Jackson: No desire to return to Bulls
Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson, meeting with reporters in Phoenix before Game 4 of the Western Conference finals, announced Tuesday night that he has no interest in a second stint coaching the Chicago Bulls.
But Jackson also repeatedly passed on the opportunity to commit to a Lakers-or-retirement stance for next season and quash rising speculation about his future plans.
"I have no, at all, desire to go back to Chicago and coach the Bulls," Jackson said, responding to an ESPN.com report from Monday night that the Bulls had reached out to Jackson through back channels to gauge his interest in a return.
Interest in Jackson from teams planning to chase LeBron James in free agency is the latest wrinkle in James' highly anticipated foray onto the open market July 1, which is already dominating discussion leaguewide after Cleveland's second-round elimination.
Earlier Tuesday, ESPN.com reported that the New Jersey Nets had made similar back-channel inquiries to assess the possibility of luring Jackson away from Los Angeles to enhance their appeal to James, with Lakers owner Jerry Buss determined to reduce Jackson's $12 million annual salary.
"Those channels have not reached me," Jackson said, insisting that he has "not entertained any conversations" about coaching elsewhere.
Asked specifically about New Jersey, Jackson joked that he'd like to "have a vodka" with new Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, saying Prokhorov seems "like a very interesting young man." But Jackson added that he is likewise not interested in coaching the Nets, pointing out that he has never lived in Brooklyn or Newark.
Jackson, however, said he couldn't go any farther than insisting that "the probabilities are great" that he'll be back on the Lakers' bench next season.
When asked at Tuesday night's pregame news conference if he'd either be with the Lakers or home in retirement come October, Jackson said: "Home is where the heart is, right?"
When asked later why he was being cagey, Jackson joked: "I've always had problems committing."
Told by one reporter that he could shut down all the speculation right now, Jackson said: "I'll leave it open and just say, as of now, I have not made up my mind about coaching or not coaching next year. ... That's all I can say really. Truthfully."
"I just can't imagine [coaching another team]," Jackson continued. "Not to say that it's beyond your wildest dreams, [or] that it never would happen, [because] the strangest things do. But it's just not part of my conscious thought. Right now we're down this path [against] Phoenix."
After 11 seasons and two championships as a player with the New York Knicks, Jackson's first coaching experience came with the Nets during the final two seasons of his active career in 1978-79 and 1979-80, when he served as a player-assistant under Kevin Loughery. He went on to win six championships in nine seasons coaching the Bulls from 1989-90 through 1997-98.
ESPN.com reported Monday night that, while there had been no direct contact between Bulls officials and Jackson, sources close to both parties had spoken and come away with the belief that Jackson would be open to a potential reunion in Chicago next season.
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Bulls general manager Gar Forman refused to comment on the club's coaching search when reached Monday night by telephone.
Nets president Rod Thorn, meanwhile, denied any form of contact with Jackson in an interview Tuesday afternoon with AOL Fanhouse. And Lakers spokesman John Black told the Los Angeles Times that the team is not aware of Jackson being contacted for any coaching vacancy.
"Not to my understanding," Black told the newspaper. "Obviously, if they were to contact him, it would be tampering."
Said Thorn to Fanhouse: "It's not true. We've never approached him. We haven't made any backdoor dealings or whatever it was called."
Asked if the Nets would pursue Jackson should he leave Los Angeles at season's end to become a coaching free agent, Thorn said: "I anticipate he's going to stay with the Lakers. He's got a great situation there."
Earlier Tuesday, ESPN.com reported that the Nets privately acknowledge the long-shot nature of tempting Jackson away from L.A., given the 64-year-old's insistence earlier this month that he's "90 percent" certain he'll coach the Lakers if he coaches anywhere next season. Yet sources with knowledge of New Jersey's thinking have maintained for weeks that Prokhorov is determined to make the splashiest hire he can to enhance the Nets as part of the quest to sign marquee free agents such as James.
Chicago, meanwhile, is on the verge of its most pivotal offseason since the Michael Jordan era, when Jordan and Jackson led the club to separate three-peats from the 1990-1991 through 1992-93 seasons and the 1995-96 through 1997-1998 seasons.
