Through Phil Jackson's eyes
A get-together with reporters turns into a beautiful self-examination of man and career
PORTLAND, Ore. -- Phil Jackson is retiring as the Los Angeles Lakers head coach at the end of the season.
And he's staying retired this time.
There's no reason to read the tea leaves any more, Jackson made clear to a small group of reporters while sipping a cocktail on the eighth floor of a downtown Portland hotel Thursday evening.
"I've kind of prepared for retiring in the last two seasons," Jackson said. "Everybody says they don't believe I'm not coming back I've kind of anticipated retiring."
Shortly after the Lakers' epic Game 7 championship victory over the Celtics in June, Jackson told reporters he was "leaning" toward retiring. He told Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak something much stronger.
"You better plan on something besides this," Jackson recalled saying.
Owner Jerry Buss had already convinced him to come back before the 2008-09 season, offering him a two-year extension. Jackson, 62 at the time, had always planned on leaving the game before the age of 60, so he would only agree to add one year at a time.
Two championships later, Buss' salary offer to get Jackson to come back was nearly a 33 percent pay cut from the $12.5 million he made last year as he led the Lakers to the ring -- his unprecedented 11th as an NBA head coach.
The money was only a small part of it, though. His hips and knees were making it so hard on him that on one occasion during the 2009 playoffs, he couldn't even walk up a couple of stairs onto the podium that was set up for a press conference. He opted to stand off to the side of the stage and field questions from there instead.
Then there was the growing communication gap between the 65-year-old Jackson and some of this 20-something players. Not just tomayto-tomahto, either. Jackson said earlier in the week it's more along the lines of, "You say 'Twitter,' I sing the chorus to 'Rockin' Robin' -- Tweetley Deedley Dee."
Not to mention that the cross-country flights and late nights weren't helping things much.
"That's one of the best things about leaving," Jackson said. "It's very unhealthy. We're eating at midnight a lot of times on planes because we're going to be up until three in the morning and we haven't had anything to eat since three in the afternoon or something. It's a real unhealthy lifestyle, and I think that's a good reason to get out of the game in some ways, too."
It took phone calls and text messages from Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher to change his thinking. Jackson said his co-captains' pleas were "persuasive enough" to stick a stop under the door before he could shut it once and for all.
But for the man who rallied his players together in Chicago in 1997-98 by calling it their "last dance," and who later published a book titled "The Last Season" when he first left the Lakers in 2004, his self proclaimed "last stand" in 2010-11 really is the end.
"I knew if I came back this time, this was it," Jackson said.
It's impossible to pick a lone highlight from the 80-minute reflection session Jackson had with the seven traveling beat reporters, just like it was impossible for Jackson to choose his favorite championship out of the 11 he's won in his 20 years of coaching. (He picked the '98 Bulls and the 2001 and '02 Lakers titles as ones that stood out.)
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And one thing impossible to ignore is the fact that Jackson's career has been blessed by the presence of stars. Three Hall of Famers in Chicago in Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman, and two more surefire first-ballot ones in Shaquille O'Neal and Bryant in Los Angeles.
So, if it wasn't the highlight of the interview, it was certainly a moment that sent a charge through the room when Jackson was asked about Jordan and Bryant.
"I brought them together," Jackson said, recalling a meeting he arranged during the 2000-01 season. He wanted Jordan to help him get through to the young Bryant.
"To get him to understand that he doesn't have to stray outside the offense," Jackson said.
That day, Bryant didn't stray from the opportunity to talk trash to his idol.
"'I can take you one-on-one,' was the first thing he said,'" Jackson recalled.
"Mike said, 'You probably can. I'm 39 and you're 21,' or something like that [Then] he just conveyed to Kobe that there was a time for that and to wait 'til the game presents itself."
Jordan and Bryant have stayed connected through the years, using Jackson as a conduit for many conversations. Jackson said they all got together in the visitors' locker room after the game when the Lakers played in Charlotte last year, meaning there could be a fly buzzing around Time Warner Cable Arena that's glad it picked that wall to land on last March.
When Jackson first entered the private room the hotel calls "The Library" on Thursday night, he immediately reached out a long arm from his 6-foot-8 frame to grab a book resting on a top shelf in the cozy space filled with dark wood, leather couches, a pool table and bookshelves that lined the walls from the floor to the ceiling.
He flipped through a few pages of "The English Philosophers from Bacon to Mill," placed it back on the shelf, took a seat and shared how he shaped his own coaching philosophy.
His high school coach, Robert Peterson, taught him that the game should remain fun and used to slowly cut practice time from 90 minutes in the beginning of the season down to 45 minutes by the end -- a method Jackson still uses.
His college coach at the University of North Dakota, Bill Fitch, was a "brutalizing, physical coach," Jackson said. "He would run you until you collapsed. He would always challenge how far you could go." So Jackson picked up the expectation for his teams to be in the very best of shape.
His NBA coach, Red Holzman in New York, taught him to "never get too high, never get too low." Even Kevin Loughery -- whom Jackson served a brief stint as an assistant under with the New Jersey Nets -- taught him drills that he still implements in his Lakers practice sessions some 30 years later.
He's had other coaches from all different sports and from places all over the world come to him to try to glean some of his coaching wisdom to take back to their teams -- St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa and the New York Yankees' Joe Girardi among them -- but he's never been too tight with basketball's coaching inner circle.
He remembered when he and friend Charley Rosen paid $25 apiece to attend a coaching clinic in New Paltz, N.Y., back in the day. Bobby Knight was the featured speaker.
The man who would go on to win the most games in NCAA Division I basketball history didn't do much for the man who would go on to win the most championships in NBA history.
