An Oral, Aggregated History of the Lakers' Roller-Coaster Head Coach Search
It's been a long strange trip for the Los Angeles Lakers from one Mike to the other.
Or, at least, it feels that way. In reality, it's been but a week since Mike Brown was last seen squirming on the hot seat during a 95-86 road loss to the Utah Jazz.
Yet, in that time, we here in sunny southern California, like most around the NBA, have seen the Lakers' brass give Brown the dreaded vote of confidence, can him the next day, seemingly make Phil Jackson the front-runner for the opening and then, in another shocking twist, hand the reins over to a hobbled Mike D'Antoni.
We may never know exactly what happened behind closed doors, though we can at least try to piece together the events themselves through the accounts of those involved—D'Antoni, the Zen Master and Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak, among others—and of the shadowy sources in between.
Wednesday, November 7th: Mike Brown Gets the Death Stare
The last time Mike Brown was seen stalking the sidelines, the Lakers were in Salt Lake City getting outhustled and outmuscled by the Jazz in a nine-point loss. The result dropped L.A.'s record to a disappointing 1-4 through the first five games and landed Brown squarely in the crosshairs.
Of Kobe Bryant, that is. Shortly after the game, the above clip of Kobe's "death stare" went viral, with those spreading it presuming that it was directed toward the Lakers' embattled head coach.
Kobe dismissed it as nonsense the next day, claiming that he was, if anything, Brown's "biggest supporter."
Thursday, November 8th: Jim Buss Preaches Patience...
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
The day after the Lakers' loss in Utah, Jim Buss, the son of owner Dr. Jerry Buss and the team's executive vice president, lent his support to Brown, albeit tepidly. As he told Ramon Shelburne of ESPNLosAngeles.com:
You don't start 0-3 for the first time since we've owned the franchise without being on top of it. No matter what, you have to be aware. That doesn't mean change is coming. That just means you have to be aware.
I have no problems with Mike Brown at all. He just works too hard and he's too knowledgeable for this to be happening.
So either the system is flawed or something's going on. Or, like the Triangle, it's very hard to pick up and understand. I'm not a basketball mind like he is or the players are, and the players are fine with it, so I just have to be patient.
Buss continued to stress such patience while declining to set a benchmark for the circumstances under which he and the team's brain trust would consider showing Brown the door:
You have to give it time to understand (what's going on). I don't know if there's an actual game total that would make me impatient. I know if we're 1-15, I don't think that would be very good. I'm sure that would be a panic button. But at this time, I'm fine with what's going on. It's a learning process for the players. As long as everybody is on the same page, I think we're fine.
That very night, ESPN's Marc Stein reported that Mike Brown was, indeed, on the hot seat and that his job may hinge on the results of the Lakers' then-upcoming homestand. Therein, Stein mentioned a slew of coaches—Mike D'Antoni, Jerry Sloan, Nate McMillan, Stan Van Gundy and, of course, Phil Jackson—with whom the team might inquire if the front office were to come down on Brown.
Friday Morning, November 9th: Brown Leaves Town
So much for patience. The very next morning, Jim Buss' proclamation of support rang hollow as Mike Brown was informed he'd been relieved of his duties as the head coach of the Lakers. Sam Amick of USA Today was the first to report the news of Buss' apparent change of heart:
Lakers coach Mike Brown has been fired, USA TODAY Sports has learned - usat.ly/VN9aQ4— Sam Amick (@sam_amick) November 9, 2012
According to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, the front office made Mike Brown aware of his firing by pulling him aside during a morning session with his coaching staff.
Mike Brown was called out of staff meeting on Friday morning, told he was fired, and returned 10 minutes later to tell his coaches the news.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) November 9, 2012
Shortly thereafter, Brown released the following statement (via Amick):
I have great respect for the Buss family and the Lakers' storied tradition and I thank them for the opportunity they afforded me. I have a deep appreciation for the coaches and players that I worked with this past year and I wish the organization nothing but success as they move forward.
A couple hours later, Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak held court at a press conference (seen above) during which he addressed Mike Brown's firing, hinted at a list of replacements consisting of unemployed coaches and even mentioned Phil Jackson by name.
