Coach could move to another Lakers job

Updated: June 21, 2004, 10:51 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

The Zen Master is stepping down as coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. Phil Jackson, one of the most successful coaches in NBA history, won't return to lead the Lakers next season.

Jackson, who won three straight championships with the team, agreed with Lakers owner Jerry Buss to end his tenure as coach, the team said in a statement.

"In my opinion Phil is the best coach in the history of the NBA and he did a phenomenal job for us these past five years, for which I am very grateful," Buss stated in a release from the team. "Not only did he help lead us to three more championships, but he helped the Lakers regain our status as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, franchises in all of sports. In addition to his success on the court, Phil was also a pleasure to deal with off the court."

Buss offered Jackson another position with the organization, which Jackson will decide whether to accept in the near future, the team said.

"The experience of the past five years has been great," Jackson said. "Three rings and a fourth opportunity makes this a bittersweet ending, but it's time to pause and reflect. I'm appreciative of all the Lakers, the organization, the fans and Dr. Buss."

Jackson's agent, Todd Musburger, told ESPN's David Aldridge in a telephone conversation Friday evening that while he expects to field offers for Jackson to coach in the NBA next season, he does not expect Jackson to accept any.

"I don't think there's a position out there that would be just right for him," Musburger said. "I suppose I should never say never ... but this is a great opportunity for him to take a breather and I think he'll do it. He had a great year off after he left the Bulls" after the team's sixth NBA title in 1998.

Jackson leaving as coach was expected even before he met with Lakers owner Jerry Buss on Friday after participating in season-ending interviews with several players earlier in the day.

Also expected was Kobe Bryant's decision to become an unrestricted free agent, opting out of his contract. Less so was Shaquille O'Neal's request for a trade, which ESPN.com's Marc Stein learned of Friday night.

Jackson's five-year, $30 million contract expires at the end of the month. He was discussing a contract extension, but the Lakers broke off talks in February until after the season.

Jackson is well-known for his offbeat coaching style and motivational ploys, from practicing Zen philosophy to urging his players to meditate and buying them books for long road trips.

Jackson joined the Lakers in June 1999, and coached them to their first championship in 12 years in his first season. Two more titles followed, giving Jackson nine to tie him with former Boston coach Red Auerbach for the most in NBA history.

The Lakers were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs by eventual champion San Antonio last year and reached the NBA Finals this year before losing to the Detroit Pistons.

In 14 seasons as a head coach, Jackson is 832-316 for a .725 winning percentage -- best in NBA history. His 175 playoff wins are the most ever and his .717 postseason winning percentage is also tops.

Jackson, 58, coached the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls to championships in 1992-94 and 1996-98. Jackson then took a year off before becoming coach of the Lakers. His teams in Chicago and Los Angeles had a 9-0 record in the NBA Finals before this year.

Among names mentioned already as possible successors are former Houston Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich, former Seattle SuperSonics and Milwaukee Bucks coach George Karl, and current Southern California coach Henry Bibby.

Aldridge is reporting that the Lakers already have contacted Bibby and are expected to contact Tomjanovich.

Other possibilities could be current Lakers assistants Jim Cleamons and Kurt Rambis. Jackson succeeded Rambis five years ago.

There could be several more changes to follow.

Musburger hinted to Aldridge that Jackson wasn't pleased that talks never resurfaced. Asked whether his client was relieved that his future had been resolved, Musburger said, "I don't think I'd use that word. [Jackson]'s a competitor. The gleam is still in his eye. When you're so good at something and you've had the success like he has, it takes an awful lot for you to say that you're not coming back."

There could be several more changes to follow for the Lakers.

Karl Malone has already opted out of his contract, although he hopes to play for the Lakers if healthy. Gary Payton and Derek Fisher could follow Bryant and Malone and opt out of their deals.

General manager Mitch Kupchak made clear the team's priorities Thursday when he said the Lakers would do anything they need to keep Bryant and would try to accommodate O'Neal if he demands a trade.

Apparently upset over Kupchak's remarks, O'Neal canceled his exit interview. O'Neal, who has been one of Jackson's biggest supporters, is under contract for two more years but could opt out after next season.

Jackson seemed in good spirits as he left the Lakers' practice facility for the last time as the team's coach -- before his meeting with Buss.

Asked whether he was looking forward to meeting with his boss, Jackson smiled and replied: "Oh, yeah."

Buss' daughter, Jeanie, Jackson's longtime girlfriend and the Lakers' executive vice president of business operations, said earlier this month she believed there was a 95 percent chance Jackson would return as coach.

She proved to be wrong.

Jackson said after the Lakers' 100-87 loss to the Pistons on Tuesday night that there was "a pretty slim chance" he would coach the team next season.

He proved to be correct.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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