Sunny forecast for Jackson
Happy in California and buoyed by a new hip, the Lakers' coach can even
see extending his career
On Pro Basketball
October 28, 2006
PLAYA DEL RAY, Calif. -- Phil Jackson had that bemused look again, his eyes a little mischievous as he shaded them from a warm afternoon sun. We've seen the look many times, the one too often mistaken for arrogance when it is more a mixture of curiosity and certainty.
"Sometimes when we sit and watch tape, Tex [Winter] will look at me and say, 'I think the game has passed me by, and I never thought I'd say that,'" Jackson said, a smile curling out from under his mustache and the latest swatch of facial hair beneath it. "Then he'll look at me and say, 'I think the game has passed you by, too, Phil.'"
Phil Jackson wondered about that himself the last few months. Not basketball so much as the game of life. "I still believe you need a system, you need the ability to penetrate, you've got to have an interior game. That hasn't changed," Jackson said. "Big men and post play still win the day and championships."
After more than 40 years of playing and coaching basketball, Jackson is quite confident he knows how it works best. He's headed for the Basketball Hall of Fame in the next few years as one of the most accomplished coaches ever. He has the best-ever winning percentage in the playoffs and the regular season and is closing in on 1,000 career wins as he begins his seventh season of coaching the Lakers and his 16th overall as an NBA coach.
What's maybe most sweet to him, his win total should surpass Red Auerbach's before he finishes his contract with the Lakers after next season. And he might go longer than that.
Knicks next? No
There always has been speculation and a couple of teasers that Jackson would complete the ultimate pro coaching trifecta and finish his pro career where he started it as a player in 1967, with the New York Knicks.
No chance, Jackson said, though he indicated he might extend his Lakers tenure beyond next season.
"There's been some talk that way," Jackson said. "I haven't heard anything officially, but feelers are out there. Things could change so dramatically for me this season that I'll feel so good I'll want to do that.
"The other side of the coin is I may feel so good I'll want to use this opportunity to do the things I've put off, go live half a year in Montana, go 'round the world, hike the Himalayas."
Phil Jackson had his own mountain to climb this summer, one almost too steep with doubt and dread.
Growing up in rural Montana in a family of Pentecostal ministers, Jackson never fully accepted modern medicine. His Eastern religion preferences and Native American interests offered various alternatives until his heart condition required a surgical procedure.
And now, as with many athletes, his body was failing. Jackson had known he needed hip replacement surgery for years but always sought alternatives.
"Am I hardheaded, more determined than the average person? I probably am," he acknowledged.
But there was another, more humanizing factor: fear.
Jackson thought of an old media acquaintance, **** Schaap, who died after complications from similar surgery. Jackson's mother had done fine after her surgery, but a friend with similar heart issues had died during surgery.
Hey, what's a little limp? And a little pain? Except it wasn't little anymore.
"There was a time this summer I was thinking, 'I don't know if I can coach anymore,'" Jackson said. "The discomfort I was in, the inability to move the way I wanted … It got to the point where I said I've got to make some changes if I'm going to make this lifestyle work for me."
And it seems to be working just fine.
'An unbelievable ride'
Jackson leans forward in a reclining chair on his porch, which overlooks a long stretch of quiet beach and the Pacific Ocean. It's mid-October, but the Santa Anas have driven in the heat, about 80 degrees. A lone jogger lopes along on the beach while a shirtless man sets up a volleyball net. Jackson's shiny metal cane stands by his seat. He doesn't need it anymore to get around the house, but he'll probably have it with him for the Lakers' home opener Tuesday against the Suns.
He sees something jump, and it's not a basketball player. Fine with him. A school of dolphins has come in close to shore where the waves are breaking. Stuffed animals are lying around on the gleaming wood floor near Jackson's meditation den. His new grandchild had just been over.
Kobe Bryant is still recovering from knee surgery and might not be ready to start the season. Kwame Brown and Chris Mihm also are out, recovering from injuries. Free-agent signee Vladimir Radmanovic has problems with his shooting hand. Lamar Odom had a nightmare summer with family problems. Just making the playoffs would be a good season for Jackson's Lakers.
Yes, a lot has changed for Phil Jackson, and it seems to keep getting better.
"I don't see myself going on and coaching anywhere after this," he said. "This is like a final spot, like the second coming. My kids and grandkid are living in California. It's like this is becoming retirement for me while working."
Jackson's Lakers aren't a championship contender. They could be better than their 45 wins of last season, and they play 16 of their first 20 in Los Angeles, but the injuries could keep them from getting off to a fast start in an improved and more competitive Western Conference.
"Before we'd measure a season, 'OK, this is a marathon race. Get our stride going.' We'd say, 'Build momentum and let's get five in a row or 10 in a row.' Now a big streak for us is two or three wins. That's a big difference for me. It's more immediate and I think it's good and I enjoy it.
"I certainly will feel like I've had an exceptional career, an unbelievable ride in this league regardless of whether I win another championship," Jackson said. "But I'd like to see Kobe have a chance to win a championship and get the credit he deserves for the kind of ballplayer he is, just like Shaq had another chance."
And so the goals are more narrow, but the effort is as intense. Jackson's work with the Lakers last season was as impressive as any he'd done. "You play against his team and you realize, 'Wow, this guy can really coach,'" Suns coach Mike D'Antoni said. "Forget all the talk about the triangle. His guys really learn how to play."
Raising the bar
And so it begins again for Jackson, whose friends joke that he's now a 7-footer after being hunched over in pain all those years. At one time the sight of Jackson set off championship celebrations. Now it sets off airport metal detectors.
"Last year the goal for this team was, 'Let's challenge. Let's be a team that has to be reckoned with and make some noise in the playoffs.' I think we did that," Jackson said.
But they went out in the first round of the playoffs, blowing a 3-1 lead in their series with the Suns.
"We didn't win that first series, but we sent a statement that if you're not prepared to play us we'll take something from you," Jackson said. "This year we want to take that step into the playoffs. My belief is once you're in the playoffs, anything can happen. Instead of thinking long-term championship, we're setting up for, 'Let's get ready for Game 1 and win all the games we have a chance to win and have a chance to do something in the playoffs.'"
Sort of the basketball version of a new hip and a new lease on life.
Copyright © 2006