- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 15, 2005

LOS ANGELES — Phil and Kobe, together again.

Phil Jackson was back with the Los Angeles Lakers yesterday following a breakup that took a year to mend and back to coaching Kobe Bryant — a player he once called “uncoachable.”

“This is something I never thought could possibly happen,” Jackson said at a Staples Center press conference. “It’s a pleasure to come back.”

Jackson, who won three championships with the Lakers in five years, was let go last June18 by owner Jerry Buss.

The buzz about Jackson’s possible return began almost immediately after his replacement, Rudy Tomjanovich, left in February — despite Jackson’s book detailing the 2003-04 season in which he made disparaging remarks about the franchise, including saying his superstar guard was “uncoachable.”

“I think it’s a matter of trust, a matter of rebuilding the trust that we had,” Jackson said of his relationship with Bryant. “And yes, I have talked to Kobe; he actually called me this morning to congratulate me on the job. And I felt confident that he’s confident that we can go forward.”

Bryant’s reaction to a possible return by Jackson seemed lukewarm at best during the past several months. But Bryant released a more positive statement through his agent.

“When the Lakers began the search for a new head coach, I put my complete trust in Dr. Buss and [general manager] Mitch Kupchak to select the person they thought was best for the Lakers’ organization,” Bryant said. “In Phil Jackson, they chose a proven winner. That is something I support.”

Jackson’s latest deal is for three years. Terms were not announced, but it’s believed he will earn between $7 million and $10 million a year, which would make him the highest-paid NBA coach ever.

Jeanie Buss, the owner’s daughter and the Lakers’ executive vice president of business operations, publicly lobbied for months for the return of Jackson, her longtime boyfriend.

Jerry Buss said in early May he believed Jackson and Bryant could coexist.

“Oh, definitely. No question,” Buss said. “These people want to win.”

Jackson, who turns 60 in September, has had health issues and underwent an angioplasty two years ago. He told ABC before the opening game of the NBA Finals that he had a series of tests showing he was “100 percent healthy.”

Jackson’s dismissal a year ago set in motion a makeover of massive proportions that proved disastrous for the Lakers. Dominant big man Shaquille O’Neal demanded a trade and superstar Bryant opted out of his contract to become a free agent the same day Jackson’s five-year run as coach ended.

The following month, O’Neal was traded to Miami, while Bryant stayed with the Lakers.

Tomjanovich succeeded Jackson, signing a five-year, $30 million contract, but lasted barely half a season, citing health reasons when he suddenly resigned Feb. 2.

With injuries playing a major role, the Lakers lost 19 of their last 21 games under interim coach Frank Hamblen to finish 34-48 and out of the playoffs for just the second time since 1976.

Jackson has coached nine NBA championship teams, including six with the Chicago Bulls. That ties him with former Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach for the most in league history.

The current Lakers are well over the salary cap, restricting their ability to bring in high-priced free agent talent for at least two years.

“I’m not the panacea for this basketball club,” Jackson said. “It’s going to take plenty of hard work and dedication over the course of the summer to change the face of this team.”

Jackson spoke to several other teams, including the New York Knicks, but made it clear he would make a decision on the Lakers’ job before giving serious consideration to anyone else.

Jackson’s decision to rejoin the Lakers should speed up the process of filling other job openings around the league. There are coaching vacancies in Minnesota and Portland, and Seattle coach Nate McMillan’s contract expires at the end of this month.

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