Pre-season question of the day: Is this really Phil Jackson's last season?
Phil Jackson sat in his chair, appearing as relaxed as ever. His smile and yellow-button shirt complemented the California summer vibes. His observation that exit interviews feel more enjoyable after a championship exuded a sense of ease. And with the burden of going through yet another NBA season ending with his 11th title, it appeared only logical that Jackson would be eager to experience it again.
But then Jackson wrote the headline for the next morning's local sports pages: "I'm leaning toward retiring. But I have not made up my mind." After a few seconds of stunned silence, a reporter observed: "It got quiet on that one there."
That followed with a nearly 21-minute interview featuring questions and answers that seemed more of a sendoff for a job well done. It wasn't so much the words that gave that impression: Jackson stressed he wouldn't make an official decision until results from a series of medical tests came in the following week. Reporters, including myself, framed questions that conveyed understanding that Jackson may change his mind, while still tackling the variables on what could ultimately lead him to retirement. But once Jackson shared his litany of concerns -- mainly exhaustion and health -- he sounded burned out and ready for a vacation.
That's apparently all he needed to change his spirits. Two weeks later, the team announced Jackson's return, with the Zen Master saying in a statement, “After a couple weeks of deliberation, it is time to get back to the challenge of putting together a team that can defend its title in the 2010-11 season." He later told The Times' Mike Bresnahan, "I got a message from on high … that said, 'Phil, you've got to come back, there is a need to fulfill the prophecy. You know 12 [titles] is a holy number and 11 just doesn't fill that …' So I listened to my doctors and watched the sunrise and the sunset a few times and voila, I'm back."
Lakers nation could finally relax. Though the free-agency process just began, the Lakers had already addressed their main concern. Jackson would have a chance to win his fourth three-peat, keep the triangle offense intact and maintain the levelheaded attitude that helped the Lakers fight through adversity. The good news came with a qualifier, however. "It’ll be the last stand for me," Jackson said, "and I hope a grand one.”
Despite Jackson's statement, a preseason question surely involves whether this season actually marks the end of storied coaching career. I hesitate to predict what will happen, but I wouldn't take his initial statement as definitive.
Owner Jerry Buss said he's not looking forward to planning for Jackson's departure. General Manager Mitch Kupchak expressed a willingness to negotiate once the 2010-2011 season ends. And Lakers forward Luke Walton recently told Lakers.com's Mike Trudell, "I know he said this is going to be his last year, but I’m going to try to convince him after this year to come back again." I wouldn't be surprised if other players follow suit.
It's simply hard to ascertain when Jackson is going to retire because he's wavered so many times before. During his exit interview earlier this year, he shared how his children tried to convince him to call it quits even when he was coaching the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s. In a feature on Jackson filled with vivid description and lively anecdotes, Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins shared this quote: "If you asked me last February if I was going to continue to coach, I'd have given you a long look and said, "Probably not.'" The kicker: Jackson uttered those words to SI 14 years ago, before his second three-peat with the Bulls.
There have been circumstances that made Jackson believe his time was up. Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf and General Manager Jerry Krause went through an ugly divorce with most of the players as well as Jackson, which partly led to the team's breakup after the second three-peat. But the lure of guiding a talented but young Lakers team for the 1999-2000 season enticed Jackson. He had a good thing going, what with immediately three-peating, but all the infighting between Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant eventually contributed to the Lakers' 2004 Finals loss to Detroit. Surely, Jackson's departure followed by the publication of "The Last Season" meant he'd never come back. But he did a season later, went through a few first-round exits to Phoenix and then experienced three consecutive NBA Finals appearances.
Jackson's decision to prolong his coaching career hasn't just been circumstantial. He shared how spending time at his Montana lakeside home most summers helps rejuvenate him and ease the exhaustion and stress he accumulates during the NBA season. If his wavering sounds like Brett Favre's, it shouldn't. His health has mostly dictated his coaching future. If his wavering sounds like Jackson is a prisoner to his profession, much like Joe Paterno, it shouldn't. Jackson made it abundantly clear in his exit interview that he wants to pursue other aspirations, although undefined, and ensure that his post-retirement life stays fulfilling. That's why no one should expect that Jackson will coach for too much longer. Even if his initial statement establishes an expiration date, the course of events could dictate otherwise, at least for another season or two.
"It's an inner feeling that you assess the price and what it takes to do and how much time you have left to live and live a life that you want to lead," Jackson said. "And also, for myself, try and get in better health than I am now so I can live a better life."
-- Mark Medina
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Photos: Phil Jackson Credits: Wally Skalij /Los Angeles Times; Gina Ferazzi /Los Angeles Times