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Phil Jackson to coach again? Never say never

Sam Smith of Bulls.com catches up with legendary coach Phil Jackson to talk about what he’s up to now, as well as his future

Jackson doesn’t take sides whether he’s a Laker or Bull, but admits, “More often than not people will say to me, ‘I was a huge fan of the Bulls and I watched you coach those Bulls teams.’ This generation that’s watched the Lakers still are too young yet.” (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

Sam Smith Mailbag

So Phil, I finally had to ask after we had gone through the usual familiars about health and family, do you want to coach in the NBA again?

“No,” said Phil Jackson with his practiced, slightly bemused look.

“I don’t,” added Jackson, though there rarely is a finality to the declarations of the never say never dreamer. “But that doesn’t mean I won’t. I don’t think I’ll coach again. I’d like to see if there’s another side of basketball, perhaps. If I’m back in full (health) activity at a level I want to be active at, I may not even want to go back to coaching.

“I may want to pick up where I wanted to go, maybe ride a motorcycle around the world, do something that’s much different,” Jackson said possibly musing about his own bucket list. “I don’t think I’ll ever run marathons. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do that again. But have the kind of activity I’d like to do. Fly fish and still be able to do some of the things I’d like to do.”

Easy rider at 66? No, not the road.

I caught up with Phil when the Bulls were in Los Angeles New Year’s Eve at Jerry’s, the famous deli in Marina del Rey which is as close as you can get in California to an East coast diner. Huge menu. Lots of bakery sweets.

Phil had a chicken caesar salad, a potato pancake and an Arnold Palmer, the mixture of lemonade and iced tea he most orders. I went with an omelet and a side of lox and then a heart massage.

Jackson had just come from a few hours on the beach in front of his Playa del Rey home entertaining two of his seven grandchildren. “There’s a lot of noise in my house these days,” he laughed.

Perhaps that’s why as we talked he leaned to the booth behind where there were four Asian kids raising the decibel level. It was almost a Southern California Larry David moment as Phil turned and asked if they’d hold it down a bit. Two looked quizzically, and I was certain they had no idea who this old man was as they went back to their jangling conversation. Phil turned back and shrugged with a smile. It was the look of a former coach: You know, no one listens anymore.

He’s living in Los Angeles after spending the summer at his Montana home.

“With my level of activity it’s not a good idea to be on ice and snow,” Jackson said. “I don’t have that kind of mobility right now. I did have a garden this summer in Montana, a very fruitful one, and enjoyed my time there. I wouldn’t rule out living somewhere else. But as you know (I moan about the Chicago weather all the time) to be able to spend the winter months outdoors and not feeling trapped is a great weather situation. It’s been nice to have been here a decade or more.

“The older you get,” he went on, “the harder it is sometimes to weather that (winter). But you also have to do what interests you, what you have enthusiasm for.”

And for right now it’s writing and still putting the pieces back together.

“This is the year I’m trying to get some handle on my health,” Jackson said. “I’ve set my sights on being back and active again, to have a knee replaced at some point and move forward. It’s been three years since my last hip (replacement) operation and my knee started affecting my ability level. I need to get that right.

Phil Jackson "It’s an intriguing crossroads of life Jackson is reaching, similar in some ways to many Americans though much different given the opportunities he could have," writes Smith of Jackson, a 2007 Basketball Hall of Fame inductee.
(Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)

“I’m going to write a book,” Jackson said. “Kind of a sequel to Sacred Hoops, the book I wrote almost 20 years ago. I want to bring back some of the principles and what I believe in coaching and some of the things that happened in the years subsequent.

“There were eight championships since I wrote that book,” Jackson noted. “And every one had a specific kind of characteristic and overriding theme that goes into it, and I think that’s a story worth telling. It’s an interesting story, some of the things that have to be done to create a team and manage people and have success.”

It’s the lessons and theories Jackson generally goes into during his speaking engagements, and if freed from any future coaching in the NBA I know I’d like to read some of that inside story.