For what it's worth, Magic Johnson took to Twitter to dispute the rumor that he was somehow involved in Brown's dismissal:
I'd like to address some rumors related to my role in the firing of Mike Brown.I had NO conversations w/ Dr. Buss, Jim Buss or Mitch.— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) November 12, 2012
Friday Evening, November 9th: The Search Is On...and the Lakers Win
With Mike Brown gone (and free to grab a bite at Chick-fil-A), Bernie Bickerstaff busied himself on the Lakers' bench in the interim. The team went on to demolish the Andrew Bogut-less Golden State Warriors, 101-77, as chants of "We Want Phil!" echoed into the rafters at the Staples Center.
After the game, Kobe endorsed Jackson and D'Antoni, along with former Lakers assistant Brian Shaw, for the job. Not surprisingly, his praise of Phil was the most effusive (via Mike Bresnahan of The Los Angeles Times):
The one thing that’s kind of always bothered me is that in his last year I wasn't able to give him my normal self. I was playing on one leg and that’s kind of always eaten away at me. The last year of his career I wasn't able to give him all I had.
He’s too great of a coach to have it go out that way. That’s my personal sentiment. I took it to heart because I couldn’t give it everything I had because I physically couldn’t. My knee was shot. That’s always bothered me.
That same night, Mike Bresnahan reported that the Lakers had, indeed, reached out to the Zen Master:
The Lakers have officially contacted Phil Jackson to gauge his interest in coaching them, The Times has learned.— Mike Bresnahan (@Mike_Bresnahan) November 10, 2012
Ironically enough, Jackson was at the Lakers' practice facility in El Segundo that very day, presumably to visit Jeannie Buss, his girlfriend and the daughter of team owner Jerry Buss (via Ramona Shelburne of ESPN):
If you hear Phil Jackson was at Lakers facility, it's a coincidence. His girlfriend is Lakers VP Jeanie Buss. He will be considered however— ramonashelburne (@ramonashelburne) November 9, 2012
It's understandable that Brian Shaw just laughed when I mentioned the Lakers job to him at shootaround. Things ended ugly in LA for him.— Mike Wells (@MikeWellsNBA) November 9, 2012
Jerry Sloan, the Hall of Fame coach formerly of the Utah Jazz and one of Jackson's longtime rivals, had little to say regarding his inclusion in the Lakers' discussion (via Jazz radio announcer David Locke):
I just spoke with Jerry Sloan he has no comment on the situation with the Lakers— David Locke (@Lockedonsports) November 9, 2012
Meanwhile, ESPN's Ramona Shelburne suggested that Jackson and Mike D'Antoni were the early front-runners:
Source close to situation says PJax & D'Antoni are "neck and neck"— ramonashelburne (@ramonashelburne) November 10, 2012
At some point, the Lakers' brass asked Kobe to contribute his two cents to the situation, with Bryant endorsing both candidates. When asked by Sam Amick on Tuesday whether he appreciated being consulted during the coaching search, Kobe replied:
Very much so. Yeah, very much so. Very much so. I mean our relationship has been much more open and much more fluid since (last time, when Bryant wasn't consulted in the hiring of Mike Brown).
Saturday, November 10th: Old "Friends" Meet Again
The next day, the Lakers' brain trust trekked down to Phil Jackson's house in Playa del Rey to discuss the coaching vacancy and gauge his interest in filling it. The details of that meeting have been the subject of some dispute.
According to Adrian Wojnarowski, Jackson made "unprecedented demands," including "significant allowances on travel, coaching duties and an ability to veto player personnel moves that didn't fit his vision..." Mike Bresnahan later reported that Jackson was seeking an ownership stake, similar to Pat Riley's arrangement with the Miami Heat, and that Jim Buss was put off by the suggestion.
Phil disputed having asked for so much in a statement released through Kevin Ding of The Orange County Register:
Saturday morning, Jim Buss, called to ask if he could come and visit. I did not solicit or ask for the opportunity, but I welcomed both he and Mitch Kupchak into my home to discuss the possibility of my return to the Lakers as the head coach. We talked for over an hour and a half.