With roughly $23 million to spend in free agency, Chicago is widely regarded as the biggest threat to Cleveland's hopes of re-signing James. The Ohio native is intrigued by the possibility of playing with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, according to sources, and if any team managed to unite the coach with a record 10 championship rings and the league's two-time reigning MVP, Jackson would have the unprecedented opportunity to have coached Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal and James.
The Bulls and Nets are two of six teams in the league with a coaching vacancy, along with New Orleans, Atlanta, Cleveland and the Los Angeles Clippers.
Jackson publicly acknowledged last week before the Lakers' Game 2 victory over Phoenix in the Western Conference finals that Buss wants him to take a pay cut from the $12 million salary he's receiving this season. Should Jackson decide to leave the Lakers and opt for retirement -- despite the fact that longtime girlfriend Jeanie Buss is the owner's daughter and a Lakers vice president -- it's a given that other teams will attempt to convince him to keep coaching, depending on which clubs have openings at that stage.
The focus on Jackson's uncertain future has steadily increased in L.A. over the past two months, especially since his two best players -- Bryant and Pau Gasol -- signed contract extensions during the season.
Jackson's address Tuesday, however, marked the second time this month that he publicly shot down the idea of coaching the Bulls again. In early May after Vinny Del Negro's firing, Jackson said: "No, I'm not [interested]. I think it's a wonderful job for whoever takes it. It's a team on the rise and there's some young talent that showed their ability to come back after probably a devastating first two months. Then from January on they played pretty well."
The Nets' association with Jackson certainly doesn't compare to what he achieved with the Bulls, but Prokhorov's presence and presumed willingness to pay top dollar would seemingly give New Jersey -- along with Cleveland's free-spending owner Dan Gilbert -- more hope of meeting Jackson's salary demands than the Bulls, who are regarded leaguewide as reluctant spenders.
With the help of part owner Jay-Z, one of James' closest friends, New Jersey intends to pursue James as hard as Chicago in free agency despite last week's disappointment in the draft lottery. The Nets, after going 12-70, only landed the No. 3 overall pick and lost the opportunity to draft Kentucky's John Wall, another James pal. But New Jersey realizes, like the Bulls and Cavaliers, that prying Jackson away from L.A. could be as valuable in the recruitment process as signing another marquee free agent to play alongside James.
Thorn, though, told the Newark Star-Ledger in Tuesday's editions that he has yet to schedule an interview for New Jersey's coaching opening. When the Nets finally complete the fact-finding phase of their coaching search, Thorn told the newspaper he intends to interview "four to six" candidates, with sources saying that ESPN analyst Avery Johnson and Boston Celtics assistant coach Tom Thibodeau are already on that list. The Star-Ledger reported that the Nets are also likely to reach out to Mike Brown, who was fired Monday as coach of the Cavaliers.
The New Orleans Hornets have made a formal offer to Thibodeau, known as the architect of Boston's stout defense, sources with knowledge of the talks said Tuesday.
In his Fanhouse interview, Thorn dismissed the link to Jackson by saying: "There's been a lot of publicity about our new owner and that we want to have a good team and we want to be in the hunt [and] that we're willing to do a lot of things monetarily."
It remains to be seen how much of a pay cut Jackson is willing to accept for next season and how much pressure Jerry Buss will feel to bring him back, with so much invested in a star-filled roster that also features Lamar Odom and the unpredictable Ron Artest alongside Bryant and Gasol. Whether the Lakers can repeat as champions will also be a factor, as one source close to the situation acknowledged Tuesday that the owner-coach tension will only rise if L.A. fails to win it all.
Jackson, though, insisted that the ongoing uncertainty about how much longer he'll be coaching the Lakers is not affecting his team in this series with Phoenix, even though L.A. has been dragged into a 2-2 tie thanks to two losses in Phoenix after looking invincible at home.
"It"s not a distraction," Jackson said. "Not to me. Not to the players, either."
Jackson scoffed at the idea that he should be flattered by the increasing links to various jobs and added: "It's a distraction, I think, to other teams and I think a disservice to coaches that are really seeking jobs and have an opportunity to go to those towns."
Information from ESPNChicago reporter Nick Friedell, ESPNLos Angeles reporter Dave McMenamin and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics