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PHIL JACKSON AND THE NEEDY LAKERS

We outsiders all have roughly the same image of Phil Jackson. He's an independent, highly intelligent guy, who's likely to hop on his motorcycle, bolt for Montana, sit cross-legged under a tree and meditate while sipping from his broccoli-spinach-carrot juice.

And a man under control who stays above the fray, especially in dealing with many of the overblown egos of the NBA.

It's time to revise that image. The stuff about the meditation and the vegetable juice may be accurate. But Jackson, with this book, steps right into the psychological mess known as last season's Los Angeles Lakers.

Jackson writes this book as a diary, and as you breeze through these pages you can't help wondering whether he held back on any confidences gained from his role as coach, father, psychologist and den mother for the troubled Lakers.

Jackson tells all. And for 272 pages, his triangle offense runs mostly through him, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. (Last names aren't used in this narrative; it's simply Kobe and Shaq throughout.)

The reader needs a psychology degree before jumping into this book, but this is a fascinating read behind the scenes of the flawed Lakers, the presumptive favorite to win the NBA title -- until Kobe ran afoul of the law in a Colorado hotel room.

Jackson bares all about Kobe, and it's a pretty devastating portrait of the young megastar. Kobe comes across as an extremely selfish man consumed with anger dating back to his childhood, a petulant star who lies to his coach and treats him with sarcasm -- and the franchise cornerstone who, in effect, pushed both O'Neal and Jackson out the door.

One example: The Lakers made arrangements to cover some of Kobe's private-plane expenses to and from Colorado for his court hearings. But the young star wasn't happy; he wanted a plane "with higher status."

Excerpts and reviews of this book have played up how Jackson skewers Kobe. But you have to read the whole book, because Kobe emerges as more than a stick figure here.

At times, Kobe could be totally selfless, a team leader doing all he could to help his coaches. And Kobe surprised Jackson by the way he often managed to compartmentalize his legal troubles and still excel on the court. But then Kobe would confound his coach with his selfishness, like the time he took a cell-phone call at halftime of a playoff game.

"He is in a place I cannot pretend to know," Jackson writes.

Jackson says that while Kobe's ability to take over a game is unmatched, he has not found a way "to become part of a system that involves giving to something larger than himself." So, his former coach concludes, "... the boyish hero image has been replaced by that of a callous gun for hire."

Jackson's at his best in talking about the troubled and complex relationship between Kobe and Shaq. Who else but an insider could chronicle their juvenile pettiness, as seen by each refusing to be taped before a game by the trainer considered loyal to the other. And if a reporter hangs around one of the superstars, the other will shut him out.

Here's the basic difference between the two, according to Jackson.

"Ask Shaq to do something, and he'll say: 'No, I don't want to do that.' But after a little pouting, he will do it. Ask Kobe, and he'll say 'OK,' and then he will do whatever he wants."

While Jackson suggests that Shaq can be totally childish, there's no doubt which star Jackson likes and trusts more. The possession arrow goes to Shaq.

"For all his bravado, Shaq is a very sensitive, fragile soul who appreciates any sign of tenderness," Jackson writes. "He's often maligned for his lack of durability, his unwillingness to play with severe physical discomfort, yet the critics have no clue to what he must regularly overcome to compete at this level."

This is a soap opera, of course, complete with Jackson's girlfriend, Jeanie, being the daughter of his boss, Dr. Jerry Buss, the same man who decided to go in a "different direction," not even allowing Jackson to offer to retire first.

Basketball purists can cut through all these shenanigans to find many pearls of coaching wisdom and some insights into everyone from Pistons coach Larry Brown to Karl Malone and Gary Payton.

But that's tougher than fighting through a pick set by Shaq.

The Last Season

A Team in Search of its Soul

By Phil Jackson, with Michael Arkush

Penguin Press, 272 pages, $24.95

Gene Warner is a News reporter and sports maven.

e-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com