Phil Jackson points to health concerns as reason why he's considering retirement
Lakers Coach Phil Jackson and guard Kobe Bryant sat upstairs Wednesday in the team's practice facility in El Segundo, pondering how magnificent it has been for the pair to experience seven NBA Finals in the past 10 seasons. Sure the run featured adversity, including Bryant's initial reluctance to embrace the triangle offense and the Zen Master's coaching philosophies, Jackson handling the Bryant-Shaq dynamic and, of course, the Lakers' 2004 Finals loss to Detroit that resulted in Jackson's departure.
And once again, Jackson and Bryant talked during the team's exit interviews with Jackson's future with the team remaining in question. Bryant would tell reporters afterward he had no inclination whether Jackson would return next season with a chance to win a 12th NBA championship, his sixth with the Lakers and third in a row, saying, "I'm sitting and waiting just like everybody else is." But there's no question that conversation sparked a moment of reflection with how much of the Lakers' success points to Jackson, whose presence, along with the additions of Pau Gasol and Derek Fisher, helped spur the Lakers to three consecutive Finals appearances after Jackson's first two seasons after his return yielded two first-round exits.
That kind of success usually drives Jackson to keep staying around. He mentioned at several points this season how a championship would significantly improve his chances of coming back. The team's talent and continuity would help make the grind of the NBA season less stressful, and he'd have the chance to earn a three-peat for the fourth time in his career, a possible milestone he described as "ridiculous." Yet, his focus this week has centered less on that and more on his health. He underwent a series of medical tests Monday and even missed the Lakers' championship parade, and he's been wearing a knee brace and nursing painful kidney stones. It's a sentiment he said he shared with players who asked during exit interviews about his coaching future.
"I'm leaning toward retiring," Jackson said. "But I have not made up my mind."
He planned to go through more tests following his exit interview as well as Thursday and hoped to reach a decision at the end of next week once he receives the various medical reports. This, of course, is nothing new, Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak emphasized, as Jackson has routinely gone through examinations in past seasons before deciding to keep coaching. And even though Kupchak witnessed the numerous times Jackson told his players the possibility, he told reporters he'd be "very surprised" if he decided to stop coaching.
"As a coach, this is in your blood," Kupchak said. "This whole competitive player coaching kind of thing. I don't think money is a factor, although it's to some degree always a factor. But for a coach that has his success, not only coaching but as a player, he's experienced the best of the best with his championships. It's really not something you'd like to see come to an end. I think he would agree that this team is in a position based on several factors, injuries, some luck, sign some players this summer, [that] would be in a position to contend for a championship or maybe a year or two after that. Most coaches revel in having a situation like that. He's left his mark and can continue to leave his mark."
There ares several who may conclude this is just beginning of a tactical gamesmanship in the negotiating process, particularly because of numerous reports that suggested Lakers owner Jerry Buss wants Jackson to take a pay cut below his previous two-year, $23 million contract and perhaps because Andrew Bynum told The Times' Mike Bresnahan and Broderick Turner that Jackson wouldn't share with Bynum his decision . Aside from the fact that both Jackson and Kupchak said money isn't an issue, Jackson's demeanor and body language makes it appear he won't be back for an 11th season because of his health concerns.
Jackson had thought as early as last summer this would be his last season, a decision his family welcomed considering how taxing the seasons have become for the coach. Every so often, he folded his suits into a suitcase during a trip and thought this would be the last time he'd ever do this. And he noticed how hard it was for him to pace up and down the court.
"This is basically what it's about at this age, being in good health," said Jackson, 64. "I have to sit on it and do the right thing for myself. I wouldn't say I'm 95% sure or 50% sure. its just this is where I feel right now."
The Lakers all publicly said they hope he leans otherwise. Kupchak immediately told him after the Lakers beat the Celtics in Game 7 of the NBA FInals he'd like for him to return. He even joked that permission to wear flip-flops could be added to his contract. And players who were asked about Jackson's future unanimously said they want him by their side.
"Our personality of our team is made up of his composure, thought processes and philosophies," Bryant said of Jackson. "It changes things drastically. I don't want to think about that right now. It's killing my buzz."
Yet, this is something Bryant and his teammates may have to ponder. Though Kupchak anticipated that Bryant, Gasol, Bynum and Lamar Odom would adjust well to a different coach and a different offense, he acknowledged Ron Artest may go through another learning curve. Though Kupchak maintained his approach toward free agency doesn't change, it may affect the Lakers' free agents themselves, including Derek Fisher. And even if the Lakers have the talent to repeat, they won't have the same leader to follow.
Jackson positively affected the team in many ways. Players cite his meditation sessions as integral during the Finals against Boston in helping them remain calm. Sasha Vujacic said Jackson's reduction of minutes and blunt honesty helped sharpen his mental toughness to hit two clutch free throws to clinch Game 7. And Artest called Jackson his favorite coach, even when he fought frustration with knowing the triangle offense and Jackson criticizing his shot selection.
"He's got to take care of his health first, but hopefully he'll come back," Gasol said. "He's obviously a big part of our success."
That's why Jackson anticipates mixed emotions between himself and the team, most significantly with his assistant coaches Brian Shaw, Frank Hamblen and Jim Cleamons as well as Bryant and Fisher. But he expects they'll understand if he maintains his decision to retire.
"I've let them all know how I feel," Jackson said. "It won't be a surprise and it won't be any kind of a mystery why. They know that I've been debating this some time now."
And as Jackson continues to debate, Kupchak can only hope Jackson's medical results spur him to want to aim for another title.
"All those things add up for a good situation for a coach to continue to coach," Kupchak said. "But Phil has always been a little different. But he may take a different approach to this than even we might. So we'll wait to see what happens."
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