Commentary

Is this really the end for Phil Jackson?

Updated: May 9, 2011, 6:36 PM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

I've heard Rick Carlisle's very valid theory about how all the peyote in Montana, all those tranquil streams in Phil Jackson's home state, won't spare the NBA's ring king from eventual boredom.

I know that Mavericks owner Mark Cuban stopped Jackson when the Zen Master, with his usual smug smirk, tried to shuffle off the floor after the Mavericks' stunning sweep, urging him not to walk away from the NBA because "we still need you."

And I tried to buy in during the past week when no fewer than three trusted Phil-watchers, with these Lakers already halfway to getting broomed into uncertainty, insisted to ESPN.com that the ugly nature of the two-time champs' demise would make it more likely -- not less -- that Jackson will want to coach again.

But I don't see it.

I can't see that the undeniably sentimental lure of coaching the Knicks, in the same hallowed building as his mentor, Red Holzman, would be strong enough to bring Jackson back this time.

He looks too tired of it all, to me, to be refreshed by another one-season sabbatical, as he was back in 2004 when the Detroit Pistons sent him away in a similarly humbling manner, only for the Lakers to beg Jackson to return in 2005-06 because Kobe Bryant couldn't win without him.

At various points this season, Jackson, 65, spoke of his struggles to reach his players as effectively as he used to, mostly because of the age gap. The Lakers' stunning 6-11 record since April 1 -- and the lost look they wore from the moment their 16-point lead in Game 1 got sliced away so quickly -- sure seems to back that up.

Maybe that's because, as Jackson half-jokingly said right before the playoffs started, various Lakers have treated him "as a lame duck" this season. The way L.A. eased up in that fatal Game 1, lost its way in the triangle offense and ultimately lost its sense of professionalism and class in Sunday's sweeping finale further support the idea that Jackson's players found it hard to tune in to someone they knew wouldn't be around much longer.

"It's the elephant in the living room," Jackson said of his forthcoming retirement on the eve of the playoffs.

"Or in the bedroom, depending on where you want to put that elephant."

As Jackson went on to note, there was a b-i-g difference between L.A.'s bid for a three-peat and the circumstances surrounding the so-called "Last Dance" in Chicago in 1998, because it became clear during that 1997-98 season that Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen also would be leaving. In the Lakers' case, only Jackson is retirement-bound. You can safely assume that L.A.'s roster won't stay intact with or without him, but no one knows quite what those changes will be yet. Jackson is the only one leaving by choice.

Furthermore ...

With those 11 rings in his possession and a closet full of fishing poles waiting back in Big Sky Country, Jackson didn't exactly leave you with the impression that he was too broken up by how quickly L.A. came apart again after cannoning out of the All-Star break on a 17-1 wave. Surely you noticed how strangely relieved he sounded at the interview podium when it was all over, even after getting swept for the first time, saying: "It feels good that we ended the season, to be honest with you."

The signs were there early in the Dallas series, too. One forgetful reporter (me) asked him before Game 2 whether he had named this final run with the Lakers as he did in '98 with the Bulls when he hatched the Last Dance.

"No, I haven't," Jackson said.

Then he added: "I think I did, but I forgot."

Various Lakers beat writers in the room then quickly reminded Jackson that he's been calling it the "Last Stand" since this past summer, when he ignored his own instincts and signed on for one last season.

I hope I'm wrong here, because this league is way more fun for media-row gnats like me when Jackson is zinging everyone, as he did all season, thoroughly unconcerned about the fines or fallout.

I hope one of the Phil-watchers I consulted is absolutely right when he chides me for thinking that the prospect of dealing with New York's far-more-suffocating media madness, compared to L.A.'s, will help keep him away.

That's probably true, actually. The Zen Master was practically inviting criticism of his insistence that Pau Gasol could guard Dirk Nowitzki and his trademark resistance to making defensive adjustments from game to game -- "That's all right," Jackson said, "I can take it" -- because he never hears us. He's masterful when it comes to tuning out everything being said on the outside. Especially from us media geniuses.

But even if I'm wrong -- even if/when the Knicks come chasing Jackson again with megabucks as James Dolan has before -- there is the grind and the travel and the day-to-day hassles of a nine-month season that take so much out of that battered body at his age.

Hip surgery. Back surgery. Heart surgery. Jackson has endured it all. That physical toll is what's bound to keep him away more than anything, no matter how antsy boredom eventually makes him.

"It's health," TNT's Steve Kerr said, explaining why he'd be "shocked" to see his old Chicago coach take one more job.

"It's health, not motivation."

Said Lakers assistant coach Jim Cleamons, who's worked with Jackson for years: "I think he's made his mind up that this is his last year. So if this is the way it ends, this is the way it ends. We've certainly done our share of winning. There's two sides to the coin. Sometimes it is bittersweet. But life goes on."

Just a hunch: Jackson will cope just fine in real life. Unseemly as this series was as a sendoff, amid cries that Jackson lost these guys on top of the flagrant foul fest, there will be zero lasting damage to his legacy.

Tears for Phil are also in short supply, because no one can expect to have the privilege of coaching Michael, Kobe and Shaquille O'Neal and the ability to generate sympathy when his star-laden teams flame out. But let's not get it twisted: Jackson's 11 championships on the bench beat John Wooden (10) and Red Auerbach (nine).

You don't win that many rings without doing plenty of coaching. No matter who struts back onto the floor out of the huddles.

"Impeccable to me," Lakers forward Pau Gasol said of Jackson's legacy, putting aside his own Dallas nightmare.

"Everything he got, he deserved. Amazing coach. I had the honor to be coached by him and learned a lot from him."


Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics

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