Very Quick Review: THE LAST SEASON by Phil Jackson (Penguin)

JacksonP-LastSeasonUSPBPhil Jackson’s memoir for the final year of his (first) stint as Lakers coach

An inside look at the season that proved to be the final ride of a truly great dynasty — Kobe Bryant, Shaq, and the LA Lakers

For the countless basketball fans who were spellbound by the Los Angeles Lakers’ 2003-2004 high-wire act, this book is a rare and phenomenal treat. In The Last Season, Lakers coach Phil Jackson draws on his trademark honesty and insight to tell the whole story of the season that proved to be the final ride of a truly great dynasty. From the signing of future Hall-of-Famers Karl Malone and Gary Payton to the Kobe Bryant rape case/media circus, this is a riveting tale of clashing egos, public feuds, contract disputes, and team meltdowns that only a coach, and a writer, of Jackson’s candor, experience, and ability could tell. Full of tremendous human drama and offering lessons on coaching and on life, this is a book that no sports fan can possibly pass up.

I recently read Jeff Pearlman’s excellent, entertaining Three-Ring Circus: an account of the LA Lakers’ three-championship run in the early 2000s. Coached by Phil Jackson and led by Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, the team was dominant, impressive to watch, and dysfunctional. Pearlman’s book is a warts-and-all, humorous examination of the team and the characters that comprised it. I wanted to read more about the team and the NBA of that time, so I picked up Jackson’s memoir of his the 2003-4 season. What I found was an interesting, informative, and engaging read.

It is, of course, not surprising that Jackson comes across rather better in his own memoir than he might in another writer’s book. I thought Pearlman was quite scathing in some of his coverage of Jackson’s tenure as coach — for example, he suggests that Jackson sidelined Tex Winter, the inventor of the Triangle. In The Last Season, though, Winter features quite frequently (by this time in his 80s), and he’s given full credit as the inventor of the coach’s winning strategy. Jackson even worries that he hasn’t supported Tex enough, at times.

While Jackson is an understandably confident man, he is not incapable of self-reflection and mea culpa. As The Last Season is adapted from his journal entries from the season, I was surprised to read how often he was unsure of himself — he questions his approach to coaching the team as a whole, and Kobe Bryant in particular. Their difficult relationship comes across clearly, and Jackson is honest about his desire to trade him — he preferred to build the team around Shaq’s dominance on the court.

One thing that has surprised me about the various accounts of this period of Lakers history is how strangely absent Kobe is, despite his oversize presence on the court and the difficulties he caused the team (for various reasons, but most notably the rape charges). Aside from mentions of how difficult he was, or the concessions that were made for him (concessions that went above and beyond what one might expect from an organization, but ones that Kobe nevertheless seems to have not thought enough), he remains a somewhat peripheral figure in this memoir. Jackson doesn’t spend much time on Kobe’s relationship with the team (see Pearlman’s book for that), but he does write about his failed wish to form a connection with the young superstar.

The Last Season offers an interesting, accessible account of what it means to be an NBA coach. Jackson imparts plenty of lessons he’s learned as a coach (and some from his time as a two-time champion player, too). He tells the story without dwelling too much on individual games. Even when the focus narrows onto the playoffs, the game reports are kept relatively short, and events put into wider contexts. I appreciate this whenever I read a book about sports — even for games that I watched, I really don’t need to read a play-by-play account of what happened. Jackson brings in lots of extra, bigger picture details and thoughts when writing about games, rivalries, etc. It keeps the book lively, avoids getting bogged down, and also avoids alienating readers who didn’t watch the games.

I’m interested in reading about Jackson’s second stint with the team — one that netted him his tenth and eleventh championship win as coach. However, it seems to be rather under-covered, compared to his headline-grabbing first tenure, what with the drama surrounding Shaq, Kobe, and more. It looks like Jackson covers some of this time in his book Eleven Rings; and I think Jeanie Buss covers it in her memoir, Laker Girl. I hope to read both of them very soon.

If you’re a fan of the Los Angeles Lakers, then you’ve probably already read The Last Season. If not, or if you are intrigued after watching the (superb) Netflix documentary series The Last Dance, then I’d recommend you give this book a try — pick up the paperback edition for the extra chapters, too, which detail his return to the Lakers after a brief “retirement”. Well-written, engaging, and generous in its portrait of others, I enjoyed it a lot.

*

Phil Jackson’s The Last Season is out now, published by Penguin in North America and in the UK.

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