The union of O'Neal, Jackson reaches its peak as Lakers prepare for a run at the NBA title

Wednesday, June 7th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LOS ANGELES -- Their eyes met amid the delirium unfolding around them in the joyous Lakers locker room. They embraced for a prolonged time and whispered into each other's ear.

Shaquille O'Neal and Lakers coach Phil Jackson were emotionally and physically drained from their intense seven-game tug-of-war with the Portland Trail Blazers. But O'Neal and Jackson needed to share this winning moment together.

So the 7-foot-1, 330-pound gentle giant, still dripping in his Lakers uniform, wrapped the coach, in the $1,000 suit, with his massive arms. And they laughed.

It was more than coach and player enjoying an accomplishment. This was about friendship, about the bond the two have forged.

"I gave him a real big hug after Sunday's game," Jackson said. "And I allowed him to drench me with the sweat on his body . . . That must be the ultimate moment of our relationship."

It might not yet be as strong as the relationship Jackson had with another superstar, Michael Jordan, but it is showing signs of becoming something special.
Like Jordan, O'Neal had reason to express his feelings. Jackson came on board last June and a year later has helped O'Neal and the Lakers reach the NBA Finals, where they will take on the Indiana Pacers tonight in Game 1 at Staples Center.

"It felt good to hug Phil," O'Neal said. "We both like each other. He's a good man and a good coach. I think we do have something special together."

It didn't take long for Jackson and O'Neal to see things in the same light. They needed each other for this to work, for the Lakers to have a shot at a title.

They respected each other.

"Phil is the general," O'Neal said. "When the general speaks, you listen. I've never had any problems listening to authority figures. My dad (Phil Harrison) was very strict. In some ways, Phil reminds me of him.

"Plus, Phil has all those rings, six of them. He knows what he's doing. He's won championships as a coach and as a player.

Phil knows how to relate. And what I really like about Phil, he gets on me. If I'm doing something wrong, he'll tell me. He won't hold back. I like that."

O'Neal and Jackson didn't know each other very well before. All O'Neal knew was that Jackson had Jordan and Scottie Pippen and they won six NBA championships together with the Chicago Bulls.

O'Neal's Orlando Magic team beat Jackson's Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals in '95, but Jackson and his Bulls stopped the Magic in the conference finals the next year.

Something about the way Jackson got his team to rally back intrigued O'Neal. He had spent three years with the Lakers, playing for Del Harris and Kurt Rambis, both of whom he liked.

But there was something special about Jackson, something about his way. So in August, O'Neal paid Jackson a visit at his off-season home in Montana.

"When I rode up to his big log cabin, he had a window there . . . (with) his six championship balls," O'Neal said, referring to replicas of the Bulls' championship trophies. "It was like `Bling-bling,' from all the shine on the balls.

"We really didn't stay long. I jumped on the trampoline, hung out with his kids. He just told me what he expected out of me. He said he expected me to play good defense, dominate, play hard. He didn't want me to get injured.

He wanted me to come in shape and he wanted me to be in shape the whole time. He told me I was going to be in the game all the time. He wanted me to average 40-something minutes. And I just did what I was asked to do."

He was the most dominant player in the NBA this season. He led the league in scoring (29.7 points a game) and field-goal percentage (57), was second in rebounding (13.6), third in blocks (3.04), fourth in minutes played (40.0) and led all centers in assists (3.8).

O'Neal's game had reached new heights under Jackson.

In the playoffs, O'Neal has averaged 28.2 points, 15.0 rebounds, 2.29 blocks, 3.4 assists and 42.8 minutes in the first three rounds.
O'Neal has won his first MVP trophy, and he's hoping to get his first ring.

Jackson had wondered what it would be like to have O'Neal in the triangle offense, to see O'Neal have the freedom to operate.

But Jackson also wondered if O'Neal was playing up to his potential.

"I thought he wasn't playing as hard as he had," Jackson said. "I thought his defense and blocked shots were down. I wanted to see him bring that up, to raise his entire game up, and he has."

O'Neal did because he wanted to please Jackson.

"He (Jackson) helped him learn the game," Lakers reserve center John Salley said. "He made it easy on him to score. He put the responsibility on him to be the leader, and he accepted it. He treats him like a man."

Lakers guard Brian Shaw played with O'Neal for three seasons in Orlando and has seen a big difference. Shaw remembers the rapping, movie-making, fun-loving O'Neal.

O'Neal still is a fun-loving person, but he takes his game far more seriously.

"He's mature now," Shaw said. "He doesn't force things. He's better at letting the game come to him.

"In the seventh game against Portland, it was a prime example. He didn't get very many touches in the first quarter. He didn't come over to the bench and complain. He said, `Hey, if they are going to keep hanging on me, you've got to step up and hit the shots.' In Orlando five years ago, he would have insisted that we throw the ball inside to him regardless. Just his maturity is the biggest thing that I've seen."

Even now, O'Neal has shown how much he has changed.

"The last time I went to the NBA Finals, we had like 10, 11 days off," said O'Neal, referring to the 1995 Finals with the Magic against Houston, a series the Rockets swept. "We just kind of lost focus, messing around, joking around. We had a half-day (with the Lakers) to celebrate. Now it's back to business."

In Shaw's eyes, this new O'Neal is the product of one man.

"Phil has had a lot to do with it," Shaw said. "I think the fact when you have a coach that's won championships on a coaching level, as a player, coached two of the 50 best players in the game in Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, and they bought into his system . . . Shaq has tasted some success, but nothing to parallel that. Then he had no choice but to buy into it.

"And Phil has a calming way of getting his point across. He came in and he didn't take it easy on Shaq. Played him a lot of minutes all season long. Told him from the very beginning of the season that he had to get in better shape and drop some weight, and Shaq listened. That goes back to his maturity. He bought into it. He gave it a chance and now it's paying off."

The big payoff, however, will be winning a title. If he does that, O'Neal can silence the critics and then wrap up Jackson in another of his sweaty bear hugs.

"It feels pretty good to be in the Finals," O'Neal said. "But I'm not satisfied yet. We have a best-out-of-seven series here. Hopefully we can put together four great games, and if we do that, then I should be real, real happy."