The gravely voice, the Zen philosophy and the drama surrounding the relationship between Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant are back. Even as the San Antonio Spurs and Detroit Pistons prepared for Game 3 of the NBA Finals yesterday, the Los Angeles Lakers managed to grab attention by re-introducing Jackson as head coach.
Jackson agreed to a three-year contract reportedly worth $10 million per season, making him the highest-paid head coach in the NBA.
Lakers owner Jerry Buss did not extend Jackson's contract last June after the Lakers lost to the Pistons in the Finals. Following Jackson's departure, the Lakers traded Shaquille O'Neal to the Miami Heat, signed Bryant to a long-term contract and replaced Jackson with Rudy Tomjanovich.
However, as Jackson vacationed and O'Neal led the Heat to the Eastern Conference finals, the Lakers slogged through a disastrous season. Tomjanovich stepped down in February citing health concerns and was replaced by longtime Jackson assistant Frank Hamblen.
After going 287-123 in the regular season and 64-28 in the postseason over five years under Jackson, the Lakers finished 34-48, missed the playoffs for only the second time since 1976 and suffered the indignity of dropping into the NBA draft lottery along with traditional losers, such as the Los Angeles Clippers.
"We acknowledge that it's not going to happen overnight, it's going to take some time," Jackson said yesterday at a news conference at Staples Center. "We expect some patience and we know that things don't change automatically overnight. But we do think there's some hope and we can make some changes that will really benefit this team and gets things back on track so we can make the playoffs again."
Jackson's decision to return as Lakers' coach is stunning in part because his relationship with Bryant had deteriorated during their final season together. Jackson went so far as to label Bryant "un-coachable" in a book he wrote last offseason.
Bryant had been conspicuously vague about the prospect of Jackson's return, but he issued a statement on Tuesday. "When the Lakers began the search for a new head coach, I put my complete trust in Dr. Buss and Mitch Kupchak to select the person they thought was best for the Lakers' organization," the statement said. "In Phil Jackson, they have chose a proven winner. That is something I support."
Jackson said he and Bryant spoke by phone yesterday morning and that Bryant congratulated Jackson on taking the job.
"It's a matter of trust and a matter of rebuilding the trust that we had," Jackson said of his relationship with Bryant. "I'm confident and I think he's confident that we can go forward."
Jackson, who will turn 60 in September, won six NBA championships coaching the Chicago Bulls and three championships coaching the Lakers. That ties him with former Boston coach Red Auerbach for the most in NBA history.
This go-round with the Lakers should be the most challenging coaching situation of his career. When he took over for Doug Collins as coach of the Bulls in 1989, Jackson was able to build a team around the game's best player in Michael Jordan and an up-and-coming all-star in Scottie Pippen. When Jackson took over the Lakers in 1999, he inherited the game's most dominant big man in O'Neal, a rising star in Bryant and veteran role players such as Rick Fox, Ron Harper and Brian Shaw.
The team Jackson inherits this time will have only one star, Bryant, a bloated payroll and a cast of players that includes Lamar Odom and Caron Butler, both of whom came from Miami in the O'Neal trade.
The Lakers' hiring of Jackson leaves Minnesota, Portland and possibly the New York Knicks, who have the option of bringing back Herb Williams, in the market for coaches.