lakers were not willing to pay and a simple question:
What would Phil have done?
It is not necessarily fair to D’Antoni, but it is the price of being royalty, where the opportunity is as great as the expectations and the world view is taken in looking down one’s nose.