When we last left Phil Jackson, he was wandering through the hinterlands of New Zealand with a backpack and bagpipes, alternately meditating and yodeling while considering the mysteries of Buddhism and Shinto.

When we last left John Madden, he was crisscrossing the country in his luxury Maddencruiser, gassing up between football stadiums and commercial endorsements.

Jackson had lost his job coaching the Los Angeles Lakers; Madden's network had lost "Monday Night Football."

But, suddenly, in a somewhat statistical improbability, Jackson is back with the Lakers for the 2005-06 season, and, in a somewhat inevitable probability, Madden will follow "Sunday Night Football" to NBC in 2006.

Jackson and Madden always have been blessed with talent around them. En route to nine NBA championships, Jackson had Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in Chicago, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal in Los Angeles. In his quarter-century as a No. 1 NFL analyst, Madden had Pat Summerall as a partner at CBS and Fox and Al Michaels at ABC.

Now, both may have to prove they can win with lesser personnel. Jackson has only one superstar to coach on his return to L.A. -- the uncoachable Bryant. And Madden doesn't know who will join him in the booth at NBC -- it could be Michaels or Marv Albert or Bob Costas; then again, for all we know it could be Wink Martindale.

The reunion of Jackson and Bryant seems implausible. Granted, if my first-ex-wife and I could get back together, then I guess Phil and Kobe could kiss and make up.

(As far as my first ex-wife and I getting back together, okay, technically we didn't. Actually, I attempted to get back with her, and, well, she got some type of court order restraining me from coming within 500 feet of her domicile. I interpreted this as simply a negotiating stance on her part, but then when I got within, oh, maybe 505 feet of her driveway, she got another court order restraining me from coming within five miles of her abode. Hey, I can take a hint, so I rented an RV and parked it 5.1 miles away from her front door and we've gotten along swimmingly ever since.)

(P.S. Keith Olbermann and ESPN are back together again, and they had a worse breakup than Martin and Lewis. So, yeah, there's hope for Phil and Kobe.)

As you may recall, Jackson ripped Bryant in his 2004 book, "The Last Season: A Team in Search of Its Soul." Even though I still have yet to meet a single person who has read the book, bought the book or even seen the book, everyone knows all the key passages from the book. Heck, it's quoted from so often, I assume it's in the top drawer of the nightstand in every hotel room in America.

Anyway, Jackson said Bryant called to congratulate him on returning to the Lakers. Here is a complete transcript of that phone conversation:

Phil: "Hello."

Kobe: "Congratulations." (Click.)

Meantime, Madden remains a durable staple of mainstream America. He projects the Everyman image, even if he's not. His longevity at the top of the sports-TV heap rivals the late Johnny Carson's dominance in late night. And his move to NBC in 2006 means he will have worked as the No. 1 NFL analyst on all four major broadcast networks.

(Which brings us, tangentially and tragically, to the John Madden of baseball, the Overanalyst for the Ages, Tim McCarver. Every time a different network has landed baseball over the past generation, McCarver gets first call -- from ABC, then CBS, then Fox. Dick Ebersol has McCarver on speed-dial just in case NBC ever gets baseball again. Frankly, I'm surprised McCarver hasn't been called to co-host "A Current Affair" with Tim Green.)

Most importantly, perhaps, Madison Avenue has always loved Madden. As a pitchman, he still has a great fastball; all he needs to do is sneeze near a product display and it sells out.

And though some observers thought both Madden and Jackson might be done -- Madden's approaching 70, Jackson's approaching 60 -- each can still find great work and each knows how to cash a big paycheck. They share a simple ideal: As Mark Felt once told Bob Woodward near a heating duct in a parking garage, "Follow the money."

Ask The Slouch

Q. Shouldn't the NBA and the NHL just combine their labor negotiations? (Tim Brooks; Milwaukee)

A. Actually, that would allow David Stern and Gary Bettman to carpool to work again.

Q. As middle age approaches, is Rock Green Light in your future? (Bob Tantillo; Hagerstown, Md.)

A. It is here that I must break ranks with my favorite Latrobe, Pa., brewery, for concocting this unspeakable light beer and thus violating the sanctity of the green bottle.

Q. Since Bill Belichick left Cleveland, he has won three Super Bowls in four years and gone 10-1 in the postseason. Have your ex-wives enjoyed similar triumphs in their respective fields since leaving you? (Mary Lohman; Hudson, Ohio)

A. Pay the lady, Shirley.

You, too, can enter the $1.25 Ask The Slouch Cash Giveaway. E-mail asktheslouch@aol.com and, if your question is used, you win $1.25 in cash!