“There’s a sign posted up here and it reads, ‘The Panic Zone.’ — N.W.A
There’s no zen masters, there’s only Zen. — some quote that hangs above Phil Jackson’s fridge, probably
I have never seen Los Angeles in this sort of panic. At least, not since the Riots. This stretch includes massive earthquakes, uncontrollable wildfires, and the existential soul-searching caused by Jay Leno’s “Dancing Ito” skits during the OJ trial.
It is not a city given to hysterical temperament. There is too much starch in the sun and too little in the food. We are a neurotic, entitled, and over-confident breed, prone to worry but myopically assured that there will always be a happy ending. If not, that’s what re-writes and reincarnation are for.
But you should have been here over the last few weeks to see the city go collectively and full Salem. Every organic lunch, cell phone transmission, and sauna schvitz was obsessed with one topic: the Lakers. Specifically, why they “fucking sucked.” There were a variety of theories: Dwight Howard is only at 70 percent and still can’t guard Larry Johnson’s real grandmamma, Steve Nash forgot to take anabolic calcium supplements and broke his leg, Devin Ebanks had been taking the team boozing every night. But only one consensus emerged: the problem was Mike Brown.
One of my friends described it as a virus having infected the body politic. The closest thing you could find to support for Mike Brown was a cliché: the jury’s still out. But even before the
Borgia’s Buss’ voted for the execution, the city was baying for blood. Maybe the only clear-cut Mike Brown backer left was Kobe Bryant, who publicly came out for his embattled coach, the day before he was fired. And even that seems far-fetched. It reminds me of what an old Little Rock attorney friend of my father’s once told me about Bill Clinton — if Bill Clinton’s your only friend, you don’t have any friends.
Death stare or not, I don’t think Kobe was behind the coup. Even if he was, we grant a particular immunity to our heroes. After all, the immortal Magic Johnson ushered in the Glorious Revolution that ousted Paul Westhead and replaced him with a young ex-player turned broadcaster with glorious hair. To say nothing of the lingering echoes of Al Davis’ mantra about winning and babies. There are few cities crueler to losers. See also: “Sunset Boulevard” and the first half of “The Bad News Bears.”
Mike Brown had suffered the ignominy of a winless exhibition season, a sluggish start, and worst of all, an Anaheim zip code. That’s what was lost in translation about the botched Brown experiment. Barring back-to-back championships in his first two seasons, he never could have fit into Los Angeles. This is not necessarily to his detriment.
By all accounts, the Ohioan is a kind, hard-working and self-deprecating man, who got a raw deal. He had to replace arguably the greatest coach of all-time. The lockout eliminated his first preseason. This year’s squad was beset with injuries that curtailed their ability to gel in a complex new offense. Two of his losses came in Utah and Portland, places that notoriously gave the Phil Jackson-helmed teams trouble during the regular season. Not to mention, Brown had to perennially contend with Kobe Bryant, a total form of submission that could emasculate anyone with at least one functioning testicle.
The fix was in from the first day he put on a pair of forum blue and gold practice shorts. Mike Brown bought a house in Orange County, wears grotesquely mismatched ties and suits that look like they come from C&R. He lacked style. He was the type of guy who lost his job and immediately went to the Chick Fil-A. 93 percent of L.A. is unaware that there are Chick Fil-A’s within a 93-mile radius. And even if they did, they are inevitably still boycotting it because the CEO spoke the sort of ill-conceived evangelical rhetoric that you’d expect from a man whose livelihood came from chicken nuggets.
No, Brown ran into the most obliterating death grip of Angeleno existence. He did not look or act like he belonged. He was goofy and sincere, where people expected ice-cold stares and sarcasm. Pat Riley and Phil Jackson are twin deities, still revered at levels usually reserved for models, actors, and Angelyne. This is why Del Harris, Randy Pfund and Rudy Tomjanovich are answers to trivia questions. They lacked the proper regal bearing, despite Harris’ uncanny resemblance to Leslie Nielson (RIP Frank Drebin). And when it became evident that Mike Brown could only play in Peoria, the Buss family channeled another Southern California familial dynasty and admitted that they made a huge mistake.
Mike Brown was never the right man for the job. He could’ve fit in nicely as a successor to Pop in San Antonio, maybe replaced Jim O’ Brien in Indiana back in the day. But he is not the man to lead a superstar-driven squad in a major market. Unless you’re a technical mastermind, it’s almost impossible to earn the respect of your players if you’ve never played in the NBA. Invoke Erik Spoelstra all you want, the Heat certainly reaped the benefits of the hidden hand of Riles.
As for Mike Brown, he never played a day in the league and if you don’t think that mattered, there is Ron Artest’s CBS Sports Interview from last year to refute that. Among other chestnuts, included is his belief that Mike Brown was a video coordinator who panicked down the stretch. He also said: “If I could count how many times another team went away from the best player when I was on him, I’ve got to be like No. 1 in the league. That’s not a stat, and coach doesn’t … you would have to play basketball to feel that.”
Admittedly, interpreting Ron World Peace quotes is a pseudo-science up there with palmistry and plastic surgery, but the stench lingered. It seemed like the only reason why Mike Brown was here was because he was the furthest thing from Phil Jackson, who Jimmy Buss hated because he was slipping it to his sister. Or maybe it was the fact that Phil made fun of Jerry for dressing like Marty McFly Jr. in “Back to the Future II.” Either way, it was ill-fitting.
Firing Brown was clearly a panic move. But sometimes, flight or fight instincts can yield good results. The risk of keeping him was too high. They have one year to convince Dwight Howard that this is the best city for bow tie shopping. There are people paying $75,000 a year for courtside seats. Rebuilding wasn’t an option. What would happen if around the All-Star Game, Dwight came knocking at Mitch Kupchak’s door saying the same thing that LeBron said about his old coach: get the clown out of here.
What was clear was that this wasn’t working. The Lakers looked lethargic and confused. They were clenching their teeth and looking towards the bench and they were tired from marathon practices. His substitutions were a mess. The Princeton Offense was the biggest bomb since “The Magic Hour.” Even if the system was initially suggested by Kobe, a wise coach would have had the fortitude to say that implementing an intricate offense designed for small un-athletic college teams might have been the wrong look for one of the biggest and most dangerous teams in the league (even if every starter but Dwight is past their prime). The Lakers need to start fast or else. There was no time to tinker.
The public communiques were that Brownie was doing a heck of a job, but everyone knew that the levee was breaking. And only hours after the “We Want Phil” chants dissipated in the Staples Center, the Lakers announced that their next coach would be Mike D’ Antoni. This is a shock but not an unprecedented one. After all, they hired Mike Brown in the first place and then fired him before he even got a chance to decorate his office with pictures of John Stockton taking charges. (It gets him fired up).
Jerry Buss remains a man who has spent several years of life playing seven-card stud in the well-drink dungeon of The Hustler Casino in Gardena. Risk averse, he is not. His son Jimmy looks like he should be named “Flipper” or “Skippy,” and is primarily known for two things: his loathing of Phil Jackson and his decision to hire his ex-bartender named Chaz. And if I’ve learned anything from “Charles in Charge,” men named Chaz can only bring ruination to an organization or a household containing a young Nicole Eggert.
According to the LA Times, Phil asked for “the moon” — an ownership stake, travel restrictions, Jimmy’s office, an eight-figure salary, and enough Tibetan Prayer beads to fill up eight equipment rooms. The bullshit official spin is that they feared the triangle offense wasn’t a proper fit for this team, except that 60 percent of the starting lineup won a championship with that offense. Not to mention, the 10 other championship squads that Phil Jackson coached.
Don’t underestimate the power of wanting the rebound. Phil Jackson thought he had the Buss’ by the balls and could indefinitely delay his decision. D’Antoni took $12 million for three years, a sum that the Lakers would probably have had to pay Phil for coaching a half season. D’Antoni is a solid but unspectacular coach. He’s inevitably a better choice than Mike Brown, if nothing else because he’ll run an up-tempo Showtime offense that will please the fans, keep season tickets renewed and the Buss’ coffers flush. I also underestimated the mustache brotherhood that Buss and D’ Antoni share. There is a certain mystic power in looking like the man on the Pringles box. Sources obviously failed to account for this.
But Pringles is no Phil Jackson, the only man who could stop this panic. D’Antoni was unceremoniously booted from New York when he lost the respect of his superstar players. He has no training camp, a bum knee to recover from, and arguably the biggest collection of egos ever assembled. They’re also old and over-sized. He’s about to take the biggest team in the league, with only one true 3-point sharpshooter, and install a finesse run-n-gun offense. There’s also the wait-for-it cliché about defense and championships.
D’Antoni might be better than Brown, but he’s not the right man. In the pit of their stomach, every Lakers fan understands this. It feels like they upgraded from Chick Fil-A chicken nuggets to the linguine alfredo at the Macaroni Grill. This isn’t a recipe for calm, this is an embrace of chaos. And if the Lakers fail to win a championship in June (don’t hold your breath), D’ Antoni will inevitably be the next one placed in the deep fryer.