"He got off on the DEA -- the Drug Enforcement Agency. He started talking about if he was running the Drug Enforcement Agency; he was going to be blowing these ships out of the water. He started going off on tangents that had nothing to do with basketball," Jackson recalled. "Then they broke for lunch, Charley and I played one-on-one half-court and we left. We figured we had to get something out of it.
"I got a taste for that stuff and I thought, 'This is really bulls---.'"
Jackson had a keen connection to the game and an inherent ability to teach it, but he needed to do it his own way.
Which brings us back to the pool table in "The Library." Upon seeing the table, Jackson told the reporters how he grew up playing the game, but when he became older and could afford to buy one, he went with a snooker table instead. "A pool table was too common," Jackson said.
Jackson was asked if there were five former players of his whom he would like to spend a day or two with when he's finished coaching and has the time, and he quickly replied that there would be 25.
He didn't mention any of his former charges he plans on steering clear of, but Phil being Phil, he enjoyed working in a zing or two. Attention, Smush Parker, Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar -- he kids because he loves.
He described the "check off" policy he and Kukoc had with one another.
"As long as he looked at me and we checked off that 'Yeah, I made a mistake,' that's what's coaching's about," Jackson said. "You know that I know and I know that you know that there's a mistake made and now, OK, it's not about having to punish them or anything else like that. You don't have to yell at them; you don't have to jerk them out of the game and bitch at them."
That's how he handled Artest last season in the playoffs, leaving him in the game in crunch-time situations despite Artest's erratic reputation and being rewarded for his faith in his small forward.
"He's a Zen master, so he can speak to you and he doesn't need a microphone; you can hear him in your head: 'Ron, don't shoot, don't shoot,' whatever, pow, 3," Artest said after Game 7 of the Finals against Boston when he was kept in the game when it got tight late and came through with a backbreaking 3-pointer. "I love the Zen, though."
Said Jackson: "Ron is right. He knew I was controlling him from where I was sitting, even though I didn't say anything and I didn't move. I was like, 'Ron, do the right thing.'
"As a coach you want to see the players do the right thing out there on the floor. You're using mind control in a certain sense."
The outfit Jackson wore Thursday night summed up the limbo his life is in as he approaches the final two-month march of an NBA career that started more than 40 years ago when he was drafted by the Knicks in 1967. He wore jeans and a wool sweater, and on his feet were a pair of white Nikes and NBA logo socks.
While his clothes reflected the lifestyle shift he'll have to juggle, his future will hold an even more extreme juxtaposition of the West Coast versus the Midwest.
Jackson plans on spending next year split between his place in Playa del Rey, Calif., and his lakefront home in Montana that he said he's been prepping to live in full-time for the past 15 years. Now that he'll finally have the chance, he's not so sure that will happen. Four of his five children live in California, plus there's Jeanie Buss, his girlfriend, who will still be in L.A. as an executive with the Lakers. And don't forget those Montana winters.
"I couldn't live out there in the wintertime if I wanted to," Jackson said. "It's too dangerous. It's not the bears that go through my yard, and the moose. It's simply the weather. It's in the country. It's pretty inclement. My daughter, my kids go out there in the wintertime and ski. They say, 'Dad, you're not going to make this. It snowed 30 inches in the last three days.'"
He estimated he'll spend about 60 percent of his time in Los Angeles and 40 percent in Montana, or vice versa.
What he does with that time is still a mystery. But don't bet on him sitting in front of a TV, seeing how the Lakers are doing every game. When he was away from the Lakers in 2004 for what he likes to call his "sabbatical" season, he says, "I got out. I didn't want to watch."
He's more likely to check in to see how La Russa or Girardi's teams are doing.
"I watch baseball while I'm cooking dinner on Sunday nights."
Jackson wants to leave the game of basketball better than he found it.
His coaching tree may be limited because he chose not to pledge basketball's unofficial coaching fraternity, and the triangle will never be run by as many teams that rely on the pick-and-roll as their primary source of offense, but he has messages both big and small he wants the league to listen to.
First, the small stuff.
Allowing a team to advance the ball three-quarters of the way down the court to the timeline when they call timeout under their own basket? "That's a gift," Jackson said.
Lining the top of the backboard with strobe lights that go off at key moments around the rim to enhance photographs being taken and causing officials to miss calls when blinded by the light? "The NBA allows this to happen. It just drives me crazy that they put their own referees in jeopardy," Jackson said. "It's just a natural reaction -- a flash of lights and you blink your eyes to protect yourself. It's a human reaction."
And, more importantly, the big stuff.
Basketball is described by Jackson as "a flow game," like soccer.
Anything taken away from that flow -- be it officials, timeouts, TV concessions or overuse of instant replay -- is taken away from the sport at its core.
"We can play the game at a level that's much more pure," Jackson said. "The thing that soccer's done is it's kept its commercial value and it hasn't lost the integrity of its game, and I don't know why we have to lose the integrity of our game to feed television. All this stuff we give up to television -- it's like we have to pay homage to television, when in Europe, soccer doesn't have to do that and it still gets the revenue, and more revenue than we do."
Another biggie: the lockout.
"Who knows what the NBA's going to look like after this year?" Jackson said. "I think there's some people pretty convinced there's not going to be a year next year."
If the labor dispute is helping to drive the most successful coach in NBA history away from the sport, just think what it will do to the casual fan.
With that point, the preacher's son was finished preaching.
Despite the imperfections of the game as is, he's still going to miss the heck out of it.
"There's no doubt that's a big, empty hole in your life," he said of the feeling he'll have without the game as his daily companion after this season.
There will be a big, empty chair on the sidelines as well.
Basketball without Phil Jackson just won't be the same.