“After that,” Jackson said, “I don’t know.”

It’s an intriguing crossroads of life Jackson is reaching, similar in some ways to many Americans though much different given the opportunities he could have. If Jackson wanted to, there’s little doubt he could step back onto the sideline of some team as certainly the most successful professional coach in American team sports history.

I do believe him when he says he’d rather not, though he also wants to be productive and have something to be excited about. Like George Burns once said upon turning 100 and asking if he was retiring. “To what?” he asked.

Jackson is famous for his many interests, though I once asked him and he shyly conceded he was a basketball lifer.

He’s always been proud in his way as well. I remember a writer once calling him a journeyman player, and Jackson corrected. He said he mainly stayed with one team, so he wasn’t a journeyman. He was a contributor and role player and proud of that.

There’s a bit of that George Washington cannot tell a lie myth — that school kid story was made up — in Jackson as well. It’s why he was always so popular around reporters. Jackson never cared for the frequent media sessions required by the NBA. But he also had trouble being misleading. If you asked him a question, he had a difficult time not giving you a straight answer instead of coach speak.

Jackson has long talked about some sort of basketball mentoring position with a team, essentially being a consultant. So I asked him about being a general manager. Jackson always had a good sense for team building and was instrumental in the Bulls acquisition of Bill Cartwright over Michael Jordan’s objections, and later with the Lakers the decision to keep Lamar Odom that contributed to another two titles.

“GMs have to lie too much,” Jackson said with a laugh. “It’s one of the hardest things to do is to be a prevaricator, or whatever you want to call it, to equivocate all the time. It’s almost like being in political office. I’d prefer some behind the scenes type situation where you can actually have a difference in the character of the people coming to work both in coaching aspect and players. That make sense in that type of management.”

The unfortunate part for Jackson, and perhaps more so for the Lakers, is it won’t happen with the Lakers, where it should have after Jackson coached them to five championships with distinct groups even more different than the two with the Bulls.

Jackson isn’t one to leave with bad feelings or bridges in disrepair. He and former wife June remain good friends and talk regularly. Jackson is still with Lakers’ executive Jeanie Buss, but her brother Jim assumed control of basketball operations and removed from the organization anyone connected with Jackson.

That obviously closed the door for Jackson, though there are no bitter feelings. In fact, he said he and owner/patriarch Jerry had a nice talk recently when they ran into one another at a local café.

“It wasn’t that dramatic,” said Jackson. “I coached one more year than I probably really wanted to. But Dr. Buss encouraged me to do it and take them through the lockout because there was so much ambiguity around what the lockout was really going to mean. That was really what happened.

“I came back to coach. Took a 25 percent pay cut,” Jackson added with a broad smile and typical understated wit, “which hurt badly. But I was still gracious about it.”

Jackson doesn’t take sides whether he’s a Laker or Bull, but admits, “More often than not people will say to me, ‘I was a huge fan of the Bulls and I watched you coach those Bulls teams.’ This generation that’s watched the Lakers still are too young yet.”

Jackson said he hasn’t watched much basketball this season, though he’s pleased the labor situation finally was resolved. He said he watched part of the Lakers/Bulls Christmas Day game and has tried to stay away from the team to not interfere as the Lakers go from the system type approach Jackson believed in a more traditional NBA game individual game.

“I think they’re learning the system, coming together,” Jackson said. “They’ve got new pieces. Speed isn’t what they want it to be. This is a team that’s been used to playing whatever level of half court and taking care of opponents with execution. With their new kind of way they’re going to play I think they’re going to have some speed and some easier baskets and easier ability to make some points. I think they’re a team in transition, so to speak, and we’ll see some changes. I don’t think they’re done changing the personnel.”

Jackson said he likes to watch Miami “because they’re so talented. They’re obviously a real threat with those two players. I like to watch Chicago because they really play defense and work well together, support each other really well. Dallas isn’t that much fun to watch, not quite as exciting. The Oklahoma City team is fun to watch. They’re still young and have come a long way in two years. They have a chance to show this year as a big team.

