Everyone remembers the glorious Phil Jackson, the championships, the genius, and they forget the way they had watched him so tired, so beaten in his final season with the Los Angeles Lakers. They forget the way the work ethic had eroded within the franchise, the way that he lost discipline within the roster.
Lakers owner Jerry Buss wants to bring Jackson back to coach again, and perhaps he's holding onto something that left long ago: the coach's drive and determination to withstand the grind of the job. He'll come back, cash those checks and leave everyone unsure whether he's still hell-bent on molding championship teams. His old assistants – Jim Cleamons and Kurt Rambis – are out of coaching jobs and anxious to come back to the bench with history's greatest coach.
Everyone's going to get paid again, but you wonder: Do they have the stomach to chase championships again?
The old band could get back together, and it is fair to suspect that one of those staggering $10 million-a-season salaries could be the most compelling reason for Jackson to return to the bench in Los Angeles. Jackson has the Lakers right where he wants them: desperate, needy and perhaps willing to pay a steep price to bring him back a third time.
Mike Brown had arrived at the Lakers' practice facility for the morning shootaround believing he needed a victory over the Golden State Warriors on Friday night to spare his job. Ownership and management had been meeting about his future throughout Thursday, and general manager Mitch Kupchak advocated to give the beleaguered Brown longer than five games before firing him, sources said.
Jim Buss, the Lakers' executive vice president, had gone along with the plan on Thursday, but something changed overnight into Friday. Jerry Buss wanted Brown out, and wanted him out now. As Brown gathered his assistants to plan for Friday night's game, a request came for him to step outside the room. The forever chipper, eager Brown returned to his coaching staff 10 minutes later with a decidedly different disposition.
"They fired me," Brown simply said.
All around the franchise, the belief was that the decision had come from Jerry Buss, who had lost patience with his $100 million roster investment losing four out of five games to start the season. He was tired of the Princeton offense, tired of the season-ticket holders' complaining, tired of the coach who he let his son, Jim, hire two years ago. For the $100 million of payroll – and the $30 million more of luxury tax – the old man wanted to bring Showtime back to the Staples Center. This was Jerry Buss playing the part of patriarch again.
Eventually, Kupchak would turn to his old NBA coach with the Washington Bullets, Bernie Bickerstaff, to get the team through Friday night's game against Golden State. Dump the Princeton offense, Bickerstaff was told. Showtime doesn't do Ivy League, and few in ownership – nor management – had to be convinced that the brief exploration had been a failure.
Only, the Lakers were sixth in offensive efficiency. In this short sampling, the bigger issues were defense and the bench. "Kobe likes the offense, and has from the start," one league source briefed on the conversations told Yahoo! Sports. "But they told Bernie: 'This is about the offense. It has to go.' "
Everyone is so sure that Jackson is the savior here, but they forget how uninspired he had seemed in that final season. They forget that too much of the Lakers' staff had become lethargic, that the arrival of Brown had been uncomfortable for so many so used to leaving early every day. Yet this is a results business, and no one cares how many hours that Brown invested into the job, or how late he made his assistants stay.
This is about public relations now, about feeding that Staples Center and Hollywood monster, and Buss needs a coach with a pedigree. The greatest coach of all, Phil Jackson, could be waiting to come cash Buss' checks again, and motivated and inspired, his hiring would be a bargain at any price. He still needs to decide that he wants to coach again, that he wants the Lakers, but he's forever a sucker for the drama, for riding back to save the franchise. Two years ago, he couldn't wait to get out of the Lakers, get out of the NBA, and you wonder what's changed except for boredom and that lust for the next big score, that next big Hollywood ending.
"We want Phil," the Lakers fans chanted on Friday night in the Staples Center. "We want Phil."
Jerry Buss' plan is to give the people what they want: the great Phil Jackson. They remember the five titles with the Lakers, but everyone wants to forget the end, the way that Jackson dragged himself, dragged a team, to the finish line. This job is a grind, and those cheers fade fast. There are no Hollywood endings in the NBA – just old guys staying too long, coming back for all the wrong reasons.
Phil Jackson needs to think long and hard, because this job demands something out of a man that maybe's no longer inside of him. Remember the way it ended two year ago, remember the way that Jackson, that the organization, that too many of the players no longer drove themselves. Remember, Phil Jackson knew it was time to go.
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