When I met the greatest living basketball coach for lunch in late March, the Lakers were rolling and Phil Jackson was feeling pretty good. Just not physically. He ambled through the doorway of an El Segundo restaurant, a thin smile spread across his face, looking like one of the surviving heroes in a Michael Bay movie. Everything above his belt lurched forward, as if he were straining to see out a window. To relieve the pressure on his aching knees, he jutted out his butt behind him, so it seemed like he was hobbling on broken glass. Structurally, the man looked broken.
We shook hands and Phil slid into a wooden booth, then figured out the best way for his body to settle. The same way you’d balance yourself on a raft in a pool. For the first few minutes, he sat upright with his elbows resting on the table. Eventually he shifted his weight to the left, bent his body that direction, put everything on his left elbow and remained that way. Like how you might read a book in bed. A few minutes later, he gathered himself a second time, straightened himself, stuck out those famously long arms and leaned on those elbows again. Once upon a time, Jackson impressed an NBA scout by sitting in the back seat of a Volkswagen and opening all four doors with those arms. Now he was using them to support his weight.
Somewhere between his second and third strategic realignment, I realized something: Phil Jackson definitely wasn’t coaching next season. And probably, never again.
As someone who suffered through severe back problems once, I can always tell when someone else has learned to work around constant pain. They fidget, they fidget some more, they stand up when everyone else is sitting, they rock their weight from left to right hoping to find some painless balance, they hope nobody else notices. Jackson has been pulling that routine for years. Once the white man’s version of Dennis Rodman — all arms and legs, a defensive menace and reckless energy guy — Jackson endeared himself to Knicks fans before suffering a nasty fall during his second season. There was enough vertebrae damage that doctors overreacted and fused his spine together, something that’s rarely done any longer because it’s a little like treating a severe concussion with a lobotomy. The surgery knocked him out for the rest of the 1969 season and the much celebrated 1970 season (“And here comes Willis!”) before Jackson returned to play another ten years, his knees and hips bearing the brunt of his deteriorating back.
Everything added up: every airplane flight when he crammed himself into a coach seat, every time he boxed someone out and they shoved him in the back, every time he dove for a loose ball (which he always did, consequences be damned), even every time he jumped in old-school Converses and landed on an old-school hardwood floor. Somewhere along the line, his body filed divorce papers. He retired. But not before winning a ring (with the ’73 Knicks), writing a controversial book (“Maverick,” in which he vented about then-dangerous topics like marijuana and racism), becoming buddies with Bill Bradley (they still talk frequently, and according to Jackson, Bradley watches more hoops than you’d ever expect), capturing the ’70s with a variety of inspired facial hair choices (including a bushy beard and a Fu Manchu that made him look like the lost Doobie Brother), and, of course, this 1972 Topps basketball card (one of my favorites).
Thirty years later, that same body is quitting on Jackson again. He replaced his hips a few years ago; his creaky kneecaps are next. I spent exactly 95 minutes with him and realized that, over everything else, the physical grind of coaching was pushing Jackson away. Cramming himself between two assistants, hopping up on a whim to battle officials, standing on a sideline yelling at players one-third his age? Not how he wants to spend his mid-60s. You forget that Jackson isn’t that old. That’s why he discusses his coaching afterlife in practical terms. He wants more time with grandchildren that he rarely sees. He owes his girlfriend multiple vacations to multiple destinations (and hopes to move around comfortably when he’s there). He definitely wants to start writing again, maybe even craft another book (“The Last Last Season?”). I didn’t think Jackson sounded like someone who needed a year off; more like someone who wanted a different life.
There was another reason he needed to leave the Lakers, of course. After we ordered our food, we started discussing the Kendrick Perkins trade, which left Jackson confused because the Celtics made such a significant chemistry gamble during a season. He hadn’t watched much of them lately, so for a minute or so, he flipped the conversation and pushed for my take. (That’s a Jackson specialty — he’s naturally curious, so even if you’re supposed to be interviewing him, he’ll flip things without you realizing it.) I thought the Celtics had lost their identity, that they believed in two things: their overall toughness, and Doc Rivers’ concept of ubuntu (togetherness). The trade undermined both beliefs. They didn’t know what they were.
Jackson nodded in agreement. He’s a big identity guy, obviously. He wondered why Boston worried about the future when it was clearly built for the present. He didn’t say it, but the following was implied: When you have a chance for a title, you don’t mess around. And how much did Kevin Garnett have left? I mentioned my theory that, even when Garnett stops being effective, he’ll keep playing because he’s something of a basketball machine: For 365 days a year, his life revolves around playing basketball or preparing his body for basketball. He doesn’t have many hobbies or a swollen entourage. He never goes out. He spends his summers in Malibu with his family, running on the beach, lifting weights and shooting jumpers. That’s it. He’s a man of routine.
