Tense moments in Lakers' last stand

Phil Jackson probably didn't expect that his last game as Lakers coach would end the way it did. Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

DALLAS -- The minutes before tip-off seem like hours. Torture, really.

A digital clock on the wall of the visiting locker room counts backward from 90 minutes by the second. Most players ignore it if they can, retreating into their headphones or the training room, eyes on the ground, focus inward.

But on this day reality is unavoidable, the clock unmissable.

Every second gone is one less these Lakers have left together.

With 30 minutes left until the tip-off of Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals, some in the room can't take it anymore.

Assistant coach Frank Hamblen emerges from the confined space of the locker room and heads for the fruit plate set up on a table in the hallway. It's a good spread, but he's nervous, not hungry. So he grabs the game notes sitting on the same table and starts flipping through, looking for some piece of information that might help right what has gone so wrong for the Los Angeles Lakers in this series.

"Find anything good in there," I joke, trying to cut the tension.

"Not yet," he says, smiling.

A minute later, Ron Artest comes out, grabs a strawberry and pops it into his mouth. But instead of turning back toward the Lakers' locker room, he rests his elbows on the table and studies another copy of the game notes. Only the first page interests him.

"Probably checking to see if he was in the starting lineup," Hamblen jokes after Artest walks away, referring to the mercurial forward's suspension in Game 3 on Friday.

Hamblen has been at this for more than four decades. He's been at Phil Jackson's side since 1996. Every year his voice grows louder in the room. During games he sits to Jackson's right, a spot he assumed when Jackson's mentor Tex Winter suffered a stroke two years ago.

Hamblen is always kind but blunt. He's direct, even when he's trying to wiggle away.

After a few minutes of small talk, he puts the game notes back on the table and turns back toward the locker room.

"So, did you figure it out?" I ask.

"I hope so," Hamblen says. "I'm not ready for this to be over."

The end came before darkness fell, in a matinee. It came before the series was a week old.

It felt odd to walk outside into the sunlight afterward, to squint and sweat in the humid Texas air. Darkness, even twilight, would've seemed more appropriate for such an important line to end.

For the past 20 years Jackson has lorded over the NBA. Thirteen times he led his team to the NBA Finals, 11 times he won. His place in history was carved many years ago.

He had come back this year against his better judgment, because he still wanted to and the Lakers still needed him. Because it would've felt unfinished if he had left.

"I think he felt the deck was stacked against him," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said in the hallway after the game. "But he had to do it. He had to try."

In a few months all of this will still seem as strange but not as sudden. Time tends to settle things, even when it can't heal or explain them.

But Sunday night, as dusk finally fell on the day and the Lakers' latest dynasty, it just felt raw.

Lamar Odom dressed quietly and slowly in the locker room. His eyes seemed heavy as he turned around to face the first crowd of cameras looking for answers. His heart seemed heavier.

He clearly wasn't ready for any of it yet, so he sat on the small chair in front of his locker, took another few minutes to put his socks and shoes on, then gathered himself and his thoughts before standing to try to put into words what had just happened.
It took one sentence for his throat to tighten.

"I don't know where we lost it," he said. The Lakers hadn't just been favored to win another title this season, they'd been destined for it.

The potential NBA Finals matchups were delicious: a third showdown with the Boston Celtics, a first showdown with LeBron James and the Miami Heat, a poetic finish for Jackson against his former team in Chicago.

They were never more than thoughts hovering near the team, potential realities. But there was never any doubt either, not even in the final days.

"I might be sick in the head or crazy or thrown off," Kobe Bryant said after his team lost Game 3 on Friday night. "Because I still think we're going to win this series."

It's hard to say when Bryant, or any of them, finally believed it was over.

The Lakers trailed 63-39 at halftime of Game 4 and yet they still believed it was possible to come back. Start with a few defensive stops. Make a few baskets. Cut the lead to something manageable. Get Dallas to sweat.

"That's what I'd asked the guys to do [at halftime]," Jackson said. "Come on out, get some stops, make them have to think about scoring and let's get ourselves going offensively."

With 7:07 to go in the third quarter, the lead was down to 19. Derek Fisher stole the ball and found Ron Artest streaking down the court. He caught the ball in stride and headed for the basket. But he was too close, or too far, or too close …

As Artest rose, the ball slipped from his hands. He was caught between a layup and a dunk. In the moment, out of sorts. The ball clanked against the bottom of the rim.