Todd Musburger, Jackson's agent, also denied that his client pushed for such control, though he was not present for the meeting. As he told Ramona Shelburne:
There were no demands, outrageous or otherwise. To say that he wanted control or that he wanted a zillion dollars or that he wanted equity, those were not topics discussed in the meeting between Kupchak, Buss and Phil.
In speaking to Mike Bresnahan, however, Musburger mentioned that Jackson, Buss and Kupchak covered a wide range of topics:
No discussion of those ideas being contractual terms or demands was ever made. They had a full discussion of the club, the roster, the schedule, assistants, etc.
According to ESPN's Chris Broussard, both sides shot down rumors of Jackson's demands:
Sources on both sides (Lakers & Phil) say reports of his exorbitant demands were overblown. No reason for either to lie about that.— Chris Broussard (@Chris_Broussard) November 12, 2012
Kurt Rambis, who played for the Lakers and coached under Jackson, confirmed as much on Monday, telling Sam Amick:
They had told Phil that it was his job (in a Saturday interview), that he was their first choice, and they agreed to wait until Monday -- today -- to allow him time to digest whether or not he felt he was, in fact, the right coach to come and coach this team. And, in fact, his agent (Todd Musburger) flew into town -- he's here from Chicago -- to start negotiations. So Phil had made his mind up that he wanted to coach this team...
No money was discussed. All of these things that are out there about partial ownership, and lack of travel, and no practice time -- all of that stuff is categorically false. None of those conversations ever happened. Ever. It was about whether or not he wanted to come and coach the team.
The two sides ended their meeting without an agreement, formal or otherwise. Jackson, though, was under the impression that the job was his to lose, and that he had until Monday to decide whether or not to come out of retirement a third time:
No contractual terms were discussed and we concluded with a hand shake and an understanding that I would have until Monday (today) to come back to them with my decision. I did convey to them that I did have the confidence that I could do the job.
Kupchak read the situation differently. As he told Mike Bresnahan on Tuesday:
There was no agreement to wait for (Jackson's) response on Monday. He told us that's when he would get back to us. I could see where he might interpret that as 'You guys would wait for me.' But I thought when I said I had to go on and interview other candidates that it was clear I had a job to do.
Kupchak went into greater detail when recounting the meeting with Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com:
Much has been made of the perceived agreement to wait until Monday. The actual way it took place after the basketball discussion was kind of, 'Where are we now?' And Phil said he needs some more time and I asked him, 'How much more time?' And he said, 'I will get back to you on Monday.'
At that point, I said, 'Phil, I have a job to do and I'm going to have to continue my search and interview candidates,' and he nodded that he understood.
Bresnahan reported after the meeting on Saturday that the Lakers were "95 percent sure" that Phil would fill the void on the bench for the Lakers. For Jackson's part, he told Kevin Ding that he enjoyed the meeting:
Phil Jackson enjoyed meeting with Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss at Phil's home in Playa del Rey today. This. Is. Happening.— KEVIN DING (@KevinDing) November 11, 2012
Following today's meeting, a source familiar w/ talks between Phil Jackson/Lakers texted me "No time frame has been set, yet"— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) November 10, 2012
Saturday Evening into Sunday Afternoon, November 10th/11th: The Calls Continue
After their sit-down with Jackson, the Lakers' brain trust continued its inquiries, which, according to NBA reporter David Aldridge, included a pair of Mikes:
As just reported on @nbatv, Lakers will also speak with Mike D'Antoni and Mike Dunleavy in coming days after discussing job w/PJax Saturday.— David Aldridge (@daldridgetnt) November 11, 2012
Source says D'Antoni's phone interview went very well but "it still seems like its Phil's job to lose."— Chris Broussard (@Chris_Broussard) November 11, 2012
The next day, the Lakers interviewed Mike Dunleavy Sr., who coached the Purple and Gold to the 1991 NBA Finals and most recently served as head coach and general manager of the Clippers (via Broussard):
Mike Dunleavy & Jim Buss met 2day for about 90 minutes, source says. Went well. Dunleavy will be strongly considered if Phil doesn't do it
— Chris Broussard (@Chris_Broussard) November 11, 2012
Sunday, November 11th: Lakers Win Again, All Seems Well in L.A.
