Phil Jackson downplays sentiments regarding retirement
The comfy chair, the vibrant smile, the yellow shirt and an aura of satisfaction all provided a fitting backdrop to what made Lakers Coach Phil Jackson appear so relaxed last June during his exit interview.
He was only one week removed from winning his 11th championship and his body language suggested he was ready to bask in the glory. But then Jackson spoke: "I'm leaning toward retiring. But I have not made up my mind."
For the next 21 minutes he spoke at great length as to what was making him lean toward that direction, namely exhaustion and health. The vibe gave a sense of finality until a reporter brought up that Jackson would have the chance for his fourth three-peat should he return in the 2010-11 season. That's when Jackson's eyes lit up. "That's ridiculous," he said, nearly suggesting that dangling carrot would be too tempting not to pass up.
After two weeks of spending time at his lakeside home in Montana and undergoing a series of medical tests, Jackson's words in a statement conveyed the same sort of giddiness a kid displays on his first day of school. "It’ll be the last stand for me," he said, "and I hope a grand one.” Publishers and movie directors didn't need to look any further for the perfect title describing the Lakers' 2010-11 season. It'd be all too fitting, the Lakers rallying together to win a championship in Jackson's honor. The only problem: Jackson wants no part of that storyline.
"We haven't gotten into that at all. This is something we'll digest in the course of the playoffs because it's imminent. It's the elephant in the living room or bedroom, depending where you want to put that elephant," Jackson said, drawing a few laughs from reporters. "It's something we have to acknowledge and go through it, but it's not something about win one for the Gipper or win one for Phil."
That's too bad because Lakers co-captains Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher have followed that mantra. They have their own legacies to fulfill, of course. A sixth ring would place Bryant in a tie with Michael Jordan and spark more debate and comparisons between the two players. A sixth ring to Fisher would further cement his legacy as a clutch playoff performer and team leader despite lacking superstar qualities. But their motivation consists of multiple layers. Both Bryant and Fisher frequently called and texted Jackson last year and pleaded with him to come back, partly in hopes they could add another Larry O'Brien Trophy to Jackson's collection.
"I've thought about it probably more than others because of the relationship he and I have," Bryant said Friday at the Lakers' practice facility in El Segundo. "I thought about it, sure. You have a responsibility to try to make his last season, make him go out the way he should go out, and that's on top."
That's surely Jackson's goal, but he's demonstrated this season a reluctance to wax sentimental about his final season. Two weeks ago, he gathered together with the Lakers' traveling beat writers at a Portland hotel where they talked over drinks for more than 80 minutes, with plenty of the conversation centering on his impending retirement and storied coaching career. But that gathering served a purpose in preempting, or at least minimizing, questions about his retirement during the Lakers' playoff run and giving the writers who cover him on an everyday basis enough material and background to know he's adamant about ending his coaching career once the postseason ends.
"It's one of the undertalked-about stories in the NBA this year that we are losing the most successful head coach that has ever coached in any sport," ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy said. "He and John Wooden had periods of domination. You don't get too many things that can never be duplicated, but I feel confident in saying this will never, ever be duplicated. If I were the Lakers, I would treat this as if it was Kobe Bryant retiring in his prime and I would do everything in my power to try to get him to reconsider. Same thing with Phil Jackson. Phil Jackson is still in his prime and still at the top of his game."
It appears behind the scenes that the Lakers are hoping this proves to be another instance where Jackson can't pass up the chance to win yet another championship. Yahoo! Sports' Marc Spears reported the Buss family is trying to convince Jackson to return in what could be a less taxing lockout-shorten season. Likewise, Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak said during the 2010 offseason that he hopes Jackson reconsiders. And others, such as assistant coach Frank Hamblen and forward Luke Walton, say they will ask him to delay retirement once the season ends. So it appears at least some of the others will make the effort Van Gundy argued they should make.
But as far as why Jackson's last season has been underreported? Part of that is Jackson's own doing. He has largely refused this season to talk about retirement or his coaching career when reporters asked him about it. For example, when asked what he remembers about his first NBA championship in 1991, Jackson simply said, "I had a lot of hair back then." During his news conference on Thursday, he almost suggested coaching in what would be known as his last season has worked against him, saying half-jokingly that unnamed players have tuned him out knowing the ramifications in disobeying him won't affect them in future seasons.
"They've treated me like a lame-duck administrator," Jackson said. "By not using what Ron [Artest] terms is 'mind control,' not letting me control their minds when they've gone through some errant journeys on the floor or irrational behavior I'm not appreciative of."
Lakers power forward Pau Gasol didn't really buy that notion, believing Jackson "likes to play games with anybody. That's the way he lives and has fun." Fair point. Jackson spent plenty of Thursday's news conference expressing disappointment about the Lakers' five-game losing streak and two subpar efforts against San Antonio and Sacramento after the team's 17-1 mark following the All-Star break, criticized the team's failure to get the No. 1 seeding and expressed uncertainty on whether the Lakers have the proper hunger level entering their first-round matchup beginning Sunday against New Orleans. On Friday, Jackson rang a different tune, blaming the Lakers' inconsistency on overwhelming fatigue that's taxed a veteran championship team that's appeared in three consecutive NBA Finals.
Perhaps that is Jackson's whole point, making the Lakers feel more empowered in winning a championship because of their own will. Jeanie Buss, the Lakers' executive vice president and Jackson's longtime girlfriend, observed he often goes up to her office at the beginning of the day to pull up the blinds so that the windows showing the Lakers' 16 championship trophies appear in clear view upon entering the Lakers' practice court. "He always wants the players to see the trophies and be reminded what that goal is," Buss said earlier this season.
But the message points to that tangible reward itself rather than making Jackson the center of the drive to complete another three-peat. Deep down, Jackson surely feels appreciative that some of his players are using his last season as motivation to keep pushing for a three-peat, a point Gasol conceded the team has occasionally addressed during inconsistent stretches. Never is Jackson present during those times. He's maintained he's put off thinking about what his retirement plans entail and insists on thinking in the present moment. It's a perfect Zen message the Lakers can follow as the postseason begins.
Said Jackson: "I'm looking forward to go to this thing giving every bit of energy I have right into going to the final part."
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Photo: Lakers Coach Phil Jackson plans to retire after this season, but ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy argues the Lakers should do everything they can to convince him to stay. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times