Jackson stands alone, but now what?
Lakers' coach will mull his future, but most signs are pointing to his staying
LOS ANGELES -- Phil Jackson is chasing no one now. Red Auerbach and his nine NBA titles are two victory cigars in the past. John Wooden's 10 NCAA titles are behind Jackson, too.
Jackson stands alone, on his own pedestal in the annals of coaching after winning his 11th NBA title Thursday night at Staples Center.
And yet, the chase continues. Not of history anymore, but of Jackson. Time and age forgive few men who've put their bodies through the strain of 31 NBA seasons (12 as a player, 19 as a coach).
Economics can be even more unforgiving. The NBA has seen its fortunes diminish in the past two seasons, leaving few franchises with healthy financial statements. The Lakers are still one of the league's "haves," but with a swollen payroll and stagnant ticket prices, they don't have as much as they used to.
And so Jackson stood on the podium at center court, the purple and gold confetti still falling from the rafters onto his silver mane, and said the only thing he could honestly say when asked if this would be his last championship dance:
"I've got to take a deep breath," Jackson said. "I've got to take some time and think about this. This was great. I'll wait to make that decision in a week."
In other words: He really doesn't know.
The decision is a complicated one, and not entirely in his control. Out of necessity, Jackson tried to block it out as much as he could during the Lakers' playoff run, keeping his focus on the task at hand rather than risk regret by allowing an undisciplined bout of sentimentality to cloud his thoughts.
The Lakers, it seems, would welcome him back. The question they must decide: at what price?
His $12 million annual salary easily makes him the highest-paid coach in the NBA, and Lakers owner Jerry Buss has indicated he does not want to continue paying that much for a head coach.
Those indications have come all season long, but before Jackson led the Lakers to back-to-back titles.
"You know something, I'm not planning for Phil not to be here," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak told ESPNLosAngeles.com last week.
"If in fact he chooses in July not to be here, then we'll launch a search or sit down with a short list, with ownership. I don't think it would be hard to find a coach to take this team on. I would think it'd be considered a very attractive job.
"We'd find somebody. Certainly, we wouldn't find somebody as good as Phil. But that's not really something we're planning for right now.
"In my heart I really believe, unless there's a medical reason, I really believe he will be back next season."
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As endorsements from high-level folks with political ties to both sides of a negotiation, that was a rather strong one by Kupchak.
The show of support from Lakers star Kobe Bryant was just as loud and ringing.
"It's critical," Bryant said in his postgame interview with ESPN's Hannah Storm. "He's our skipper. When things go south, when things go not as expected, he's always poised. He's always preaching execution.
"He knows how bad I want him back. I told him, when I signed my extension, 'I signed it with you in mind, so don't go nowhere.'"
Jackson has given the public few tea leaves to read.
His closest associates say only that he seems to enjoy himself as much as ever, even though health and wealth will certainly complicate the decision.
"We're not looking for more passion from him," Kupchak said. "It's always been there and I see no less passion today than I did a year ago."
His longtime girlfriend, Lakers vice president Jeanie Buss, agreed that Jackson's love for coaching is still strong, particularly at this time of year. But she admitted the long grind of the regular season always weighs heavily on him.
"We left Staples Center around 11:30 p.m. [Thursday]. Finally went to sleep around 1:30 a.m.," Buss wrote in an e-mail Friday. "Phil was already watching the ESPN highlight show when we got home. I think that is a good indication of where his heart is. It's his hips and his knees that we need to worry about."
By winning another title Thursday night, Jackson shifted some of the pressure back onto Jerry Buss.
Buss was elected to the Hall of Fame this season and is unquestionably one of the best owners in professional sports. Not simply for funding so many championship teams, but for knowing when to hold on to his stars and when to let them fade away.
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Jackson is leaving Los Angeles in about a week. He will ride home to Flathead Lake, Mont., taking scenic byways and lonely side roads, leaving the interstates to those for whom arriving at a destination quickly is more important than the journey there.
He will ride home in the glow of another championship, the taste of champagne still sweet in his mouth.
As long as he is not insulted by what the Lakers offer him to return, it is hard to see Jackson retiring for good to his lake.
He has widened the distance between himself and his coaching peers. Posterity will chase him now. Time and age will keep nipping at his heels.
There is still challenge to be had, though. A final flourish to write.
"There's a lot of momentum coming into the opportunity to do this [again]," Jackson said. "Is it possible that it could happen? It's grandiose to even mention it, but it is a possibility. That intrigue does weigh."
Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
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