LA’S ZEN COACH; ONE 30 TEAM LEAGUE

May 12, 2010

T.J. Simers feels that questioning Phil Jackson is like talking to a stone wall. The Lakers coach is reluctant to discuss the upcoming series against the Phoenix Suns.

“I’m counting on him, working him like Jeanie for a ring, but all I get is Stonewall Jackson.

I hit him from every direction, Phoenix this and Phoenix that, something that might actually interest folks.

I want to know how much he’s looking forward to exacting some revenge from the Suns, who became only the eighth team in NBA history to overcome a 3-1 deficit in 2006, and embarrass Jackson’s Lakers.

And they took them out again in 2007, as bad a playoff stretch, I would guess, Jackson has ever experienced.

“I cannot allow myself to speak about Phoenix until the actuality is here,” says Stonewall, who sounds as if he’s running for office or reading from a prepared
statement.

I figure talking about the Valley of the Sun as soon as possible, we’ve got the chance to get our minds off this wasteland and wasted time in our lives spent here.

As it is, this is going to be the first exhibition playoff game I have ever covered in my career, whoever wins or loses, it really doesn’t matter.

The Lakers and Suns will play Monday in Los Angeles, everyone knew that here before this game began; Utah nothing but decaying roadkill.

“A little help,” I tell Jackson at the team’s afternoon shootaround. “Let’s look forward to how much fun it’s going to be to play Phoenix.”

I should have known better. I asked Phil the first question before the first game with the Jazz back in L.A., “Are you already as bored with this series as the rest of us?”

He knew it wasn’t gonna be much of challenge, but he couldn’t let himself go and admit it.

If someone had told the Lakers before the season began, they would only have to beat Oklahoma City, Utah with center Kyrylo Fesenko and Phoenix to
make the NBA Finals, they might’ve mailed it in more than they did.

“Surprising,” is the way General Manager Mitch Kupchak puts it when asked about Phoenix taking on the Lakers.

Shocking is more like it, the Suns’ record even more so since Jan. 28, going 36-9. And 22-4 since March 14.

“So who matches up best with Amare Stoudemire, Phil?”

“I’m not going to talk about that,” Jackson says.

A moment later TNT’s Craig Sager asks Jackson if he’s seen the Salt Lake Tribune and the headline atop the Jazz story: “All hope is lost.”

If all hope is lost, I tell Jackson, what about the matchup with Steve Nash?

“You can’t leave it alone,” he says, and raise your hand if you’re still interested in how Andre Kirilenko might make a difference for the Jazz.

Jackson tells someone else, who asks about Sasha Vujacic, he’ll be a boost for the bench, so to clarify I want to know if he’s saying Sasha will make a big
difference against Phoenix.

“He can help us against Utah if this series continues beyond tonight,” Stonewall says.

At halftime, the Lakers up by 17, I text the team’s public relations director and ask him to ask Phil if he’ll talk about the Suns now. He says I’m too late with the text.

I’m counting on Sager to ask him, but he’s talking to Jerry Sloan to start the fourth quarter, wondering I guess where Sloan will be playing golf next week.

Marv Albert is talking about Phoenix, TNT is showing the Lakers’ 3-1 regular-season advantage as well as Nash highlights, and Reggie Miller is talking about the Suns’ bench.

Everyone but Stonewall is talking.

Game over, and I ask, “What about those Suns?”

“That’s the first question?” Jackson says. “I’d like to dwell on this series we just finished; maybe at the end of this press conference we’ll come back to
[the Suns].”

Too late for my deadline.

NBA COMMISSIONER David Stern addressed the media here and began by saying, “It’s fun to be in Utah.”

He lost me after that.

KUPCHAK IS a funny, funny guy. I think.

We’re talking at Monday’s shootaround, and he says, “you’re lucky,” so I bite and ask why.

The day before I joined Plaschke, Turner and Bresnahan at the Lakers’ practice, leaving the arena and walking up a long ramp, a wall to our left and as it would turn out the Lakers’ bus rolling past us on the right.

“There was quite a discussion on the bus about taking you all out — all the Times’ guys were in a nice, little group together,” says Kupchak, most of us at The Times trained to surround Plaschke and protect him the best we can.

“I’m not going to tell you the name of the ringleader who was behind it all,” says Kupchak, “but lucky for you, cooler heads prevailed.”

I tell him I’ll probably wait for the bus to leave after the shoot-around before walking up the ramp.

“A wise decision,” says Kupchak, and he’s kidding. I think.”

Bob Molinaro, of HamptonRoads.com, thinks that eliminating the NL and AL as separate bodies would make baseball more balanced.

“At this point in the young baseball season, the Washington Nationals aren’t the doormats we’re accustomed to watching.
Or not watching.
Following their victory Sunday over the Florida Marlins, the Nationals are tied with the Mets for second place in the National League East as they begin a three-game series tonight in New York.
The surprising start constitutes major progress for a franchise that still doesn’t fog the mirror for most fans.
Something, though, is missing from the Nationals’ 2010 resume – something that from a holistic point of view of big-league baseball sort of lets a little of the air out of their balloon.
The Nationals have no victories, for example, over the New York Yankees. Though to be fair, they haven’t lost to the Yankees either.
The Nationals won’t get a chance to prove themselves against the Yankees. Or the Tampa Bay Rays. Or Boston Red Sox. Or Toronto Blue Jays. Or
Minnesota Twins. Not even with interleague play.
The Nationals are lucky that way.
But the Nationals aren’t the only NL club that generally avoids contact with the best teams in Major League Baseball. Navigating an inferior schedule is one of the perks of membership in the NL.
Among other things, the NL is a place where American League rag arms go to revive their careers. Nobody argues that the AL isn’t stronger with more
superior players. And doesn’t that translate into better entertainment?
Wouldn’t baseball, then, be more fun for everyone – and fairer for all – if MLB simply did away with its leagues?
Goodbye, superior AL. Farewell, inferior NL. Throw all 30 teams into one big melting pot and create a tasty, new, more balanced stew.
Would the purists recoil in horror? Of course they would. But that would only serve as an endorsement for a 30-team league. Find out what the purists like
and head in the opposite direction. It’s a policy that has served baseball well.
In this case, that would mean chucking traditions forged in the 19th century for a structure in which every team played every other team each season.
That could only lead to disaster, right? Or, mind you, a truer understanding of which teams are really the best, and which are getting off easy because they play in the NL. An all-inclusive schedule also would relax the burden on teams, for instance, that run into the Yankees 19 times each year.
Given baseball’s obsessive adherence to tradition, this all seems farfetched. How to handle the All-Star Game and World Series are hurdles that could delay a plan like this for years.
And yet, according to a story in The Wall Street Journal, baseball’s elders actually have given serious thought to abolishing the two leagues.
Former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent is quoted in the article as saying that separate leagues now only exist “in some vestigial way. It would not be a big step to get rid of them.”
Bud Selig moved in that direction when he did away with league offices and separate umpire pools. The two leagues aren’t as different and distinct as they once were.
Except when it comes to their relative strengths.
Using mathematical calculations that would boggle the mind of this typist, T he Wall Street Journal took into account AL supremacy in its analysis of what a 30-team league would look like with each team playing every other team an equal number of times.
The results don’t place the NL in a favorable light. Take it with a grain of salt, but the story concluded that under this system, no more than two NL teams
would have qualified for an eight-team baseball-wide playoff in the past five years.
Fear not, NL fans, or anyone who quakes at the notion of seismic change. This is baseball we’re talking about.
But remember, interleague play was considered a radical notion. People seem to like it now.
A 30-team stew would only be a bold extension of that.”

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