Jeff Gross/Getty Images
That night, the Lakers welcomed the short-handed Sacramento Kings to the Staples Center and came away with a 103-90 victory. During the game, fans rekindled the same "We Want Phil!" chant that resounded through the building against the Warriors on Friday.
Little did anyone know, though, that their cries fell largely on deaf ears...
Sunday Evening, November 11th: D'Antoni Gets Godfathered
According to Mike Bresnahan, the Lakers' Great Triumvirate (Jerry Buss, Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak) decided unanimously around 6 p.m. Pacific time to offer the job to D'Antoni. Kurt Rambis commented to Sam Amick that something must have caused L.A.'s decision-makers to switch their thinking:
...Phil had made his mind up that he wanted to coach this team. Somewhere between Saturday afternoon, when Phil and I had a conversation, and Sunday night, the Laker organization made a complete 180-degree turn.
As Mitch explained, it was a matter of playing styles, with D'Antoni's fitting the Lakers' players better in the eyes of the front office:
He plays the way we see our team playing and our personnel executing.
Since I've been here, Dr. Buss' preference has always been...up and down, free-styled.
Kupchak added that he and the Busses weren't deterred by the possibility of a negative reaction to the choice from the public:
There was a lot of pressure to seriously consider bringing Phil back. We sorted through the PR backlash and decided that we ultimately could withstand it.
He also noted that the move was made with the retention of Dwight Howard, an impending free agent, in mind:
We look at Dwight as a cornerstone for this franchise going forward. Right now, it's Kobe Bryant and right there is Steve Nash and Pau Gasol. But the cornerstone for this franchise, just based on talent and age, is Dwight Howard. A big part of getting the most out of Dwight was important in the search.
D'Antoni told T.J. Simers of The Los Angeles Times on Wednesday that he was shocked to hear back from the Lakers:
I'm not drawing up plays or texting anyone because I figure, like everyone else, it's Phil's job.
It took the Lakers and D'Antoni approximately five-and-a-half hours to consummate a deal, due in large part to a faulty fax machine on the coach's end in New York. By 11:30 p.m. Pacific, D'Antoni had officially agreed to a three-year, $12 million deal (with a team option for a fourth) to become the next head coach of the Lakers.
Bresnahan was the first to break the story:
Source: Mike D'Antoni will be the next coach of the Lakers. Not Phil Jackson.— Mike Bresnahan (@Mike_Bresnahan) November 12, 2012
Midnight, November 12th: Phil Gets the Call
A half hour later, Mitch Kupchak informed Phil Jackson of the news. As he told Dave McMenamin, Kupchak left a message on Jackson's cell phone and, when it wasn't returned in short order, subsequently tried Jackson on his land line at home:
Our feeling was the worst thing we can do, since we already made our decision, was to go into Monday. I can get a call at 8 in the morning or 9 in the morning or 12 from Phil indicating that, 'I've thought about it and I would like to be the coach. Let's start negotiations.' To say at that point, 'Well, we've decided to go in a different direction,' our feeling was that would be even worse than what we did Sunday night.
I woke him up. He's always a little cryptic on the phone, but I did wake him up. In those types of situations, there's not a lot of small talk.
Added Kupchak (via Mike Bresnahan):
He was very complimentary of Mike under the circumstances. I just told him . . . that we just felt the present makeup of the team and the kind of basketball we wanted to play going forward, we just felt that Mike D'Antoni was the choice.
I didn't look forward to calling somebody at midnight to tell him that he's not going to get a job that he might or might not accept. But the only other thing I could do was wait until Monday morning and that would have been worse.
Per McMenamin, Kupchak went on to characterize Jackson's involvement in the search (at least initially) as a courtesy to the Hall of Famer for his success with the franchise and as one to the fans in light of their "groundswell of support."
Of which Jackson made mention in his statement regarding the situation (via Kevin Ding):
I was awakened at midnight on Sunday by a phone call from Mitch Kupchak. He told me that the Lakers had signed Mike D’Antoni to a 3-year agreement and that they felt he was the best coach for the team. The decision is of course theirs to make. I am gratified by the groundswell of support from the Laker Fans who endorsed my return and it is the principal reason why I considered the possibility."
