- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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When Phil Jackson left the Lakers in 2004, ending his five-year, three-championship run in L.A., he didn't just slam the door behind him; he burned the bridge that led to the door.
And "burning" doesn't even properly describe it. He blew that thing up, "Bridge On The River Kwai" style.
That unceremonious departure makes it even more unbelievable that Jackson passed Pat Riley as the head of the class in Lakers victories with a 99-97 win over the Bobcats on Wednesday. It was Jackson's 534th victory as a Laker.
When he exited in '04, he had his 545 wins in Chicago, making him the winningest coach in Bulls history, but he would have to hold off on Hollywood. Passing Riley seemed out of the question.
But as you read this today, Jackson, the maverick "Zen Master," is ahead of Riley, the homegrown head honcho of the Showtime era.
Riley's record was supposed to be as unattainable for Jackson as Shaq seeing any set of digits lower than 300 when he steps on a scale.
"When the Lakers made the monumental switch after the season, there wasn't any hint in my mind that I'd ever be back coaching this team again," Jackson said. "That's miraculous in itself."
It wasn't even six months after his June departure that Jackson released his tell-all book, "The Last Season," in October of that year. It was written with a good-riddance type of resolve, and aired out grievances between him and ownership and revealed arguments between his players that traditionally stay trapped in the locker room.
That type of tale had been told by former coaches and players before, but it usually occurred when all the principal characters had long since retired. You don't talk about all your star player's warts and expect to ever see him face to face in a huddle again.
In the book, Jackson wrote that at one point, he told general manager Mitch Kupchak, "I won't coach this team next year if [Kobe Bryant] is still here. He won't listen to anyone. I've had it with this kid."
Well, he's coached him again.
He's coached him to 247 more regular-season victories, and he's coached him to championship No. 4 together.
That championship resulted in a number that mattered much more to Jackson than 534 ever will. This past June in Orlando, Fla., he wore a yellow baseball cap with a purple Roman numeral "X" on it to represent his 10 titles passing Red Auerbach's record of nine. There was no special hat Wednesday.
The fact that Jackson relishes rings with the same Gollum-like obsession as Bryant is what saved their relationship.
"He coaches for one reason, and that's to win," said Derek Fisher, who has been with the Lakers for both phases of Jackson. "I think Phil as well as Kobe are so focused on winning and being the best that different things that come up aren't really going to stand in the way in what the ultimate goal is. ... I think they both have done an unbelievable job of putting whatever has kind of gotten in front, and what people would maybe consider getting in the way of their success, they've both kind of pushed those things aside and continued to push their way to the top of the list in their respective categories."
After the divorce, Kobe and Phil have reconciled to the point that the numbers suggest they're the greatest couple, coach and player, in Lakers history.
Wednesday night started with Bryant being presented with a commemorative basketball by Jerry West to honor his passing West as the franchise's all-time leading scorer. It ended with Jackson giving a courtside interview over the P.A. system to address his achievement.
And when Jackson addressed the Staples Center crowd, he quickly changed the focus from his wins record to the next number that matters to him: 11.
"We have another championship out there to attain," Jackson's gravelly voice boomed over the sound system. "It's about doing it now, just getting this thing done this year and winning the championship."
Jackson has never chosen the conventional route along his journey, and he's known as a bit of an outcast in the coaching community because of it. Yet after the game, Charlotte's Larry Brown, a coaches' coach if there ever was one, said without solicitation, "This guy has done a remarkable job. ... We all have a lot of respect for him."
After Jackson sat out the 2004-05 campaign, his "last season" has been followed by five more.
"I think that's all the administration," Jackson said. "Kudos go to [Lakers vice president of business operations] Jeanie Buss in that regard. She ventured to say that she had fertilized the ground and that the seeds had been planted, and when I came back from Tahiti, Bora Bora or wherever I was out there in the South Pacific, there was a lot of groundswell behind that."
The seeds have grown, and flowers don't wilt when they're winning.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com
6mMichael C. Wright