Issue: "One nation under God," June 26, 2004

Say 'om' Once Phil Jackson was a coach who could do no wrong. What else do you call someone who wins the championship in nine of his 13 years as a head coach? But now with an ugly defeat at the hands of the Pistons, what can Phil Jackson fall back upon? If he's not such a great ego wrangler of star athletes, what is he? Besides his Buddhist motivator side (he has called himself a "Zen Christian"), Phil Jackson the Xs and Os basketball coach isn't well known. He certainly knows a good player when he sees one, having never turned down a job offer that involved Michael Jordan or Shaquille O'Neal. More importantly, he never accepted any position with barrel-scraping teams like the Clippers or Sixers. And that's what separates Mr. Jackson from, say, Larry Brown, who took jobs with both teams and took them to the playoffs. Last week, Mr. Brown led his Detroit club past the Lakers in the NBA finals, becoming the only coach to win both an NBA and an NCAA championship. (He led Kansas to the NCAA title in 1988.) If the mythical Coach Jackson saw it coming, he couldn't do anything about it. The myth wouldn't have allowed the Pistons so much as a sliver of hope in the finals. And if down 3-1, the myth would have played some video or prescribed some book that would have willed his players to win back the series. At least last week, Mr. Jackson was just another coach. Bark with bite? Ken Griffey Jr.'s 500th home run may be the last ball to leave the yard and land in Cooperstown. Ever since the Hall of Fame began, a 500th home run meant the engravers should start on a Hall of Fame plaque. But it's not what Mr. Griffey has done that may stop that practice. It's who's next. Fred McGriff's 500th home run should come later this season. There are many remarkable things about the Devil Rays 40-year-old part-time designated hitter. He led the National League in homers in 1989 and 1992 and made five all-star teams. And then there's that nickname. But something's just not right with the Crime Dog's Hall of Fame resumé. When he led the league, he only hit 35 and 36 home runs. He never hit more than 37. Remarkable seasons Mr. McGriff constructed in the early 1990s seemed pedestrian by the bombs-away McGwire, Sosa, and Bonds era. Baseball writers may be turned off by Mr. McGriff's reasons for a return. "I played a lot of years. So to me, it's a personal thing. Five hundred sounds better than 491," he said. The Crime Dog may be trying to hit homers, but Tampa Bay manager Lou Piniella is trying to win games. And the veteran's sub-.210 batting average through 10 games means Mr. Piniella could play him only sparingly, forcing Mr. McGriff to decide just how badly he wants his shot at 500. Around the horn » Lance Armstrong is off to another fight. But this time, he's not letting his bicycle do the talking: He has a lawyer. Mr. Armstrong will file libel charges against the English and French authors of a new book claiming the American cyclist doped to regain his form. Mr. Armstrong has never tested positive and has always denied claims he uses steroids. The French-language book centers on the testimony of Mr. Armstrong's former masseur. » Now with Kansas City safely in the American League Central's cellar the Carlos Beltran watch may begin. Everybody in baseball knows the Royals won't be able to keep the five-tool center fielder when he tests the free-agency waters this off-season. The Royals have made it clear they'd like to trade Mr. Beltran. And the sooner the better. Kansas City general manager Allard Baird figures the all-star's value is higher now than at the July trade deadline. » Philadelphia Flyers captain Keith Primeau can now hurry up and wait. The free agent quickly re-signed with Philadelphia to a four-year, $17 million deal. Both Mr. Primeau and Flyers officials said the NHL's labor squabble was an incentive to bargain, not a hindrance.

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