June 10, 2002
By Tim Kawakami
Mercury News Staff Columnist
Take a close look at the Lakers' sideline before they start celebrating their third consecutive NBA title: Didn't that tall guy sitting near Phil Jackson used to be Kurt Rambis?
Didn't he take over for Del Harris and coach the Lakers for the final, dejected, Dennis Rodman-infected 37 games of the 1998-99 season, then lose his job when Shaquille O'Neal, among others, demanded his ouster?
And he's the guy Jackson, his successor, chose to add to his staff last summer when Tex Winter slid into a part-time role?
Rambis looks different, because the trademark thick black-rimmed Clark Kent glasses of his raging Santa Clara and Lakers playing days are history (laser eye surgery a couple of years ago).
But the sarcastic attitude of his playing and coaching career came in loud and clear when he was cornered by a San Jose-based wiseacre columnist who, I dimly recall, covered Rambis' brief head-coaching tenure.
``Why am I suddenly a story now?'' Rambis said on a day off in the Lakers-New Jersey Nets series. ``Did you just figure out that I went to Santa Clara?''
Well, no. But it's not every postseason that the guy who holds the Broncos' career scoring record (Steve Nash is fourth, 47 points behind) pops back on the team that he used to coach, after watching Jackson tame the egos and start winning championships.
``I'm definitely funnier than he is,'' Rambis said, when asked about Jackson.
``I think we see the game in a similar fashion, the toughness that's involved with playing. We kind of have similar views on how we approach things.''
RAMBIS AND JACKSON became acquainted, and friendly, early in Jackson's Lakers tenure (Rambis was kept on as an assistant general manager) thanks in part to the friendship between Rambis' wife, Linda, and Jackson's girlfriend, Jeanie Buss.
Both men have iconoclastic streaks -- Jerry West used to consider Rambis a West Coast version of Jackson -- which has made the atmosphere between predecessor and successor unusually tension-free.
``We may have been similar ballplayers -- but my childhood memories of him aren't that good,'' joked Rambis, more than a decade younger than Jackson.
Jackson said he purposely waited a few years before considering the addition of Rambis to his veteran staff.
``He wants to coach, and he's good -- he's going to be a good coach in this league,'' Jackson said.
RAMBIS' GOAL IS TO GET ANOTHER NBA COACHING JOB (do the Warriors count?), though he probably won't be taking over the Lakers as long as O'Neal is their centerpiece.
``He just turned into a different person when he got the head-coaching job,'' O'Neal wrote in ``Shaq Talks Back,'' his recent book. ``When he took over for Del, he started being all phony, trying to be all hard and strict with us . . .
``He got fired because it was time and I wanted somebody else.''
Jackson said he didn't need to consult O'Neal before bringing on Rambis.
``There was never anything there that I thought was any problem at all,'' Jackson said. ``In fact, anything that was mentioned in the book, we covered that ground last year when the book first came out.''
Said Rambis of O'Neal: ``We're fine. What he said, he said. . . . All I ever wanted the players to do was to get better.''
Rambis wouldn't rule out taking a college job -- intriguingly, the Santa Clara spot could open in a few years -- but didn't jump at the idea, either.
``College is interesting,'' Rambis said, ``but every coach that I've talked to in college is `No! No! Don't do it.' Maybe that's a hint for me.''