“Because I’m in the process of writing a book, I’ve had to look back. I don’t believe in dwelling in the past, but I’ve had to dredge up a lot of things in my memory,” Jackson said. “It’s kind of amazing what’s transpired in 20 years of coaching in the NBA. It was just a ridiculous opportunity for me to be in such a great position to see this game from the top all the time and in those 20 years or whatever, 70 percent of the time I was coaching teams in the Finals. Which is stupid to even say it. It doesn’t make sense.”

Jackson’s never been one to dwell on any individual accomplishment, which may be why, to some, he appeared perhaps arrogant or distant about the success. In reality, he was almost apologetic realizing how fortunate he’s been. He was hurt when he saw a story last year saying he never thanked Jerry Reinsdorf or Jerry Krause for the opportunity in Chicago as he did so numerous times, similarly with Jerry Buss.

Phil knows where he came from and I still have a copy of his resume from about 30 years ago when I came to know him as the coach of the Albany Patroons and he was hoping to break into the NBA. I’d watched his CBA teams and felt he would be a good coach and said I’d pass it along to a friend in the NBA. Phil knows better than anyone how close he was to giving up the NBA for good before he got that last chance on the Bulls staff, and he’s always been grateful. He and Reinsdorf remain good friends.

It’s also why Jackson always seemed to wince when there were questions about being the greatest. He always had confidence in his abilities, but he also knew it could have been much different if he’d gotten the Timberwolves expansion job he so badly wanted or if someone else were selected to replace Doug Collins.

He keeps up with his former Lakers staff members and players who have disbursed around the NBA, Brian Shaw in Indiana, strength coach Alex McKechnie in Toronto, Odom in Dallas, Jim Cleamons in China and Chip Shaffer at the U. of California/Santa Barbara. He says he still hears from former players like Ron Harper and Robert Horry, and Rick Fox in the L.A. area. Luc Longley is coming for a visit and B.J. Armstrong checked in with a holiday call. He’s done some heavy talks with Dennis Rodman and works on some public service projects with his former teammate Bill Bradley.

He took the family with the seven grandkids, all under five, to Yosemite for Christmas.

“It does bring that perspective,” Jackson said. “The appreciation (your children) have for (their) parents. They say, ‘How did you raise (five) with one or two so hard.’

“These beautiful grandchildren are like flowers,” Jackson said. “You watch them grow and this one is athletic and this one is a reader and this one is a lover. The personalities are so interesting to watch come out. I don’t change diapers. I haven’t volunteered in that part. The other part I’m full in. The noise does sometimes get to me when there are seven in one room.”

It’s the cycle of life, so to speak, and it appears so for Jackson as well. He didn’t even know when he left the Bulls in 1998 if he’d coach again. But he did miss it.

“I thought I was only going to coach three years,” Jackson said. “The Busses asked me to come back and hopefully get us in the playoffs and get going again. One thing led to another and I ended up coaching longer my second stint than the first with the Bulls.

“I can say I’d like to (come back) to go on to win a dozen championships, but that is ridiculous to almost even say that (aloud),” Jackson said with sort of a wince. “Everything I’ve wanted to accomplish has been accomplished as far as that goes. But life isn’t about the amount of money you make or the kind of accolades you have but about really fulfilling your life and having it fulfilled. There are a lot of things that go into that. Your family, how you live your life and how you make the best of it. Not just your professional or career life. I think that’s the overwhelming drive in my life.”

