Retirement comes easy to few, whether you’re a mid-level bank executive in your 60s, a professional athlete in your late 30s, or the owner of 13 NBA championship rings as a player or a coach that never minded the attention. Phil Jackson enjoys the game, and the hardware that comes from leading teams to titles, and reportedly he’d like to be back in the sway of things.
Shockingly, the big brain behind 11 NBA titles in Chicago and Los Angeles from 1991 until 2010 would enjoy being part of the team-leading process. Perhaps as a coach, according to Ramona Shelburne and Marc Stein of ESPN.com, but also possibly as an executive for an NBA team. The sort of Big Brain that makes the Big Moves, after years of sitting in the Big Chair. From ESPN:
Sources stressed that there is no specific opportunity in play yet for Jackson, who resisted coaching overtures from the Brooklyn Nets earlier this season and told longtime confidant Charley Rosen in January in a SheridanHoops.com story that he "has no intention of ever coaching again."
But NBA coaching sources say that stance will not dissuade teams with openings from approaching Jackson this offseason to gauge his interest, with the Nets and Cleveland Cavaliers -- who interviewed Jackson in 2005 and are known to be contemplating a coaching change -- potentially at the top of the list.
What has Jackson really intrigued, sources say, is the opportunity to oversee an organization in the patriarchal style of Pat Riley with the Miami Heat or in a role similar to that previously held by Larry Bird with the Indiana Pacers.
But it remains to be seen if a team will give him that sort of chance, given that the 67-year-old Jackson is the most successful coach in league history with 11 championship rings and has never held a prominent NBA personnel job.
It makes sense. Most of Jackson’s coaching contemporaries in terms of either success or age – Red Auerbach, Pat Riley, Don Nelson, Larry Bird, Larry Brown, Gregg Popovich – have had either total or significant sway with an NBA front office at some point in their respective careers. Jackson joins only George Karl (who is a few years younger than Phil and has bounced around more) and Jerry Sloan (who doesn’t tweet, or write books, and “get off my lawn!”) as prominent modern-era coaches that haven’t piped up with a major voice in the war room.
Part of this is by design. Former Chicago Bulls GM Jerry Krause made a clear distinction between the front office and sideline, and he held sway over Jackson in the early years of his Chicago run partially because he initially gave Phil a job that nobody else was offering (both as an assistant and later head coach). Later their relationship deteriorated (though the two still talked), and Phil had little voice when it came to personnel matters.
In Los Angeles most of the heavy lifting had been done by former Laker GM Jerry West three years before Jackson even joined the team, as he manipulated the cap and draft in the summer of 1996 in order to deal for Kobe Bryant and sign Shaquille O’Neal. And while I respect the work Mitch Kupchak has put in since taking over as Lakers GM in 2000, he had to work around the fringes with a capped-out championship team, and some of his minimum-salaried selections didn’t seem to be coming from a place that completely understood what Phil Jackson likes to place in his triangle offense.
With that said, there’s a good chance Phil might not work out as a personnel boss.
Yes, he tweeted endlessly during the NCAA Tournament, and we thank him for that. He also made a point to give the kiss-off to the idea that statistical based analysis (read: “a cold read of what actually happens on the court”) may somehow provide a turbocharger to what is already the efficient four-cylinder engine known as “scouting.” Worse, Jackson is fast friends with Kurt Rambis, the man who as Minnesota Timberwolves coach started Kevin Love just 59 times out of his first 141 NBA games merely because Love gave Rambis the whiff of a guy that didn’t look like a heavy-minutes player.
Jackson did brilliant work, from 1989 until 2011, in acting as the final say on a formidable coaching staff. He gave his assistants – from Johnny Bach and Jim Cleamons on defense, to Tex Winter on offense, to Jimmy Rodgers (not that one) Frank Hamblen for overall support – a massive voice both in the huddle and on the bench. He listened, grew, and everybody knew. After all the exterior voices worked their angles, Jackson had the final say, and by and large his players (from star to scrub) listened.
He’ll have to take the same approach in the front office, if he gets a job, and not just from those he’s familiar and comfortable with. It can’t just be from friends or former co-workers. And despite Jackson’s hippie persona, dating back decades he has shown himself to be rather intractable and borderline discriminatory when it comes to keeping the boys’ clubhouse spirit alive. In the mid-1990s, even, and not as he judges from above in 2013.
It would be a fascinating experiment, and hopefully one that helps re-invigorate one of the bigger basketball brains we’ve had the pleasure to have grown with.