I predicted that Garnett would keep playing well past his prime, maybe into his early 40s, simply because he wouldn’t know what else to do. I thought Kobe might be like that, too.
“He’s definitely like that,” Jackson said.
And then he started talking about Kobe. Other than Jackson’s health, the biggest reason he nearly retired last June was because he didn’t want to be coaching Kobe Bryant when he stopped being Kobe Bryant. If you remember, Kobe struggled in Round 1 of the 2010 playoffs, rallied in the next two rounds, then gave the Lakers just enough to survive a seven-game war against Boston. Looking ahead while factoring in everything he had just witnessed, measuring the lessons of history, counting Kobe’s NBA miles the coach couldn’t tell for sure. Either Kobe had one elite season left in him, or he didn’t. Jackson’s instincts were telling him no. His heart was telling him yes. Once his players started pressuring him to return, then the fans, then his girlfriend, he caved and came back. One more year.
There was a follow-up question that I probably should have asked. Why wouldn’t you want to coach Kobe as he’s transitioning out of his prime?
In my defense, I knew the answer: Would YOU want to coach Kobe after his prime, when he still thinks he’s great but he isn’t? Or Jordan? Or anyone else with a healthy ego who’s accustomed to being the best, or one of the best, but those days are over and they’re the last to realize it? Jackson had spent the past two decades carefully avoiding that specific scenario. In late March, it looked like he made the right gamble: The Lakers had just rolled off 15 of 16 victories and reestablished themselves as The Team To Beat. Kobe did have one great year left in him. Or so we thought.
As we dug into our food, neither of us could have imagined that the Lakers would win four playoff games total.
Think of any great NBA coach and one distinct image jumps into your brain. I think of Red Auerbach sucking on that cigar, a condescending smirk on his face, watching the last minute of a playoff victory and delighting in the knowledge that he had Bill Russell and nobody else did. I think of Pat Riley wearing an expensive suit with his hair slicked back, the epitome of Hollywood cool, gesturing at Magic to keep pushing and pushing. I think of how Jerry Sloan’s hangdog face wore every defeat, every terrible officiating call, every bad break, everything. I think of Gregg Popovich dressed like Sean Connery in an “SNL” “Celebrity Jeopardy” sketch, surrounded by his players during a crucial timeout, holding a chalkboard, diagramming some complicated play and knowing his players were smart enough to run it.
When I think of Phil Jackson, two guys come to mind: Young Phil and Old Phil. Young Phil was skinny with dark hair and a goofy mustache; he looked like he came from another era, like someone Larry Dallas would bring over to the Regal Beagle to meet Jack Tripper. Old Phil didn’t look anything like Young Phil: white hair, a clean-shaven face, a heavier frame, and a body that was scattered in nine different directions. Still, Young Phil and Old Phil had one thing in common: They kept their cool at all times.
That trait defined Jackson as a coach. He couldn’t be rattled. He never overreacted. He measured every response, thought out every media barb, dealt with every player with the same steady hand. These past 20 years weren’t exactly easy for Jackson, even if the narrative has morphed into “Well, anyone could win eleven titles with Jordan, Shaq and Kobe!” In 1992, a best-selling book called “The Jordan Rules” nearly imploded the Bulls. In 1993, his best player disappeared for 18 months. In 1997, the relationship between Scottie Pippen, Michael Jordan and Bulls general manager Jerry Krause became so contentious that Jackson asked Krause to stop traveling with the team. In 1998, Dennis Rodman started partying so much that Jackson and a few others had to have a makeshift intervention. In 2001, Shaq and Kobe’s relationship started to deteriorate, a three-year spiral that bottomed out when Kobe was accused of sexual assault. In 2005, his general manager traded his second-best player for Kwame Brown. In 2007, Kobe spent the summer and the first month of the regular season desperately pushing for a trade. Jackson managed everything. There were times when he failed — the 2004 Finals, most notably — but you could never say he lost his cool.
His defining moment happened during the 1994 playoffs, when Pippen refused to re-enter Game 3 against New York after Jackson called the final play for Toni Kukoc. Instead of laying into Pippen after the game, Jackson trusted his players to handle the immediate aftermath. It ended up being done by Bill Cartwright, who screamed at Scottie with tears rolling down his face, incredulous that one of the league’s most unselfish players would undermine that dogfight of a season — when the Bulls somehow remained contenders with Jordan playing baseball — by acting so selfishly.
