Commentary

Jackson's exit will be on his terms

The Lakers coach weighs health, happiness and desire in deciding whether to return

Updated: June 29, 2010, 8:05 PM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

By now Phil Jackson is home by his lake, thinking and feeling with his head, heart and guts.

There is never going to be an easy way for him to leave his life's work, to look back on his time the NBA fondly but not longingly.

[+] EnlargeJackson
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireOn the verge of another three-peat, can Phil Jackson walk away?

For those who play and coach this game at its highest level, as Jackson has in his Hall of Fame career, it is an addiction that gets into the blood stream with an uncompromising virulence.

Independent spirits like Jackson try to deny it, or at least compartmentalize it even in their most honest private moments, but generally end up admitting its power in the end.

As he wrote in his 2005 book "The Last Season" -- whose title proved to be a false assumption on his and his publisher's part -- "The addiction to coaching is a powerful one, which is why so many come back over and over and over. I don't suspect I've got a serious case, but I am probably as susceptible to this drug as anyone else. I would never rule anything out.

"Since the early 1960s, I've played or coached in more than two thousand games, and I can say safely there is nothing I've experienced outside of basketball that can match its intensity, its highs and lows, its feeling of fulfillment or failure. I can't imagine what my life would have been like without it."

Since returning to his home in Montana last weekend, you suspect that's exactly what he's been doing: imagining his life without basketball.

Would his life be happier? Healthier? Perhaps even wealthier as he goes on speaking tours across the country and writes books?

Or would he be bored, having withdrawals, and becoming restless within a year?

In many ways it is a question of identity. Jackson has never been just a basketball coach. The game may have been his life's work, but it's never been his whole life.

So even though the premise -- legendary coach wonders whether enough's enough after winning a title -- is well worn, the outcome of the situation in which Jackson and the Los Angeles Lakers find themselves feels unfamiliar.

"I would be very surprised," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said last week when asked about Jackson's retirement. "As a coach with his success, not only coaching but as a player, who has experienced the best of the best and won championships, it's really not something you'd like to see come to an end.

"But Phil's always been a little different, and he might take a little different approach to this than we might. So we'll wait to see what happens."

But just how different is Phil Jackson?

Could he really walk away from a chance to complete a fourth three-peat? Could he leave the prime years of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum on the table? Is he really strong enough to overcome the addiction to coaching that grips so many men so tightly?

Jackson has spoken about retiring twice in the past week, at the Lakers' exit interviews on Wednesday and at the Western Governors Association Conference in Montana on Sunday. Both times he spoke of concerns about his health and happiness going forward.

He sounded worn out by the rigors of another long season and emotionally fatigued by the effort it takes to operate on the level he has for so long.

He sounded like a man who may have had enough.

"I think it's an inner feeling where you assess the price of what it takes to do and how much time you have left to live and live a life that you want to lead. And also, for myself, try and get in better health than I am now so I can lead an even better life," Jackson said last week. "Those are all things that I have to weigh. This career has been wonderful, but [it's also about] making the next one or the next phase in my life as meaningful as this has been."

We are trained to always think critically and cynically when a multimillion dollar coach or athlete speaks about his future in a contract year. We assume it's a negotiating tactic and that it's always about the money, even when everyone involved keeps telling us it's not.

But would a man so reverential about karma invoke his health and the suffering of a man battling cancer (George Karl) as a negotiating tactic? I doubt it.

Everything the Lakers have said, publicly and privately, indicates that despite rumblings of asking him for a pay cut all season, they've made it clear to Jackson they will meet his financial goal, should he decide to return.

"I think making a deal would be an easy part of the decision," Kupchak said. "With this organization, his ties to this organization, and our respect for him, I can't see a circumstance where there's not a deal made that is fair."

Another Lakers source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Jackson met with team owner Jerry Buss before leaving for Montana and came away confident in the Lakers' willingness to pay him a fair salary.

"It's really not the money," the source said. "Phil really just has to decide in his mind if he's going to coach again. He loves these players, but this takes so much out of you, and you really have to be mentally into it."

This regular season was uncommonly hard for Jackson. Though physically he said he felt no worse than last year or even before that, there was an untold emotional drain from going through the season without longtime assistant coach Kurt Rambis and longtime mentor Tex Winter.

Besides being one of Jackson's closest friends, Rambis had taken on increased responsibility in recent years. When he left to coach the Minnesota Timberwolves last summer, the Lakers did not fill his position, spreading his work around to the rest of the staff.

All of this is in his head and his heart as he sits by his lake this week, thinking and feeling, weighing his fate. He's tired now. The season was long. But it always feels that way this time of year. Time usually recharges him. The addiction to winning and competition, like adrenaline, carries him through another year.

Most people around the Lakers organization believe he will return, that his love for the game is too deep, that he just needs to sleep off the fatigue.

"I don't think he'd ever admit to being a prisoner of the game, but as I said, it's in his blood as a competitor," Kupchak said recently. "It does get ingrained into who you are and control your life, and maybe that's something he's not comfortable with."

Phil Jackson has never been exactly what anyone expected him to be. In the mid-1980s, after he left the Albany Patroons of the CBA, he took a career aptitude test. The four jobs that suited him best: housekeeper, trail guide, counselor and lawyer. Hall of Fame basketball coach did not make the list and yet that is what he became over the next three decades.

Whenever he decides to leave the game, he will do it on his terms. With eyes clear and a heart unburdened.

He will do it his way, as he always has; one last irreverent tip for the road.

Ramona Shelburne is a writer and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.

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