On paper, Phil Jackson's motives seem driven by more than the challenge of inheriting a non-playoff team. Why would he again want to work with Kobe Bryant, an otherworldly talent he had trouble coexisting with in Los Angeles the last time around, a player Jackson broke the sanctity of his own locker room for so he could trash Bryant in a tell-all book?
On paper, Phil Jackson looks a lot like Michael Jordan taking off his warmups in Washington at the age of 38, trying to siphon that final, mesmerizing feeling on the court before shuttling off into retirement for good. The coach tied with Red Auerbach for the most championships in league history at nine had close to a perfect ending. Why put your reputation in the hands of Bryant, Lamar Odom and Caron Butler at his late stage of your career?
Vanity? Certainly Jackson's intellect enjoys the spotlight. He correctly pronounced "panacea" at his news conference on Tuesday announcing his rehiring in Los Angeles, a word many of his jocular peers do not know the meaning of. Phil just loves sounding like a learned, renaissance gym teacher.
Greed? Robert Horry, whom Jackson coached during the Lakers' three championships from 2000 to 2002, said it best before Game 3 of the NBA Finals between his Spurs and the Detroit Pistons: "Why did Phil take that job again? I'll give you 30 million reasons why."
Todd Musburger, Jackson's agent, would not divulge what compensation his client received over a three-year contract with the club. But let's just say Jackson will be the highest-paid coach in the history of American team sports, earning well over $10 million per year, with his total package in the $35 million vicinity. What fool -- even an already well-off one -- would turn down that kind of coin? Well, other than the principled and perceptive Jack Ramsay.
"I don't understand why anyone would take a job where money is the big factor," said the former coach and current ESPN analyst. "He said he would only go to a team with championship potential, and I don't see that, either. They need a point guard, a better bench and a big forward before they get close again. I just don't understand the move."
In a way, it makes perfect sense. For once in his career, Phil Jackson will not be seen as the man who inherited Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen and three titles in Chicago, the man who simply nudged Shaquille O'Neal and Bryant toward three more with the Lakers. For once in his career, Jackson has the challenge of rebuilding a franchise in trouble, if not shambles.
Say what you want about Pat Riley, Larry Brown, Auerbach, Chuck Daly, all the rest of the coaches considered among the greatest of all time. Their challenges were much different than getting Kobe Bryant, minus O'Neal, back to the Finals with another supporting cast.
That's not just great buzz for the NBA, which once again had its league championship series upstaged by a more compelling story -- that's a professional affirmation of a different kind for Phil Jackson.
"It's perfect; he's dealing with lowered expectations," Houston Coach Jeff Van Gundy said in a telephone interview Tuesday night. "The set-up is perfect. They're not expecting as much now. Plus, let's be honest, the $10 million he's making is a big deal."
Van Gundy also dismissed the notion that Jackson was taking the job to soothe his ego and pad his wallet. "I think he's more of a lifer as a coach than he's portrayed," he said. "I think people focus on all that Zen stuff, but they miss it on how competitive Phil was as a player and was as a coach. I think that's a lot of it. He just wants to get back in it."
Wait. Hold up. Van Gundy was the guy who originally poked fun at Jackson for his new-age coaching ways, once calling him "Big Chief Triangle."
"Yeah, but I've matured now. I don't make fun of that stuff anymore. Phil is one of the best who's ever done it. That can't hurt the league."
Said Musburger: "I just think of all the excellent options that he had, in the end this is the one that he wanted the most. The job became important again and challenged him in the way that he wanted to be challenged. He doesn't have a handmade team now. We shouldn't overlook that."
You heard their reasons why Phil is back. Herewith, then, our "Top 10 Reasons It's Good to Have Phil Back in L.A."
10. Revival of league-wide chant, "Meditate This!"
9. More gratuitous, cutaway shots of Jeanie Buss, Phil's girlfriend and part-owner.
8. Phil won't have to live in Cleveland. Alone.
7. Kids all over L.A. sporting gray soul patches.
6. Lamar Odom's "medicinal" marijuana use finally approved by team.
5. George Karl no longer referred to as "coaching genius."
4. Red Auerbach's record is safe.
3. It won't be all Kobe's fault.
2. Sequel to Phil's Tell-All Book: "The Last Season -- This Time I Mean It. Really. Promise."
And the No. 1 reason Why It's Good to Have Phil Back in L.A.:
Spurs-Pistons. Enough said.
Actually, we take that last one back. It is howling inside this building. The Palace of Auburn Hills is going berserk over its team amazingly cracking the 80-point barrier! Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and Eminem are in the house. It's loud. It's crazy. The Pistons are about to finally win a game and make it a series. About the only thing that could upstage this grand Motown moment?
Another Phil Jackson news conference.