On the next possession, Dallas' Jason Terry sank a 3-pointer to put the Mavericks up by 22 again. It was as close as the Lakers would get the rest of the night.

Odom kept his eyes low as he spoke. His broad shoulders curled inward, protectively. He'd worn a simple button-up shirt to the game, not a suit.

"That certain drive and bond that we've had in the past," he said, "the cohesive drive in order to overcome adversity. When I think about this series and this game …

"There was just something missing for us."

You've seen Andy Bernstein before. He's the guy in the bottom of the frame, walking backward, camera up against his face as the Lakers players and coaches enter the arena before a game or head for the locker room afterward.

For the past 29 years he has been the most important fly on the walls of the NBA. Everyone lets Andy in: coaches, players, trainers. His face is as recognizable as the photographs he takes for the league and its teams.

For nearly half of those 29 years, he's covered Phil Jackson and his teams. In Chicago, he chased the shy coach around the locker room at the old Chicago Stadium and found him hiding inside a locker, away from the celebration of the Bulls' second NBA title in 1992, smoking a cigar by himself.

"That was the first time I realized that he really doesn't love the spotlight," Bernstein said. "But what's great about Phil is that he totally appreciates and understands what I do because he spent a whole year in New York, basically being the team photographer when he was out with a back injury.

"He's not the biggest lover of all of us, all the media being in his face all the time, but he gets it too."

Last year Bernstein and Jackson collaborated on a book chronicling the Lakers' championship run. They have grown close over the years, through dinners on the road and so many years watching each other through their own lenses. Two men at the top of their professions, both fathers.

Bernstein arrived early to the American Airlines Center on Sunday. The Lakers were staying only a mile away at the Crescent Court hotel. Their bus ride would be short.

Jackson, as always, stepped off the bus first. Hamblen and assistant coach Brian Shaw, one of the men usually mentioned as Jackson's successor, flanked him on the right and left, a step behind.

Bernstein and a TV cameramen were waiting for them. Jackson tried to ignore them, even though he knew they were after more than usual.

As he entered the arena, his pace quickened. It was cooler inside, but not as cool as it should be. Still too hot for a necktie.

All week Jackson had preached patience and poise to his team. Every game was just another game. Experience is what sustained his faith as the Lakers sank to new depths.

"Whatever this is, whatever this situation has brought to us," Jackson said before the game, "it feels like today."

Then he turned the corner toward the locker room. Jackson turned slightly and looked at his old friend.

"Dead man walking," he said, cracking a smile just for a second.

He sits pensively most of the time. Elevated above his staff and players by a special chair. His 65-year-old hips can only take so much sitting after all these years around a basketball court. Higher is better, though nothing is really good anymore.

He stands up only for effect or a timeout. And even then, he keeps his hands at his side. A look can say so much more.

Midway through the second quarter of Game 4, the game is starting to get away from the Lakers. The Mavericks are starting to hit what feels like everything. The lead, once four points, is now 18, so Jackson subs in Odom for Pau Gasol, who is having another off game.

Of all the players on the Lakers, Gasol has the most in common with Jackson. Both are cerebral and laid back, open and curious about the world. They talk often, about everything.

Now, when it matters most, Jackson cannot reach Gasol. Their connection is muddled. In Game 3, Jackson pounded on the Spaniard's chest, trying to rouse him from whatever funk he'd slipped so far into.

"Whatever it takes, you do what you have to do in coaching," Jackson explained later.

But Gasol remained morose and out of sorts. As is so often the case when a good player goes bad so quickly and mysteriously, explanations are invented by people who can't accept there is no single root cause.

Though Gasol tried to address rumors of "relationship issues" after Game 3, it did little to quiet the mob. His girlfriend attended Game 2 of the series in Los Angeles, but that was ignored in favor of more salacious stories about a breakup.

Talk radio is abuzz through the weekend. The whispers are everywhere. The noise is deafening and growing louder with every shot he misses. Jackson has told Gasol to focus on the areas he can fix, to keep the problem small and controllable. A fire can be put out with a single hose so long as it is focused in the right place.

Over the years, Jackson has coached Gasol in several ways. He's used a light touch to let him work out his issues on his own. He's challenged his manhood. He's defended his honor.

