I enjoy watching the Los Angeles Lakers. In fact, I'm watching them right now, as I type this very sentence. They are like an eighth-grade intramural team which happens to have one kid with a mustache; in eighth grade, mustachioed dudes get to take all the shots. In theory, the Lakers are running Tex Winter's triangle offense, but the scheme has been altered to fit the Lakers' current personnel: Instead of spreading its five interchangeable components throughout the frontcourt and employing an intricate system of baseline cuts and horizontal passes to maximize scoring opportunities for all potential contributors, Luke Walton is just throwing the ball to Kobe Bryant on the left wing so that he can dribble twice and shoot a 19-foot fadeaway, pretty much every time down the floor (this offensive pattern strikes me as less of a "triangle" and more of a "straight line," but I suppose Euclidean geometry only matters to kids who play for Duke).
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This one-legged triangle succeeds about 32 percent of the time, which means Kobe and his metaphorical mustache will get 22 second-half points while the Lakers lose by 12. There is not much to be optimistic about here, unless your name is Marvin Barnes and you are planning an ill-advised comeback; this franchise is clearly shackled by the fact that the second-best player on the team is Lamar Odom, a man who is either (a) the worst good player in the NBA; or (b) the best terrible player in the NBA. However, this is excellent news for people like me: I love one-man teams. If I had coached the Houston Oilers in 1979, I would have given Earl Campbell 45 carries a game; I would have also made him return kickoffs, cover punts and play nickel back. The premise of watching Kobe eternally trying to score 60 out of necessity is the best thing about the NBA (at least until April). If I wanted to care about who won or lost, I'd watch a college game.
However, Kobe's vocation as an offensive black hole is not the only reason the Lakers intrigue me. I am equally interested in seeing how Phil Jackson responds to the possibility of unadulterated public failure, as this response will characterize the totality of his existence.
Because I feel a moral obligation to support all humans from North Dakota who are not Rick Helling, I am a fan of Phil Jackson. I enjoy his unorthodox coaching philosophies, most of which work brilliantly despite making no sense whatsoever. Whenever I hear Jackson reminisce about the success of the Chicago Bulls, he inevitably makes unconnected references that (I assume) are supposed to seem self-evident, such as, "It was difficult to convince Horace Grant to hit the offensive glass as aggressively as he attacked the defensive glass, so I made him read Frank Herbert's 'Dune.' Horace brought a lot to the table." Throughout his career as a player and a coach, Jackson has been a wonderful role model for myriad subcultures, most notably (a) ambitious stoners; (b) men who aspire to have sex with their boss's daughter; and (c) pedantic intellectuals with massive skeletal structures who still want to look comfortable in Italian suits. Jackson's success is vast, unassailable and informed by modernity. He is on the cusp of being A Great Man, an intangible designation I suspect he desperately desires.
But Phil Jackson has never really failed. And if you want to be A Great Man, you need to fail (at least once).
Americans don't read very much, mostly because they don't have to. But we still live in a staunchly literary world. We understand almost everything (and everyone) within the context of a narrative that's written by circumstance and reality; each person's history is a little story where they are the main character. As such, historical figures are remembered for the things they accomplish and the victories they win -- if life were a movie, the collection of those achievements would comprise the plot. But people are always defined by their greatest failure. You learn very little about a man's character from his success; truth exists only within adversity. And adversity is what Jackson needs to define himself as A Great Man; without it, he's just a tall dude from Williston High School who won a lot of games with a lot of talent.
A few weeks ago I was sitting in the terminal of Charles De Gaulle Airport outside of Paris; I was reading "Wilt," the autobiography of Wilt Chamberlain (this is not the 1992 book in which Chamberlain talks about having sex with 20,000 women; this is the 1973 book in which he talks about architecture and Richard Nixon and NCAA high jumping and having sex with maybe 1,300 women). Wilt died in 1999 and quit playing basketball before Mick Taylor quit the Stones, but a middle-aged French guy still recognized him from the cover of the book (this surprised me, since almost nobody over there even seemed particularly interested in Tony Parker).
