Phil Jackson returns to Lakers
Phil and Kobe, together again. Phil Jackson is back with the Los Angeles Lakers following a breakup that took a year to mend, and back to coaching Kobe Bryant — a player he once called "uncoachable."
"This is something I never thought could possibly happen," Jackson said Tuesday at a Staples Center news conference. "It's a pleasure to come back."
Jackson, who won three championships with the Lakers in five years, was let go last June 18 by owner Jerry Buss — three days after the team lost to Detroit in the NBA Finals.
The buzz about Jackson's possible return began almost immediately after his replacement, Rudy Tomjanovich, left in February, despite Jackson's book detailing the 2003-04 season in which he made disparaging remarks about the franchise.
Bryant was at the top of that list.
"I think it's a matter of trust, a matter of rebuilding the trust that we had," Jackson said of his relationship with Bryant. "And yes, I have talked to Kobe; he actually called me this morning to congratulate me on the job. And I felt confident that he's confident that we can go forward."
Bryant's reaction to a possible return by Jackson seemed lukewarm at best during the past several months. But Bryant released a more positive statement through his agent Tuesday.
"When the Lakers began the search for a new head coach, I put my complete trust in Dr. Buss and (general manager) Mitch Kupchak to select the person they thought was best for the Lakers' organization," Bryant said. "In Phil Jackson, they chose a proven winner. That is something I support."
Jackson's latest deal is for three years. Terms were not announced, but it's believed he'll be earning between $7 million and $10 million per year, making him the highest-paid NBA coach ever — a fact confirmed by Kupchak.
Kupchak said other potential coaches were contacted to gauge their interest.
"Roy Williams turned us down for the third time," Kupchak said of his attempts to talk with the North Carolina coach. "That's a Los Angeles record."
But the Lakers' only offer went to Jackson, Kupchak said, with the deal being finalized early Tuesday.
"I can see how thrilled he is to be back," said Todd Musburger, Jackson's agent. "It was the right decision. In the end, it came down to returning to the Lakers or taking another year off. And here we are."
Jackson said he's been approached over the last three weeks by fans and non-fans asking him when he was coming back.
"One of the reasons why I've returned is the support has been so tremendous in this city," he said. "It is a town that truly supports its team and has a tremendous amount of affection for it."
Jeanie Buss, the owner's daughter and the Lakers' executive vice president of business operations, publicly lobbied for months for the return of Jackson, her longtime boyfriend.
She got her wish.
"We're very pleased to have Phil return to the Lakers as our head coach," Jerry Buss said in a statement. "His record speaks for itself and his success in this sport is unparalleled. Quite simply, Phil is the best coach in the business and probably the greatest coach of all time."
Jackson, who turns 60 in September, has had health issues in the past and underwent an angioplasty two years ago. He told ABC-TV before the opening game of the NBA Finals that he had a series of tests showing he was "100 percent healthy."
Jackson's dismissal last year set in motion a makeover of massive proportions that proved disastrous for the Lakers. Dominant big man Shaquille O'Neal demanded a trade and superstar Bryant opted out of his contract to become a free agent the same day Jackson's five-year run as coach ended.
The following month, O'Neal was traded to Miami while Bryant stayed with the Lakers.
"I want to congratulate Phil on returning to coach the Lakers," O'Neal said in a statement released through the Heat. "He is one of the premier coaches. I wish him the very best."
O'Neal's representatives did not return repeated calls and e-mails seeking additional comment.
Tomjanovich succeeded Jackson, signing a five-year, $30 million contract, but lasted barely half a season, citing health reasons when he suddenly resigned Feb. 2.
With injuries playing a major role, the Lakers lost 19 of their last 21 games under interim coach Frank Hamblen to finish 34-48 and out of the playoffs for just the second time since 1976.
Jackson, who has never posted a losing record, has coached nine NBA championship teams — six with the Chicago Bulls and in his first three years with the Lakers — from 2000-2002. That ties him with former Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach for the most in league history.
Jackson also has a record 175 postseason victories and is tied for 10th on the NBA's all-time list with 830 wins in just 14 seasons — nine with the Bulls and five with the Lakers. He has a .723 regular-season winning percentage and a .717 postseason winning percentage.
The Lakers were 287-123 in the regular season and 64-28 in the postseason under Jackson. But this figures to be his biggest challenge because the current team doesn't appear to have what it takes to return to elite status any time soon.
The Lakers are well over the salary cap, restricting their ability to bring in high-priced free-agent talent for at least two years. Their defense was abysmal last season; they had an unbalanced roster with too many small forwards; they had virtually no inside presence; and they were suspect at point guard.
"I'm not the panacea for this basketball club," Jackson said. "It's going to take plenty of hard work and dedication over the course of the summer to change the face of this team."
Jackson said winning a 10th championship is not a priority and didn't sound like he expected that in the next three years.
"I would be most amazed if at the end of the third year we had an opportunity to do that," he said.
"He said the same thing the first time we hired him. I hope the same thing unfolds," Kupchak said.
Jackson spoke to several other teams, including the New York Knicks. His decision to rejoin the Lakers should speed up the process of filling other job openings around the league. There are coaching vacancies in Minnesota and Portland, and Seattle coach Nate McMillan's contract expires at the end of this month.