Jackson waited for the room to calm down, judged the moment for what it was, chalked it up as an aberration and moved on. More than a few coaches would have abandoned Pippen, claimed that he lost the team, pushed for him to be traded that summer. Jackson knew that Pippen’s mistake came from a complicated place, a Molotov cocktail of insecurity, ego and frustration about his unfair salary. When Jordan left, everyone pushed Scottie to be the leader — including Jackson — but the Bulls didn’t pay him like other franchise players, and now they were giving away his “You the man!” moment? Jackson wanted to understand why Pippen handled it so poorly, figured it out, determined it wouldn’t happen again (hopefully), and defended him going forward. Coaching isn’t just about calling plays, riding the officials and figuring out strategies. Really, it’s management more than anything else. You manage people. Jackson managed people better than anyone.
He did it by keeping his cool, always, which is what made it so jarring when Jackson unraveled in Game 3 of this month’s Dallas series. Kobe couldn’t save them this time; his prime was suddenly slipping away like Jackson had feared. Pau Gasol had fallen into a spiritual funk and couldn’t be shaken from it. The last four players in Jackson’s nine-man rotation were effectively useless; Dallas’ bench was destroying them. Almost as a last resort, the Zen Master morphed into Norman Dale on the sidelines for Game 3, yelling and screaming more than ever before. There was one moment in the first half — endlessly replayed all weekend, simply because it was so foreign to watch — when Jackson laid into Gasol and pounded him in the chest for effect, the urgency practically spilling out of him. None of it worked. The Lakers lost.
Two days later, after Dallas had blown the doors off and turned Game 4 into a rout, two of Jackson’s players basically quit on him. The first was Lamar Odom, who drifted through that series much like he drifts through his crappy reality show, finally deciding to leave for good with a premeditated body block of Dirk Nowitzki. A few minutes later, Andrew Bynum delivered a Triple H-like flying elbow to tiny J.J. Barea, earned an automatic ejection, then ripped his jersey off while being escorted away. As a Celtics fan, I couldn’t have been more delighted to watch the Lakers disintegrate like that. It was like basketball porn. As a basketball fan? I hated it. That’s not how Phil Jackson should have gone out: with him losing his cool, then his players doing the same. Those last two games had nothing in common with his career.
Like so many other times, Jackson could see Game 4 coming. Four of his five children had flown into Dallas to dine with him the night before — a Viking funeral of sorts — and once I heard about that, I knew that he knew. Your kids fly in on short notice when something is coming to an end: your life, your career, your health, your marriage, something. Either they sense something is wrong, or you sense it. But you want to be with them, and they want to be with you. When Jackson thinks back to that final series, I bet he thinks about that dinner first: the stories they told, the wine they drank, the food they ate. He will forget what happened in the four games. He will remember the dinner.
Just like I will remember our lunch. We finished our meals and landed on an outdoor bench in downtown El Segundo, talking about basketball and watching cars meander by. We talked about the Knicks and what they meant once upon a time, how there’s a connection between the fans, the building and the team that just doesn’t exist anywhere else. When I theorized that New York was the logical finishing chapter for his career — maybe he takes a year off, then returns in 2012 (the fortieth anniversary of the last Knicks title season), the ultimate full-circle move — he laughed it off, repeatedly saying, “No, no, when I’m done with this, I’m done.”
I wanted to believe him, even if it’s too perfect, too symmetrical, too everything. When the Knicks scenario became a national story this week, I thought it was fascinating that Jackson never totally denied it. He might think that Red Holzman’s spirit could heal his broken body, that the grind of an NBA season would be easier in New York, that the atmosphere in Madison Square Garden would energize him, that the holy grail of another Knicks title is the only thing left for him. Or he just might like the fact that people are still talking about him.
My take: I don’t think Jackson is ever coming back. Nothing can top those Jordan years for him. It’s impossible. He already had his holy grail. In El Segundo, our conversation kept circling back to MJ, and really, that’s why we ended up having lunch in the first place: Jackson had quoted a Jordan argument from my NBA book in two separate interviews (that we need to stop looking for another Michael Jordan, because it’s never happening), making me wonder, “Wait, did he read my book?” As it turned out, he had simply thumbed through it in a store for a few minutes before buying it for Odom for Christmas.
Was it telling that he thumbed through a 700-page book just to read the Jordan section? You tell me.
We talked about their last three years in Chicago together, when Michael’s fame trapped him in hotel suites and casinos, surrounded by only a couple of trusted friends. We talked about Michael playing 36 holes of golf before playoff games, how he stayed up until all hours, how he needed only an hour of sleep and he was fine. We talked about Michael and Scottie as a tandem, how much ground they covered, how well they connected, how they compared to LeBron and Wade, how they loved eviscerating teams on the road more than anything. We talked about Michael’s controversial Hall of Fame speech, which Jackson loved because, as he put it (while laughing), “that was Michael,” the guy who became the greatest player ever by fueling himself with so many petty slights and grudges. We talked about Michael’s steadfast refusal to blow random, meaningless road games in Sacramento, Vancouver, Cleveland or wherever, how those were the nights that made him truly special, when his entire team was dragging, when the NBA schedule demanded a Chicago loss, yet Michael just couldn’t allow it.
