EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Phil Jackson thinks he is just about ready to walk away from his unparalleled NBA coaching career. The Los Angeles Lakers are all hoping he will change his mind in the next week.
The 11-time NBA champion coach said Wednesday he is leaning toward retirement. After a full season of speculation on his health and future, Jackson will wait for the results of another battery of medical tests before informing Lakers owner Jerry Buss of his final decision late next week.
The 64-year-old Jackson is the most successful coach in league history by almost any measure, with a .705 regular-season winning percentage, a record 225 postseason victories and two more titles than Boston’s Red Auerbach. His Lakers beat the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the NBA finals last week to claim their second straight title, and Jackson sounds increasingly interested in going out on top.
“Some of it’s about health,” Jackson said. “Some of it is just the way I feel right now. I’ve had vacillating feelings about it. It’s hard not to feel like coming back when you … have an opportunity to coach a team that’s this good, but it’s what I feel like right now.”
Jackson will drive to his offseason home in Montana this weekend. He didn’t attend the Lakers’ victory parade through downtown Los Angeles on Monday, instead undergoing tests on a body with two replaced hips, a sore knee requiring a brace under his suit during the season, and a previous heart problem. These accumulated woes and the NBA’s onerous travel schedule have prompted retirement thoughts for several years.
After a second day of exit interviews at their training complex, the Lakers uniformly said they want Jackson with them next season, with Kobe Bryant claiming the club would be “drastically different” without Jackson’s steady, cerebral presence on the sideline. Yet Jackson mostly has kept the Lakers in the dark about his plans, with even general manager Mitch Kupchak saying he had “no idea” what Jackson’s future holds.
“We all want him back,” Bryant said Wednesday. “He knows that. I’ve stressed it to him over and over. … I don’t even want to think about that right now. It’s killing my buzz.”
Kupchak knows the difficulty in replacing a coach with Jackson’s abilities and respect. The GM said the Lakers would be willing to wait until late July for an answer from Jackson, and he believes a new contract wouldn’t be difficult to hammer out if Jackson still is interested in coaching.
“He’s got a process that he needs to go through,” Kupchak said. “He knows he’s wanted here with this team. I think he’s been assured of that in his meetings with players. He’s got a couple of medical appointments here in the next day or two, and hopefully we get word some time next week that he wants to continue to coach.”
Jackson claimed his inclination to leave the Lakers isn’t about money or dissatisfaction with the organization. The Lakers and Jackson both have downplayed the importance of widespread rumors suggesting the Lakers want Jackson to take a pay cut after finishing up the richest coaching contract in the sport, which paid him more than $12 million and a reported $2 million bonus for winning the title this year.
Jackson claims he mostly wants to get away from the grind of NBA travel, particularly after three straight trips to the finals. The renaissance man and author of “Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior” has many interests beyond basketball, saying he might write another book or go on a lecture tour.
Yet even while listing all the reasons he should walk away, Jackson betrayed reluctance. He’s intrigued about going for a third consecutive championship for the fourth time in his career.
“My intention was that if we won the second time, to go for a threepeat would be natural,” Jackson said. “It would be tough not to go for another championship in that threepeat realm, which is ridiculous. That’s one of those things that’s sitting out there that’s still a fly in the ointment.”
If the Lakers lose Jackson, his job likely would be among the most coveted in sports. Bryant, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom and Ron Artest are locked into long-term contracts with the Lakers, who might have their pick from a list of candidates that could include Lakers assistant coach Brian Shaw, former Lakers guard Byron Scott and veteran coach Jeff Van Gundy.
Playoff star Derek Fisher will be a free agent next week, but Kupchak said Wednesday the Lakers are eager to re-sign the veteran point guard.
“We’ve had a special group these last three years,” said Fisher, who will listen to offers from other teams, but definitely hopes to stay in Los Angeles. “Sometimes it’s hard to maintain the fun aspects of what you try to do, (but) we had an interesting team, and we were able to enjoy the process while doing what it takes to become champions.”
Yet Bryant said the Lakers derive much of their character and attitude from Jackson, whose triangle offense and steady leadership have been hallmarks of the Lakers’ five titles and seven NBA finals appearances over the past 11 years.
After a playing career with the New York Knicks and a coaching stint in the CBA, Jackson won his first NBA title in his second season running Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, who eventually won three straight titles from 1991-93 and again from 1996-98.
After a year off, he immediately led the underachieving Lakers to three straight championships from 2000-02, meshing the egos and talents of Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal to re-establish the Lakers as an NBA power. Los Angeles also made the NBA finals in 2004, but lost to Detroit. Jackson then took another year off before returning to the Lakers’ bench.
The Lakers have reached the last three NBA finals, losing to Boston in 2008 before routing the Orlando Magic last year for their 15th title. Jackson also became the winningest coach in Lakers history earlier this season, surpassing Pat Riley with his 534th victory in early February.
“The older you get, the more you understand his methods and philosophies to the point now where we’re so much on the same page,” said Bryant, who soon will head to Africa for the World Cup. “I think that has a lot to do with me growing as a player.”
Jackson’s career record is 1,098-460, winning at least 55 games in 15 of his 19 seasons.