NBA news and notes

-- Although the Bulls’ three point shooting is respectable at about 40 percent, Derrick Rose, Luol Deng and Richard Hamilton, who will get most of those shots, all are shooting below 30 percent on Threes. ... Check out Ray “Dorian Gray” Allen at 36 shooting an amazing 63 percent on threes and just under 58 percent overall while 11th in the league in scoring. ... LeBron James with just two three pointers shot this season is second in the league in field goal percentage, the category usually reserved for centers dunking the ball. Spencer Hawes leads. ... Fastest start belongs to the 76ers leading the Atlantic Division despite being the last team to play a home game and with the league’s biggest margin of victory at more than 15 points per game. ... Some of the guys having trouble getting into the season include, Kobe Bryant at 20 percent on threes, Russell Westbrook at 18 percent on threes and 41 percent overall and Dirk Nowitzki at 43.8 percent overall and Deron Williams shooting 34.6 percent and 28 percent on threes after having left his game in Turkey. And, by the way, it doesn’t sound great with Williams complaining about the losing in New Jersey. Hey, make a few shots first!

-- The Bulls get a nice chance to get well Monday with the Pistons coming in. They are one of four teams losing by an average of double figures and are coming off losing three straight by at least 16 points (21 average), something no Pistons team has done since Dick Vitale was coach in 1980 (whose idea was that?). They were having mutinies last season and not losing as badly. New coach Lawrence Frank’s teams (0-16 when he was fired by the Nets) have now lost 22 of their last 24 games, and while talent has a lot to do with it and there’s not that much you can do when you are dealt a bad hand, at least can we stop hearing from the winning coach after every loss about how it’s a well coached team even if it’s not Frank’s fault. ... That’s Game 1 of the Bulls three straight and Game 3 is the Wizards, the league’s worst team at 0-8 after being blown out at home Sunday by the Timberwolves. It’s unclear how Flip Saunders survives this, though to be fair Saunders was brought in to coach a veteran team in 2009 with Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler and Gilbert Arenas (yet to be picked up this season after amnesty), Brendan Haywood and Mike Miller that was supposed to be a contender until Gilbert Arenas shot it down. While known as a clever tactician, Saunders is a coach who doesn’t come down hard on his players, and it’s gotten so bad with the Wizards in a team meeting last week players asked to be held more accountable by the coaching staff. You don’t hear that one much. Veteran Maurice Evans told the Washington Post the Wizards players have “the sense of entitlement that’s here sometimes, I’ve never seen before.” While it’s a team of fakers like Andray Batche and Nick Young, the biggest problem may be John Wall. Not that he’s a problem guy. But you can’t build around him because he’s not a basketball player. He’s a track star. He’s one of the league’s worst shooters at 35 percent and had yet to make a three this season. And he’s no point guard with little feel for the game. He’s really fast and basically runs to the basket every time he can. I watch him on breaks and he has no idea who is running with him or where to pass the ball. He seems to have little feel for the game, though his great athletic ability can produce some big games. I watched him against Ricky Rubio Sunday and I’d take Rubio over him in a second because he can run a team and help teammates. Kyrie Irving as well. Wall seems to be one of those new era guards, like Tyreke Evans and Rodney Stuckey, teams are changing their whole philosophy to accommodate while they are not talented enough. The Wizards were lustily booed at home Sunday and it looks like it’s only going to get worse. Veteran Rashard Lewis got benched after an incredibly indifferent effort in a blowout loss to the Knicks. Yes, he makes $21 million this season. Saunders got tossed from a game last week in the first two minutes, which seems a plea for a mercy firing.

-- Speaking of coaches, the Kings let Paul Westphal go last week after he clashed with DeMarcus Cousins. It probably wasn’t going to last much longer, anyway, the way things were going. But if they are committing to Cousins, and I don’t use that word lightly, then you need a coach for Cousins and I don’t see Keith Smart, who has this season guaranteed. How about Sacramento’s best ever pro player, Bill Cartwright? The former Bulls coach is now on the Suns staff and was known as “Teach” to young big men with the Bulls. And he was doing a nice job bringing Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler along before administrations changed. Big men are different in the NBA, and Cousins may be the most different. They often need someone who sees the world from their view, yet most NBA coaches are former guards. With Cartwright’s local roots and experience working with big men, he might be just the one to guide the ever talented Cousins. ... Speaking of Bulls bigs, Luc Longley is due back in Chicago this week for his regular tour of the states and seeing some of his former teammates and just mates. ... Stupidest story of the year has to be Kris Humphries, again averaging a double/double at 13.3 points and 11.1 rebounds, booed everywhere and in Canada last week. And we thought they were the nice ones up there. The kid is the victim. It seems obvious it’s a way to express displeasure at the way he was conned by the Kardashian family of grifters, but isn’t playing for this Nets team punishment enough?