In a conversation with The Los Angeles Times on Monday, Jackson described the call as "slimy":
I wish it would have been a little bit cleaner. It would have been much more circumspect and respectful of everybody that's involved. It seemed slimy to be awoken with this kind of news. It's just weird.
Musburger, Jackson's agent, was none too pleased with the way things were handled (per Ramona Shelburne and Dave McMenamin):
Phil is someone who brought nothing but trophies to their bookcase and value to the franchise. He deserved to be dealt with honestly.
He didn't deserve the job, that's their decision. They can hire whoever they wish. But don't say to someone you've got until Monday and then roust him from slumber at midnight to say, 'By the way we hired somebody else.' That's just not fair dealing and Phil deserved fair dealing. He's a good faith person and he was dealt with poorly. It is indicative of the shabby way that organization is being run.
Musburger had been scheduled to fly into L.A. from Chicago on Monday morning, but didn't make the trip once Phil informed him of the news.
Monday, November 12th: The Players (Past and Present) React
The Lakers themselves offered a wide range of thoughts regarding D'Antoni's hiring, though most were positive.
In speaking to Lance Pugmire of the Los Angeles Times, veteran forward Antawn Jamison likened the atmosphere around the team to that of "a zoo," adding:
It'll be exciting getting up and down the court. There'll be every opportunity to maximize what you can do on the offensive side.
The key is patience. We'll be doing this while preparing for games, as well. … Another month from now, we'll be clicking with the system in place.
Dwight Howard seemed to appreciate the fit of D'Antoni on the sidelines:
Do I fit? I think so. He wants to win and we all want to win. We've got to figure out what's best for this team moving forward.
We've got a lot of old guys...(but) we can find a balance...This will be great for the guys who like to play offense. Young guys, put your straps on. It'll be fun.
Chris Duhon, who played for D'Antoni in New York, offered his thoughts on the hire:
Don't get it wrong, he has plays to slow it down and get guys shots. His offensive brilliance is amazing.
His creative mind is second to none. He's free-going, a player's coach, easy to talk to. Like a teammate, a guy who can make adjustments on the fly. You have a lot of freedom.
Said Pau Gasol of D'Antoni's arrival:
I think everyone had expectations that it'd be Phil from what he brings to the table, how successful he's been, the championships he's brought to the city. It didn't happen.
With a new coach, there's a process of adjustment, how it's going to look and work. Everyone's relying on Steve to facilitate that process, but he might not be playing for a bit, so for the rest of the guys, it's new.
Not surprisingly, Steve Nash's reaction was overwhelmingly positive, telling Sam Amick:
I never would've predicted him being here as we get a chance to work together again, especially here with this team. I'm thrilled, but definitely shocked as well. I didn't see it coming. Everything has happened so fast.
Though Nash did express some disappointment in missing out on an opportunity to play for the Zen Master:
Well I mean, of course. In some ways, I thought it was Phil, and so I was geared up for that, and excited in a totally different respect because of his experience and success, and particularly here with this organization. That would have been a whole different circumstance that I would've been excited for as well. But I'm back with Mike and thrilled.
Albeit not nearly as much disappointment as one Earvin Johnson apparently encountered as a result of the Lakers' decision:
The reason I haven't tweeted in 2 days is because I've been mourning Phil Jackson not being hired as the Lakers head coach.— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) November 14, 2012
Kobe didn't seem to have any qualms with the move, though it did surprise him, as he told Mike Bresnahan:
I think we were all kind of thinking it was going to be Phil. It probably caught Mike off guard a little bit too. But I'm excited.
Phil and I have gone back since I was 20 years old and everything he's taught me and so forth. There's a little bit of that. At the same time, I'm very excited about Coach D. I know Phil will be enjoying his retirement and looking to get back in the game, although probably not in a coaching standpoint, probably a managerial role at some point.
To be honest, I said D'Antoni was my first choice because I didn't even know Phil was going to be an option. And then Jimmy's the one that brought up Phil's name. I didn't even know that was a consideration. They said, 'Well it is, and I want to know how you feel about it.' I said 'I love it' and that was it. They knew my two guys that I liked. If one didn't work out obviously with Phil, they knew that they had my approval to pull the trigger on the other one.