Phil Jackson suppresses any nostalgia
Lakers' coach in no mood to reminisce at his possible last game at the Garden
NEW YORK -- He has said this will be his last stand, which means Friday was probably Phil Jackson's last dance in the Garden.
He was never a graceful player. Flying elbows and floor burns defined his 10 seasons with the Knicks. "Action Jackson," they called him. It was a term of endearment, not amazement.
Over the years, he has returned, mostly as a villain. An opposing coach who ended the home team's seasons more often than he prolonged them.
But on this night, perhaps his final one as an actor on basketball's biggest stage, he preferred a spot in the background.
He did not want a tribute on the big screen. A nostalgic serenade would not have been appreciated.
There was a game to be played. A last season to continue. Another championship to chase.
Although he couldn't keep them from bubbling up from his subconscious, he did not allow memories of the city where he grew into a man to occupy a large place in his thoughts Friday, before, during or after the Lakers' 113-96 victory.
"I'm not prone to that," he said simply. "Just riding on that elevator makes you think, 'I don't want to do this anymore.'"
He has danced with the question of retirement many times over the years. Twice he has said goodbye, only to discover a few months later he wasn't ready to leave for good.
This time is different, or so he says.
And perhaps most telling, this time the people around him are starting to believe him.
"It's definitely more real this time than it's been in the past," Lakers forward Luke Walton said.
On Thursday night in Boston, Kobe Bryant acknowledged that he might actually read the book Jackson gave him because "it's the last book."
What's amazing is how little anyone seems to be reacting to Jackson's impending retirement. After years of will-he-or-won't-he, of reading between the lines and letters of every statement he makes, the increasing certainty of his decision to live a life outside of basketball seems to have lessened what seemed at one time to be a monumental outcome.
"He literally hasn't brought it up once to us," Walton said. "I think it's more his philosophy of being in the moment and doing the task at hand. Of not drawing attention to something that's so far from our reach."
On Friday night, Jackson was almost dismissive of any questions about his future.
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He joked about the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which takes over the Garden every spring and leaves the stench of animals wafting through the hallways for weeks.
He briefly referenced the six playoff series his Bulls played in this building and the rumble of the court when the crowd really comes alive.
But he refused to even consider using his plans to retire as a motivational tool down the road.
"No, I don't think so," Jackson said. "I think there's obviously a 'Who's going to take over next year?' kind of thing that goes on with the team, but I don't think we're at that stage yet."
There's too much still to do. Sentimentality is an indulgence he can't yet allow himself.
So nostalgia over this final game in New York City was left for his friends.
Before the game, he gave a rare sit-down interview to former teammate Walt "Clyde" Frazier, who now is the Knicks' play-by-play man.
Jackson and Frazier came into the NBA together in 1967 as an odd pairing. Frazier was all flash and style, a star made for the New York City skyline. Jackson was a gangly kid from North Dakota who'd been raised by preachers.
They got along famously.
"He was cool when he got here," Frazier said. "He liked jazz and hung out at all the cool spots. I was like, 'How did that happen with this guy from North Dakota?'"
While Frazier blossomed into a superstar, Jackson became a well-liked role player who learned to get the most out of his physical abilities.
Injuries marred his playing career but might have jump-started his coaching career.
He missed the Knicks' 1969-70 championship season recovering from spinal surgery. But the year was not a waste, as Jackson sat alongside legendary coach Red Holzman, learning the game from one of its great architects.
Frazier did not notice the seeds sprouting in his friend at the time.
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"It surprised me when he got into coaching," Frazier said. "Because there were so many other things he liked to do and had an interest in.
"He liked to read, to do things. He'd always get me out of the room. We'd go around sightseeing in every city. L.A., San Francisco. I can sleep 18 hours a day, and I would've if not for him.
"He's just an adventurous and inquisitive mind."
It's this quality, maybe more than anything else, that seems to be pushing Jackson toward walking away from basketball for good after this season.
Although players and his assistant coaches say he is as competitive and engaged as ever, he clearly seems pulled toward a new reality.
What shape that will take is amorphous at the moment.
"I don't know what he's going to do," Frazier said. "And I don't think he knows what he's going to do. But I can tell he's looking forward to doing something else. Going to plays, doing other things."
Those are questions for another day.
Questions Jackson seems enticed by, not afraid of.
He also is determined not to make this a long goodbye. This season will be about the pursuit of another championship, not the end of his career.
Others can wax nostalgic for him.
"I was aware that this might be his last time here," Bryant said. "We always talk about stories. The building and when he played here. I could tell it means a lot to him, but he will never say it. He will never show it. But I'm sure it meant a lot to him."
Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.