Phil Jackson looks a little more worn these days, more than the last time he tried retirement, unretired and won a few more NBA championship rings.
He wearied of the season’s grind long ago, to say nothing of the mental wear and tear that comes with a coaching style based as much on pyschoanalysis as Xs and Os. It’s been a good run, he said Sunday, but now it’s time for the next generation of coaches to leave their imprint on the game.
So sometime soon, maybe as early as this week, he’ll retreat to the peace and quiet of Montana.
Don’t be surprised if it’s short term.
Jackson was able to harness the talents of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal because he was as relentless and driven as his stars. Going out with a loss will eventually gnaw at him _ if it hasn’t already. He loved the intellectual challenge of coaching as much as the game itself, and will quickly find that coming up with ways to outsmart fish isn’t nearly as satisfying.
Jackson isn’t Jerry Sloan, whose first hint of retirement came with the announcement he was actually doing it. He has talked about calling it quits so often _ and so publicly _ the last few years that his decision is practically part of the NBA calendar. That’s a sign of a man conflicted, not one who’s eager to walk away.
Even Sunday, after watching the Los Angeles Lakers self-destruct in one of the worst blowouts of his playoff career, Jackson didn’t close the door completely.
“Yes. This is,” he said when asked if this was it.
Then he stopped.
“In all my hopes and aspirations,” he said, “this is the final game that I’ll coach.”
Jackson had similar intentions in 1998 and 2004, and look what happened. He managed to stay away for all of one season each time.
He traveled the world after walking away from the Chicago Bulls following their second three-peat. He wrote a book, goofed around and took in a few tennis tournaments after a three-peat with Shaq and Kobe. But the further away he got from the game, the more enticing it became.
Even last summer, as much as he wanted to leave, he found he simply couldn’t.
“I came back this last year with some trepidation. Kobe’s knee was an issue and obviously our team was older. (But) the thrill of trying to chase a three-peat is always an exciting thing,” he said Sunday, the joy in his voice plain.
There’s no doubt Jackson is tired.
The former New York Knicks player is an old 65, with two replaced hips, a creaky knee and a previous heart problem. His slow, stuttery gait is painful to watch, and he’s taken to using a walking stick. The Lakers didn’t do much for his psyche, either, their maddening inconsistency on full display as they were swept out of the Western Conference semifinals, a first for a Jackson team.
He plans to split his time between Montana and Los Angeles, home to four of his five children and girlfriend Jeannie Buss, a Lakers executive and the boss’ daughter. But will it be enough?
When training camps open and the new season offers everyone a fresh start, will he wish he was there? Can he watch games without smirking or barking at referees? Will next year’s playoffs bring waves of nostalgia? Or regret? As the months off pile up and Jackson finds himself looking for new ways to occupy his time, will the game again be his answer?
He’ll certainly be at the top of the wish list for any team looking for a new coach. If the Carmelo Anthony experiment goes bad and the New York Knicks revert to their trainwreck ways, Jackson might find his old team hard to resist.
He’s always loved figuring out what makes each player tick, and using that to create unique motivational tactics. (How many other coaches hand-pick books for players and give them out.) Maybe he’d like to try his hand at building a team from scratch, becoming a general manager like Larry Bird or a personnel consultant.
Coaching a national team could be intriguing, too. It wouldn’t require the time commitment of the NBA, and he could spend months toying with how to adapt the Triangle Offense to the international game and teaching it to a new group of players.
Mike Krzyzewski has the USA Basketball gig locked up for the London Olympics, but Jackson could take on host Britain, which is trying to upgrade its program, or another European team. Maybe not Spain, though; he probably needs a break from Pau Gasol.
Don’t even rule out seeing Jackson back with the Lakers. Buss isn’t joining Jackson in retirement, and he’s already acknowledged their relationship will keep him involved with the team.
For Jackson, “the end” may simply may be another way of saying “to be continued.”
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