When it ended and Phil Jackson got up from his cushioned chair for the final time, there was some relief, almost a peace, which seemed to overcome him. He shook hands with Dallas Mavericks owner, Mark Cuban, offered congratulations to a few players and strode off the court at American Airlines Center with that bowlegged, bad-hip gait, a wry smile, and his head held high. His season, his legendary career, was over earlier than anyone expected, and he was okay with it.
Jackson didn’t go out the way he wanted to – with the Los Angeles Lakers’ quest for a three-peat upended with a stunning second-round sweep by the Dallas Mavericks and his players losing their minds and their composure in a manner that contradicted the calm, steady way he went about his business in nearly 20 years as an NBA coach.
He certainly was disgusted but he didn’t seem to be too distraught that he couldn’t get that fourth three-peat.
“It feels really good to be ending the season, to be honest with you,” Jackson said after he Lakers lost, 122-86, in Game 4 in Dallas.
Jackson is still walking away with 11 championships — more than any other coach in North American professional sports — and that cannot be diminished, no matter how much the Lakers underachieved this season or how badly they were humiliated on Sunday by the Mavericks. At 65, he still hopes to have more life ahead of him, more opportunity to rest, read and reflect in the seclusion of Montana.
Jackson thought about stepping away after getting arguably the sweetest championship of them all last season, over the Boston Celtics, the franchise that long-time nemesis Red Auerbach lifted to prominence. He only came back at the urging of Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher, the backcourt tandem that helped him win his last five titles.
But Jackson had had enough, and he admitted such. Jackson understood that returning to the NBA Finals for a fourth consecutive year would’ve been a challenge. It hadn’t happened since the Celtics did it from 1984 to ’87, and the Lakers hadn’t done it since 1982-85. When you think about how NBA teams have had to play seven-game series in the first round since 2003, forget about it. And, as Chris Paul and the New Orleans Hornets nearly showed and Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry and the Mavericks proved in completely dispatching them, this wasn’t the team to get there.
“I came back this last year with some trepidation,” Jackson said. “You know, Kobe’s knee was an issue and obviously our team was older. The thrill of trying to chase a three-peat is always an exciting thing. But, yes, I knew it was a big challenge for this team to three-peat. We’d gone to the Finals and to go back twice and win it after losing in ’08 puts a lot of strain on a basketball club from all angles, personalities, spiritually, physically, emotionally. Getting charged up for game after game and assault after assault when you go in and play a team. So it was a challenge, a challenge bigger than we could meet this year.”
Jackson did more than just roll out the basketballs and let Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaquille O’Neal and Bryant get him some flashy jewelry for his fingers. He got his superstars to trust lesser talents, to visualize their success and achieve it. He confidently — some would say pompously — found a way to agitate, motivate and celebrate with repeated champagne showers. He had done and seen it all in 1,973 games on the bench, but he had never been swept — until Sunday.
The devastating loss — in which the Mavericks dropped a record 20 seemingly wide-open three-pointers, and Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum decided to offer up some unnecessary thuggery — was reminiscent of his previous exit from Los Angeles, when the Detroit Pistons dismantled them in a five-game sweep in 2004 NBA Finals.
This time around, it seemed like Jackson couldn’t get through to his players, as they had some uncharacteristic late-game meltdowns in Games 1 and 3. His attempts to get Pau Gasol to break out of his end-of-season funk led Jackson to aggressively and angrily tapping him on the chest. Nothing seemed to work.
The Lakers played like a splintered team in their final weeks of the season and appeared to be disjointed on both ends of the floor. When Bynum mentioned after Game 2 that the team had “trust issues,” he perhaps provided too much insight into the problems within the team. But there is no disputing the validity of his comments.
“Obviously, something wasn’t there,” Odom told reporters after the game.
Jackson sensed it. He could see that his team lacked athleticism and quickness; that the bench was terrible aside from Odom; that Bryant didn’t have enough physically to single-handedly will the team to victories in the playoffs — no matter how competitive he may be. His players kept saying that they wanted to send him out on a high note, but Jackson could also see that there was a disconnect between him and his players.
“My trainer who’s been with me for a number of years — Chip Schaefer — sent me a brief web page about Casey Stengel when he lost at 70,” Jackson said. “The Yankees lost to Pittsburgh in a dramatic seven-game series and they said he was too old to coach any more and he said, ‘I’m sorry I was 70. I’ll never do it again.’ I thought it was clever and humorous in its own way. There is a point where you do feel like there’s a group of young people that are coming in this direction, young coaches who are coming up. They deserve their chance and I’ve had a great opportunity, in a 20-year run here.”
Bryant will turn 33 this summer and move another step away from his prime, meaning that the Lakers will likely need to regroup and have more talent and depth around him if they hope to win more titles with him. Bryant now faces the prospect of trying to win a sixth ring without Jackson on the sideline.
“Phil,” Bryant said,“it’s tough for me to put into words what he’s meant for me. I grew up under him. The way I approach things, the way I think about things — not only in basketball but in life in general — a lot of it comes from him because I’ve been around him so much. It’s a little weird for me to think about what next year’s going to look like.”
Jackson is gone, although he left a miniscule opening that he’s not finished yet. “All my hopes and aspirations are that this is the final game that I’ll coach. This has been a wonderful run. I go out with a sour note after being fined $35,000 this morning by the league,” said Jackson, who made critical comments about officials on Saturday. “So that’s not fun and I’m feeling like I’ve been chased down a freeway by them. As Richard Nixon said, ‘You won’t be able to kick this guy around any more.’ ”