Now he's at a loss. All the Lakers are.

So with 6:32 left in the first half, Jackson pulls Gasol out of the game and asks Odom to give it a try. The Lakers must do something to keep it close or everything will start rushing downhill.

Odom does well but picks up two fouls in less than a minute. Jackson must take him out before he picks up his fourth foul.
As Odom walks to the bench, regret is written on his face. He keeps his eyes down, away from Jackson as he comes close.
Jackson sits pensively, watching the play on the court. He's moved on.

As Odom passes, Jackson lifts his left arm and lightly pats him on the back.

The ending to this season was written before it began. It would be, for better or worse, Jackson's "last stand."

A couple of years ago, in another too-hot hallway in Orlando, I'd stopped Jackson to ask when he would know it was time. The Lakers were on the verge of winning the NBA title that would give Jackson more than legendary Celtics coach Red Auerbach, the most in league history.

It would've been a poetic moment to say goodbye. And easier on his hips.

"I think we all hoped Michael Jordan would do that after he hit the shot [to win the 1998 NBA Finals] because his career was such a storied career," Jackson said at the time. "But it's not like I'm a player or anything else, it has more to do with whether enough's enough."

It had felt like enough after last season when the Lakers avenged their 2008 loss to the Boston Celtics by winning an epic seven-game series. Jackson's 11th as a coach and 13th overall.

But the call for one last ride with this group was too tempting to ignore. And besides, Bryant wouldn't let him go anyway.

All week Bryant has been punting on questions about being without Jackson next season. Deflecting them with humor, as Jackson would.

"I just don't believe we're going to lose," Bryant said, when asked after Game 2 whether he has thought about the end of his time with Jackson coming to an end. "So I'm not thinking about that. I'm thinking about the next game and going from there."

The bond that has developed between the two men over the past six years has been one of each of their most important, meaningful achievements.

They don't speak much because they don't need to, having reached an understanding a few years back that needs little maintenance.

"It's tough for me to put into words what he's done for me," Bryant said after it was all done.

"I grew up under him."

Bryant has grown enough to be OK with whatever comes next. Sunday night he was just angry Jackson had to go out so badly.

"I'm not very happy about it, to say the least," Bryant said of the blowout loss. "Phil is just as competitive as I am. In all of his philosophical quotations, you kind of lose the fact that he is extremely competitive. It's tough to swallow for him."

Bryant will be 32 by the start of next season, his 16th in the NBA. He is still a young man, but the years have worn on him.

A couple of weeks ago, I asked him what he thought of Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose winning his first MVP award. Rose was just 8-years-old when Bryant entered the league in 1996.

"I love it," Bryant said without sarcasm. Two years earlier, when LeBron James won his first MVP award, his reaction had been much different.

Bryant and Rose had met on the court a handful of times and Bryant clearly respected the kid's game. Still, he was 22 and without a ring to his name. So I asked again, figuring I might've missed his sarcasm.

"I'm happy for him," Bryant said. "Great job."

He changed at the end, saluting history instead of tradition. It has been Jackson's custom -- and really, privilege -- to wear the championship ring from his most recent title run during the next year's playoffs.

But in Game 1 of the Lakers' playoff opener against the New Orleans Hornets, he wore the ring from his 1973 championship, won as a player with the New York Knicks.
"I think I'm starting at the beginning and working all the way through," Jackson said.

In all, Jackson has 13 rings. Eleven as a coach, two as a player. He wore the 1973 ring first because he was not able to play on the Knicks' 1970 championship team because of back surgery.

By Game 6 of the Hornets series, he was up to the fifth ring he'd won in Chicago. After losing home-court advantage in Game 1, the Lakers had regained the upper hand and were on the verge of closing out the series in New Orleans.

Jackson was uncommonly nervous before the game. Fidgety. Anxious. He asked longtime Lakers trainer Gary Vitti for an alcohol swab, walked into a quiet training room and began meticulously polishing his ring.

The minutes before tip-off can seem like hours, even for the best.

The hours after the game feel like minutes, however.

Everything races to an end, memories and monuments gone by.

Only some of us go out as we'd hoped.

Only some of us realize what we had.

ESPNLA's Dave McMenamin contributed to this report. Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com.