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The first time a telephone call convinced Phil Jackson to reconsider his thinking on a coaching job, the team executive had fed coins into a pay phone inside an American Legion Hall in Lima, Ohio. Jim Coyne had a losing team and sagging attendance with the Albany Patroons in the winter of 1983, and ultimately sold the freshly retired New York Knick on his bush-league beginnings in the Continental Basketball Association.
“Had I not made [the call], who knows where his path would’ve taken him?” Coyne once told me.
For all the van rides to Bangor, the last-chance characters on his Patroons roster, the end of the greatest coaching career in NBA history had to feel strangely like his beginnings in the old Washington Avenue Armory. From Ron Artest(notes) to Lamar Odom(notes) to Andrew Bynum(notes), the Lakers had been reduced to the kind of low-rent, dirty tactics so often employed in the desperate circumstances of the minors.
Champions can get swept and still go out champions. The Dallas Mavericks dismantled the Lakers, a devastating 4-0 defeat in the Western Conference semifinals that reflected as much on Jackson as it did his undisciplined, unfocused players. Jackson’s instincts told him it was over a year ago, but he returned for a three-peat and a big bag of money. In the final hours of his Lakers dynasty, Jackson looked more like Bobby Knight berating Pau Gasol(notes) with thrusts to his chest than his mentor, Red Holzman.
It isn’t just over with the Lakers for Jackson, it’s over in the NBA. Everyone thinks a year away will rejuvenate Jackson, make him long again for the lifestyle, the winning, and he’ll come running back to the bench. This abrupt, jarring end for the Lakers isn’t a clarion call to try again but to leave for good. He’s the greatest ever, and this series decays little of his legacy of 11 NBA championships. Yet the NBA has changed dramatically for coaches, and this was a message to him: Go to Montana and never look back again.
For one thing, Jackson, 65, can’t replicate his program again in the NBA. Jackson doesn’t come to simply coach a team, but indoctrinate it with his offense, his verbiage, his way of thinking. He gives his players incredible freedom to manage problems, solve them, and it stopped working with these Lakers.
Rest assured, the list of suspects to lure Jackson out of retirement will be predictable, but flawed. The New York Knicks? Forget it. For Jackson, the Knicks represent his purest, most cherished memories in pro ball. He thinks of Holzman and his magical NBA championship teams with Reed and Frazier, Bradley and DeBusschere. To return there – to sell Carmelo Anthony(notes) on the triangle offense, to navigate New York’s back-stabbing, dysfunctional ownership – would sully his Madison Square Garden memories.
Pat Riley never would hire a coach who’d usurp his credit for the Miami Heat winning championships. Mostly now, anyway, the NBA is full of cities that Jackson doesn’t want to visit anymore.
Here’s something else, too: Once, David Stern loved the cachet the Jacksons and Rileys delivered to his sidelines. With them came gravitas. This was good for the NBA. Yet people listened to them. They lent credence to the prisms through which they dispensed information on the NBA. Now, Stern fantasizes about an NBA of faceless Frank Vogels desperate for owners to pick up the team option on their disposable $900,000-a-season salaries.
People understood when Jackson could get fined for getting personal in public comments on an official, or publicly alleging a referee’s agenda now. On his last day as coach, Stern fined him $35,000 for discussing a technical aspect of how the Mavericks defended Pau Gasol. Jackson contended that the Mavs lifted their legs and used their knees to jostle Gasol out of position. This wasn’t an attack but an observation. This is Stern’s way to scare the rest of the coaches to fall into line, to sell the public on the commissioner’s illusions of what ought to be in the NBA – not what it is.
On his way out of the league on Sunday, Jackson would say that it felt like he had “been chased down a freeway by them. As Richard Nixon said, 'You won’t have this guy to kick around anymore.' ”
Yes, Jackson’s done. He’s done. The grind is too much. The travel, the beating to his battered body. Throughout his life, Jackson always tried to heed the teachings of his own Red – Red Holzman – but there was one lesson out of Red Auerbach that long stayed with him: Don’t leave championships on the table. As Celtics coach, Auerbach regretted leaving the job too soon.
Against Jackson’s better judgment, the chance for one more title, the lure of millions of dollars more, left him with a deserving end to the season. The Lakers had stayed too long together, rotted within, and these final games offered a window into how little this team valued his coaching anymore.
As he left the floor in Dallas, Jackson was his old, haughty, smirking self. He could barely bother to open his mouth and congratulate the Mavericks as he extended limp handshakes everywhere. He’s the greatest ever, and the calls will keep coming to Montana, but this time Jackson needs to do himself a favor and never look back. The Lakers stopped running his triangle offense, stopped settling conflicts within the locker room, and treated the coach’s final games like scenes out of “Slap Shot.”
There are no more teams for him to coach in the NBA, just checks to cash. When the phone rings in Montana, Phil Jackson ought to let it go to voice mail and cast another line into a stream.