I never asked Jackson to compare Michael and Kobe simply because the question didn’t need to be asked. Jackson made his answer clear over the years, doing his best never to frame it in a way that antagonized Kobe. You know, “There will never be another Michael Jordan,” stuff like that. His own career is harder to assess. You can’t deny Jackson’s timing (first Jordan, then Shaq and a young Kobe, then Kobe), and if we learned anything about NBA coaching over the years, it’s that you’re only as good as your players. But that belittles what Jackson accomplished, because clearly, eleven titles mean something.
He never gets enough credit for successfully handling two of the three most difficult NBA superstars ever: Jordan and Kobe (with Wilt being the third). Jordan’s ongoing ruthlessness threatened the basic concept of a “team” — instead of being supportive, he was withering. He had to win all the time, every time. If he sensed someone might be a weak link, Jordan shattered their confidence rather than building it up. During any times of real struggle on a basketball court, he trusted himself over everyone else and played accordingly. Jackson tempered his most unlikable qualities while accentuating the good ones, steering him toward a team framework without compromising the ferocity that defined him.
His smartest small-picture move was pitting Pippen and Jordan on opposite sides in every scrimmage, which kept both players sharp and ensured their practices were properly competitive; otherwise, Jordan would have gone for a shutout every game. His smartest big-picture move was his handling of Jordan’s baseball sabbatical, when he reminded Michael that he was an artist more than a basketball player, and that, by walking away, he would be depriving millions of a chance to experience that art. He never tried to change Michael’s mind, just reminded him what was at stake. For Jordan, that cemented their relationship and opened the door for Michael’s eventual return; he knew Jackson cared about him as something more than a meal ticket. When people dismiss Jackson’s credentials with “Anyone could have coached Michael Jordan,” they are wrong.
Kobe presented a different set of issues, as we’ve rehashed ad nauseam over the past ten years. Jackson won five rings with him, but not before walking away in 2004 (and ripping Kobe to shreds in an astonishingly critical book), then returning a year later and eventually working out a manageable compromise. Jackson dealt with Kobe the same way parents deal with raising young kids: You know you’ll have good days and bad days, so you can’t dwell on the bad ones. Only once did Kobe nearly shoot the Lakers out of a title — Game 7 of the 2010 Finals, when Boston’s strategy hinged on doubling Kobe, forcing “hero” shots and hoping his ego would compel him to keep shooting (which it did) — but in another classic Jackson-era moment, Kobe’s teammates (Derek Fisher, especially) pulled him back into the fold. Bryant regrouped in the fourth quarter, made better decisions and helped the Lakers win the title.
And really, that’s the night Jackson’s career should have ended. Other than money and the tantalizing chance for a fourth three-peat, he talked himself into another year for the same reason everyone does: You never totally know until you have that one awful moment when you realize “Crap, I should have left a year ago.” Watching Jackson sitting on the bench in Dallas in Game 4, his face working overtime to churn out a barely visible smile, you could almost see that thought bubble forming over his head.
I stayed too long. I should have left.
The good news: Nobody will remember that Dallas sweep in eleven years, just the eleven rings and every relationship he fostered along the way. Steve Kerr told me once that what made Jackson special — and Popovich too — was that he cared about his twelfth guy as much as his best guy. He spent time with his players, bought them gifts, thought about what made them tick. He connected with them, sold them on the concept of a team, stuck up for them when they needed him. His actual coaching — calling plays, working refs, figuring out lineups and everything else that we see — was a smaller piece of a much bigger picture. His players competed for him for many reasons, but mainly because they truly believed Jackson cared about them. Which he definitely did.
And now, he’s walking away. At least that’s the hope. I can still see him hobbling across the street in El Segundo after we said our goodbyes — walking with his butt, basically — and hoping he’d eventually land on a beach somewhere and never look back. Our greatest living basketball coach played in 874 NBA games and coached another 1,977 of them. That’s 2,851 games in all, and trust me: When you watch him walk away, you feel every one of them.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN.com and the author of the recent New York Times No. 1 best-seller “The Book of Basketball,” now out in paperback with new material and a revised Hall of Fame Pyramid. For every Simmons column and podcast, check out Sports Guy’s World or the BS Report page. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sportsguy33.
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