BILL PLASCHKE

Firing Mike Brown smells of Laker panic

Only one man can save Jim Buss from himself, and the fans are already chanting for Phil Jackson.

The older man stepped into the crowded interview room and sighed. Appropriately, Bernie Bickerstaff's first official statement as the Lakers' interim coach was a whispered expletive.

"You're being kind with the word 'surprised,'" he said of Friday's events. "I was shocked."

Firing a coach five games into a season in which he has had his starters for 1 1/2 games? Firing a coach in early November when you could have done it last May? Jerking your knee and kicking the organization into chaos by changing the entire culture in the middle of the second week of the schedule?

Yeah, the timing of the firing of Mike Brown was such a stunner, even the assistant coach promoted to be the temporary voice of the organization couldn't believe it.

"In 40 years I have not seen that one," Bickerstaff said. "I have not seen that."

When the Lakers began training camp this fall, they were soaring like the smartest and coolest organization in the NBA. Five regular-season games later, they have collapsed into a puddle of utter and senseless panic.

They fired Brown Friday in a move that reeks of poor timing and poor leadership in a front office that was once a bastion of continuity and calm. This was not courageous management, this was cover-your-butt management. This was not Jimmy Buss boldly trying to win at all costs, it was Jimmy Buss spending $10 million of his father's money to cover his mistake at the worst possible time.

No, Mike Brown never should have been hired by Buss, I wrote that here two summers ago. But now is not the time to fix that mistake and risk losing the season under a new coach who will be working without training camp and possibly without the backing of a veteran team that now has an excuse.

The entire Lakers scene smacks of a dysfunction so dire, only one man can save it. With 4:56 remaining in the third quarter of Friday's game against over Golden State at Staples Center, Lakers fans even began chanting for him.

"We want Phil! We want Phil!"

The only way Friday's clattering move makes any sense is if Phil Jackson is the other shoe. The only way the season is guaranteed to be saved is if the two-time Lakers savior hobbles in from the beach and sits on his high chair and waves his magic Zen.

It's such a no-brainer, I'm surprised that the Lakers' baffling boss Buss didn't already have Jackson signed before canning Brown. On second thought, I guess I'd be stunned if he did.

Jackson reportedly is open to the idea, and the Lakers admittedly are interested, but can they close the deal? The Lakers would have to pay him lots of money to convince him to swallow lots of pride.

This is not like the Jackson's first return to the team, when he needed only to make nice with an owner who never really insulted him. This is about Jackson reuniting with the owner's son who pointedly tried to eradicate every trace of Jackson's memory.

Jimmy Buss' distaste for Jackson and his superior basketball knowledge ran so deep, everyone from assistant coaches to trainers lost their jobs partly because of it. Jimmy Buss was so intent on separating himself from the greatest coach in NBA history, he went against the wishes of some of the organization's best basketball minds in hiring a guy who was completely unlike Jackson, a guy named Mike Brown.

Ironically, now only Jackson can save Buss from his hasty booting of Brown, and the 67-year-old coach has other issues to resolve. Can Jackson's body endure the travel? Does he have the patience to endure yet a third reshaping here? He already has passed Red Auerbach with 11 championship rings, what more does he need to win?

Here's hoping Jackson has something left, and believes there is something left here for him, or the Lakers are big losers here.

What, you think Mike D'Antoni can save this season with no training camp or preseason games? How will he have time to install a defense? Oh, wait...

OK, maybe Jeff Van Gundy can show up and get the Lakers working harder and smarter. That is, until he is recognized by Dwight Howard.

Fine, bring in Jerry Sloan, and tell Kobe Bryant to spend the rest of his career in obedient silence and see how that works.

CHICAGO