Even in Hollywood's long history of producing implausible sequels, Phil Jackson's return to the Lakers still seems as unfathomable as James Cameron returning to direct "Titanic 2: Electric Boogaloo."
Hadn't Jackson dead-bolted the door shut on the Lakers with his tell-all memoir, "The Last Season: A Team in Search of Its Soul?" Hadn't Jackson burned all bridges with Kobe Bryant and tossed the blowtorch at Bryant's head? Hadn't the mountain-loving Zen Master grown tired of the circus-like atmosphere in Los Angeles?
"I think, obviously, coming back and working with this organization is a remarkable turnaround," Jackson said recently.
The sequel to "Phil's Lakers" isn't expected to reap the same results as the first run from 1999 to 2004, which included three consecutive titles and four trips to the NBA Finals. Unlike his last season -- which can no longer be called "The Last Season" -- Jackson will not guide a team in search of its soul. Instead, he will direct a team in search of respectability.
He is missing an essential character from the Lakers' superstar triangle with Shaquille O'Neal now in Miami. And the prevailing theme, at least in the initial scenes, will be his relationship with Bryant, the person whose reputation suffered most from Jackson's book. In the memoir, Bryant was portrayed as selfish and uncoachable. In one sequence, Jackson told Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchack (in January 2004): "I won't coach this team next year if he's still here. He won't listen to anyone. I've had it with this kid."
Since rejoining the Lakers in June, Jackson already has determined how not to make his relationship with Bryant an issue this season: He will keep quiet. "I've told Kobe that that's one area that I'll try not to disclose," Jackson said last week at the Lakers' practice facility. "The only thing that I will feel on eggshells [about] are questions from you guys, the media, about our relationship. Because I really don't want to talk about our relationship."
In the paperback version of his book, which was released this week, Jackson added another chapter in which he takes a softer stance with Bryant and highlights Bryant's growth as the 2003-04 season progressed and how Bryant became a leader during the Finals. "Kobe will be coachable and I think he'll do what we have to get done to be competitive this year," Jackson said. "I think we knew exactly how to work together. We feel very comfortable. There's been no 'ifs' or 'ands.' "
Bryant told reporters on Monday that he won't let his past with Jackson -- and certainly not the book -- affect how they work together. "A lot of people hold grudges from something that somebody did to them or whatever. I'm really just at a point where, let's just move on. Life is too short," Bryant said, adding that Jackson molded him into the player he is today.
"To have a chance to win three championships in five years doesn't come along very often. I'm looking forward to Round 2."
Jackson and Bryant are saying the right things. Whether the love-fest can last is far from the only issue the Lakers must contend with this season. Jackson will coach a young team that, as currently constructed, has no chance of cracking into the Western Conference elite and will struggle to make the postseason.
The Lakers are coming off a 34-48 campaign in which they battled injuries, dealt with Coach Rudy Tomjanovich's untimely resignation due to health reasons, finished with a worse record than the cross-town Clippers and failed to reach the playoffs for the first time since 1994. Jackson called the team "a disappointment to our fans."
This season, the Lakers will attempt to be Team Redemption. Bryant will try to restore his place among the game's elite after slipping to third-team all-NBA last season. "[For] Kobe Bryant that is not acceptable," Jackson said. Lamar Odom, the last remaining piece from the trade that sent O'Neal to Miami, will try to recover from an injury-plagued season. "He's going to do a lot of playmaking. He's going to be a person that we ask for a lot of responsibility," said Jackson, who hired former Bulls great Scottie Pippen to assist Odom in training camp. Kwame Brown, whom the Lakers acquired in exchange for Caron Butler and Chucky Atkins in August, will try to make something of himself in this league after four forgettable seasons in Washington. "He could be the difference between whether we're going to be a good team or whether we can be a really good team," Jackson said.
Then there is Jackson. He recently compared coaching to "baking a cake," but from his nine championship teams in Chicago (which featured Michael Jordan and Pippen) and Los Angeles (which featured O'Neal and Bryant), Jackson has earned a reputation as a cook who doesn't mix the ingredients from scratch.
Give him a ready-made title contender, let him add water, mix it up and toss it into the oven, and out comes a championship trophy. "People think I would never take on a team that has no legitimate chance to win a championship," Jackson said in the new chapter of his book. "This is one of the major misconceptions about me. Success can be measured in many different ways. . . . Either way, I would find the challenge invigorating."
Kupchak agrees that his team -- and many of the individual parts -- has a lot to prove this season. But he added that only one person could handle the responsibility of giving the Lakers a calming, steady presence going into the future. "There are only a couple of coaches that can bring a certain level of stability quickly. I think Phil is at the top of that list," Kupchak said. "I think [Jackson's hiring] sends a message that we are exactly what we contend to be, and that's a team that wants to win every year. It also sends a message to our players that we're in this to win now and we're not going to go through a period of four or five years of rebuilding or else we wouldn't do something like this."
Jackson said he began thinking about returning to the Lakers when he came back from an eight-week excursion to Australia and New Zealand in March. Jackson had back-and-forth discussions with the Lakers for about three months -- and even spoke with New York Knicks President Isiah Thomas -- to determine if he had the energy and stamina to return to coaching. The Lakers wanted to determine if Jackson was returning for the right reasons. Jackson compared his return to the on-again, off-again relationship between New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and Manager Billy Martin. "But I wouldn't characterize Dr. [Jerry] Buss as a Steinbrenner," said Jackson, who dates Buss's daughter, Jeanie.
When Jackson "retired" following the dismantling of the Lakers' dynasty, he said he didn't know if he could handle the physical grind of the NBA. "The life, the travel, etc. It was difficult for me." The year away in Montana and the South Pacific has been good for him, Jackson said. He appeared calm and relaxed as he addressed reporters last week, wearing flip-flops and a silk shirt.
Jackson has lowered the bar this season from winning a championship to simply making the playoffs and possibly winning 46 games. His comeback sounds eerily reminiscent of one of Jackson's former players who, like Jackson, had nothing more to prove before a miserable journey in the District. Jackson won't even consider that his sequel with the Lakers could somehow end with his team having a losing season or failing to make to the playoffs. "As my mother would say, 'Perish the thought.' "Jackson said.