"Wilt" is an engaging, depressing book; it's really just a monologue about Chamberlain's single-minded obsession with his own greatness, his profound bitterness over his own iconography, and why Bill Russell is a jerk. More than any other figure in sports, Chamberlain illustrates the limitations of achievement: No one has ever dominated anything the way Wilt dominated his chosen field (the only exceptions I can think of are Isaac Newton, John Philip Sousa and Mark Burnett). In 1962, Chamberlain averaged 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds a game; in 1962, your fantasy basketball league would have been insane. Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak is considered to be an unbreakable record, but it will be broken twice before another person scores 100 points in a single game. I'm not even sure such a performance is still theoretically possible: When Michael Jordan scored 63 points (in double overtime) against Boston in the 1986 playoffs, it seemed like he took every shot on every possession while channeling Frank Lloyd Wright's imagination through the bones in his right wrist -- but at that pace, he still would not have broken Chamberlain's record unless the game had gone into seven additional overtimes.
Yet Chamberlain was not the league's MVP in 1962.
That season, Chamberlain scored over 50 points in 44 different games, but people barely noticed. They were too busy watching Wilt define himself through his most profound failure: He simply did not get it. Wilt was a smart guy and a good businessman, but things that were obvious to everyone else completely escaped his understanding. He could not comprehend why fans and writers would dislike an egocentric superstar (he oddly assumed the world must have been intimidated by his honesty and skill). When he led the league in assists in 1967-68, he thought that accomplishment proved he was unselfish (of course, everyone else immediately recognized that passing for the sole purpose of racking up assists is not that different than trying to score 100 points by yourself). Wilt's defining failure was not that he couldn't win the league championship, because he did that twice; Wilt's defining failure was that he could not see the difference between (a) things that are impressive; and (b) things that are important. That failure is central to the portrait of Chamberlain -- it makes him a misguided, tragic hero. And within the context of contemporary history, it makes him A Great Man.
You can see this relationship between accomplishment and failure everywhere. Michael Jordan scored 32,000 points, won six championships and sold about 70 billion sweatshop Nikes, but those things tell us almost nothing about "Michael Jordan." It was MJ's failures -- his attempt at baseball, his comeback with the Wizards, his compulsion for gambling -- that define his true legacy: Jordan was the most hypercompetitive person alive, and that made him both unstoppable and unsatisfied. Charles Barkley has developed an entire on-air TV persona around the fact that he supposedly doesn't care about having never won an NBA championship, even though it's patently obvious that he does; it seems to color his perceptions of everything. I cannot think of any major boxer (from any era) whose legacy isn't dominated by the melodrama of his specific Achilles' heel. John Elway was far more interesting before the Broncos won a title, because all those soul-crushing Super Bowl blowouts made him seem doomed and rarified; now he just seems like a normative Hall of Fame QB with a few less yards than Dan Marino and a few fewer rings than Joe Montana. By erasing his greatest failure, Elway has actually lost his definition. The same thing happened to the entire Boston Red Sox organization: Ten minutes after the 2004 World Series, that franchise was no longer captivating, and all their long-suffering fans immediately became lost, boring and strangely self-absorbed. Today, being a Red Sox fan is almost meaningless.
Losing isn't everything. Losing is the only thing.
This is why the Lakers are worth watching, even when San Antonio is whacking them by 20 and some cat named Smush is trying to stop Manu Ginobili from dunking with his left hand. How Phil Jackson responds to the circumstances of this debacle will illustrate more about his authentic nature than any of his nine championships, and it will dictate whether he is remembered as A Great Man. I suspect this is part of the reason Jackson returned to coach a Lakers team he knew would be terrible; he understood that a dramatic failure would shape his personal narrative more than another shallow success. Jackson supported the political career of Bill Bradley, but his worldview is much closer to Bill Clinton's: Jackson wants a legacy, and this is how you get it.
In a related story, L.A. is still behind by 11 in the fourth quarter. Somebody needs to throw the rock to Kobe. I realize he's not open, but somebody needs to throw it to him anyway.
Chuck Klosterman is the author of "Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story" and is a senior writer for Spin magazine and columnist for Esquire. He will be writing for Page 2 once a month.