-- I loved the latest fake story of the Knicks looking to trade Amar’e Stoudemire for Dwight Howard that was kicking around last week. Sure, a guy making some $20 million annually whose contract can’t be insured because of a history of major knee surgeries. Hard to believe the deal wasn’t made yet. Which isn’t to say this Stoudemire thing is going to work in New York with Carmelo Anthony often turning Stoudemire — and everyone else — into spectators as he isolates and shoots. Coach Mike D’Antoni’s so called seven seconds or less offense (actually fewer is the correct usage) now is about his Anthony’s dribbles. They’re not bad, really, but is Baron Davis going to be the one they all back off and allow to make the decisions? If so, everyone’s partying and taking days off. New York media officially has changed D’Antoni’s first name from “Mike” to “Lame duck coach.” ... How quickly they forget. In Boston they are saying Wisconsin’s Greg Stiemsma is the new Brian Scalabrine ... So much for that zone to shut down Miami as they’ve blitzed it lately with James and Mario Chalmers in the top five in the league in shooting and James Jones shooting 48 percent on Threes. ... Although the Hawks handled Derrick Rose as well as anyone Saturday, Atlanta coach Larry Drew knows it’s been a rarity for his team. Drew told the Atlanta Constitution: “With Rose, I think he may be more explosive. Both LeBron and D-Wade are very explosive, but Rose's explosion is a little bit different. His ability to get into the paint is more of a havoc than LeBron and Wade. LeBron and Wade are more open court. Rose can get into the basket open court and half court."

-- Corey Maggette is out for a month with a hamstring injury in Charlotte. Big surprise there. So they’re going with Tyrus Thomas at small forward after Thomas told the staff he can guard small forwards. Anything to get away from those mean guys at the basket. D.J. White apparently had beaten out Tyrus at power forward, anyway. The Bobcats, whom the Bulls see Saturday, look like they did make a nice pickup of rarely used Byron Mullins from the Thunder. Mullins has averaged 11.4 points in just under 19 minutes and looks like a starter. ... How about Dirk Nowitzki complaining about the schedule and blaming the NBA: "We know this league is about money, so the more games they get, the more money they make. So it's really not about the product that much to them. But it is what it is." Well, you can say that, though it would have sounded better if the players hadn’t wanted to lose any more money in the labor deal and agreed with the 66-game schedule to save another lost paycheck. ... One of the early surprises has been the Jazz with no one but Al Jefferson averaging more than 12 points and the team vacillating between going young with Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter or sticking with Jefferson and Paul Millsap. I still look for Jefferson to be a big trade target come March. ... I know there are a lot of injuries, which, of course, get blamed on the number of extra games squeezed in. But most of the major ones have been flukes, like Manu Ginobili reaching in and Zach Randolph getting fallen on by a teammate.

-- Is the NBA that much easier than Europe? Barely playing in Europe, Rubio got his third double/double of the season Sunday, has scored in double figures in five of the last six games, is shooting over 50 percent and even is playing off the ball at times with Luke Ridnour at point ... Had to love Tyreke Evans on new coach Keith Smart to the Sacramento Bee: “He's the boss right now, so we've got to work with him.” ... D.J. Mbenga, Dan Gadzuric, Leon Powe, Dwyane Jones, Erick Dampier, Francisco Elson and Etan Thomas are some of the still unemployed big men working out for various teams. Joel Przybilla has had several offers, but remains home in Milwaukee unsure if he wants to play again ... With the Warriors adding mini Nate Robinson to join the likes of Stephen Curry, Monta Ellis, Ish Smith and Charles Jenkins you have to assume Nellie is coming back to coach.

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