According to Frank Isola and Peter Botte of the New York Daily News, the New York Knicks will hold a press conference next Tuesday to announce the hiring of Phil Jackson as the team’s new president of basketball operations—a position that will pay the legendary coach between $12 and $15 million per season.
Meanwhile, 2,800 miles away, fans of the floundering Los Angeles Lakers wax weary over how ownership—knowing Jackson was looking to get back into the basketball fold—never thought to make amends with the man as responsible as any other for five of the franchise’s 15 championship banners.
If recent revelations about the late Jerry Buss’ plan for his crossroads-straddled team are to be believed, it’s because Jackson was never part of the blueprint to begin with.
In a story published at ESPN.com on Friday, Ramona Shelburne suggests the elder Buss—who passed away a year ago February—wanted his two children, Jeannie and Jim, to forge a future where family blood bound the franchise beyond the basketball court:
If he’d wanted to involve Johnson or West or Jackson, he would’ve. Which is why down to the very last moment, even as influential courtesans and fans lobbied her to stage a coup, Jeanie Buss stayed silent and remained loyal to her father’s wishes. She believes that’s what he wanted. And she believes in supporting her brother Jim and general manager Mitch Kupchak no matter what, even if it means her fiancee is destined to leave and live in another city.
It’s just one of many instructive anecdotes found in Shelburne’s piece, which details, in the author’s words, the “Game of Thrones” air that has hung about House Buss for the better part of the last two years.
It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in psychology to appreciate the tension at play: Jackson and Jim Buss haven’t exactly been simpatico over the years, a problem only exacerbated by the former’s longstanding relationship with Jeannie.
There are, of course, practical considerations at play as well. At 68 years old and with a somewhat checkered recent health history, Jackson’s ability to meet the rigors and demands of a high-level front-office position—scouting, traveling, keeping up with his fellow managerial Joneses—remains unclear.
The Knicks felt it worth the risk, if only to give their fans another gilt-clad distraction with which to cloak the franchise’s more festering cankers.
The Lakers, on the other hand, and for all their recent turmoil, haven’t gone more than 10 years without a title since the founding of the NBA. However prone they may be to big-name signings and splashy avarice, wandering in the wilderness for decades on end simply isn’t part of the template.
Nor was their reluctance to pursue Jackson a matter of petty punishment for abandoning the ship. After all, Jackson took a Lakers leave of absence once before, for the 2004-05 season, coming back the following year refreshed and ready to build a champion anew.
For the Lakers, this is about moving on, however murky the unknown.
Not just from Phil, either.
Back in November, Kobe Bryant and the Lakers brass agreed to terms on a two-year extension that will pay the twilit superstar $48.5 million through the 2016 season.
It’s the kind of money normally reserved for a franchise cornerstone. For Jim Buss, however, the deal was meant more as a good-faith gesture than an actual basketball strategy, according to Shelburne:
We made him the highest-paid player in the NBA because we felt like it was the right thing to do. This wasn’t about what somebody else would pay him or outbidding anyone for him. This was to continue his legacy [with the Lakers], our legacy of loyalty to our iconic players.
Whether the Lakers feel their token display was money enough to keep Kobe from questioning any subsequent decision, it’s hard to say. But their reluctance to engage Jackson certainly rubbed Mamba the wrong way, per the New York Post’s Tim Bontemps:
You know how I feel about Phil. I have so much admiration for him and respect and I have a great relationship with him. Personally, it would be hard for me to understand that happening twice. It would be tough. I don’t really get it.
The Lakers are rebuilding—that much is clear. However they tackle that process—be it with some lottery luck in June’s draft, big-name free-agent signings this summer and next, or some combination thereof—Phil Jackson probably wasn’t the one to steward it.
Putting aside his considerable hardwood hardware and obvious basketball brilliance, Jackson’s chief strength has been in getting difficult personalities to play into a greater gestalt. From James Dolan’s despotic ownership to Carmelo Anthony’s flawed skill set, the Knicks provide the perfect laboratory for Jackson’s unique brand of alchemy.
The Lakers, on the other hand, are focused only on replacing the beakers and Bunsen burners for the next professor—whoever he is.
That doesn’t mean the two sides need part poisonous ways. The sting wrought by Jackson’s permanent departure will likely smart for some time—as is to be expected when a living legend leaves that kind of legacy behind.
But depending on how quickly the Lakers right the ship, it might not be long before the scope and scale of Jackson’s accomplishments turn from shadow-cast to the sunshine recalled.