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Sun Goes Down on the Reign of Jackson

June 19, 2004|Tim Brown | Times Staff Writer

Phil Jackson went to dinner Friday night and left without a job, five years gone, leaving as a tip three NBA championships.

The Lakers announced Jackson and team owner Jerry Buss had agreed Jackson's time should end, and then what appeared to be a quite grim day in team history concluded as Jackson had earlier predicted it would.

Before loading items into the trunk of his car at the team's headquarters, Jackson had said, "The sun goes down and I'll be at the Greek Theatre watching Garrison Keillor."

Jackson, who arrived from retirement in Montana five years ago and had Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant headed in the same direction by nightfall, perhaps will lead them all out of town. O'Neal has demanded a trade. Bryant opted out of his contract, as he said he would, and on July 1 will be an unrestricted free agent.

According to people with knowledge of the meeting, Buss simply informed Jackson that he would not be invited back, the bluntness of which was said to startle Jackson.

So, in six hours, from O'Neal's telephone call to reporters, to Bryant's message to General Manager Mitch Kupchak to Jackson's sit-down with Buss, the organization changed forever. While O'Neal and Bryant might still be on the same floor in the same uniforms come fall, it is not assured. And Jackson probably will be back in his cabin in Montana, a newer, bigger one, thanks in part to the five-year, $30-million contract from Buss, along with the $2-million bonus per championship.

He integrated the Lakers into his triangle offense and sprinkled them with his Zen beliefs and separated them when they needed to be. He'd smile thinly and let them have at it until playoff time, at which point, three, almost four, times, they would become all but unbeatable.

According to many in and around the organization, Jackson simply became less important to Buss than Bryant was, perhaps the same fate that awaits O'Neal. Though he faces a charge of felony sexual assault and could face trial this summer, Bryant is young and exciting and sells jerseys and tickets, with or without the triangle offense, all of which appeal to the businessman in Buss, along with the gambler in him.

Of course, Jackson, who won nine NBA championships as a coach and holds players' attentions in a player-first era, had his place among them too.

Upon hearing that Jackson was let go, Horace Grant, who'd played for Jackson in three title seasons in Chicago and another in Los Angeles, said he'd retire. No coach, he said, was as adept at finding places for conflicting personalities in a team setting, even when it appeared all was crumbling.

He looked ahead to next year's Lakers and said, "Start with a big tent. It's going to be a circus."

While Jackson said many times this season, starting in training camp, through the end of contract negotiations in February, to a Game 5 loss to the Detroit Pistons on Tuesday that ended the NBA Finals, that he'd never coach in another organization, those close to him doubt he's done.

"The gleam is still in his eye," Jackson's agent, Todd Musburger, said Friday night. "We'll see him back on the sidelines one day."

He added that a 10th championship, the one that would break his tie with Boston Celtic legend Red Auerbach, "is still out there. This is a competitive man."

Jackson, whose girlfriend is Jeanie Buss, the owner's daughter, was offered a job within the Laker organization as an executive vice president that he said he'd consider but will turn down. Musburger said he believed Jackson would take a year off. Already, there are rumors that the New York Knicks, Dallas Mavericks and, perhaps, the Bulls, will be interested.

"The experience of the past five years has been great," Jackson said in a statement released by the team. "Three rings and a fourth opportunity makes this a bittersweet ending, but it's time to pause and reflect. I'm appreciative of all the Lakers, the organization, the fans and Dr. Buss. The opportunity extended by Dr. Buss to work as an administrator is generous and I expect to make a decision about that in the coming weeks."

Buss, also in the statement, said, "In my opinion, Phil is the best coach in the history of the NBA and he did a phenomenal job for us these past five years, for which I am very grateful."

The Lakers have not yet started the process of replacing Jackson, though the names of Rudy Tomjanovich, Pat Riley and George Karl have already been raised. Within the organization, Jim Cleamons, Kurt Rambis, Brian Shaw and Michael Cooper are expected to be considered. USC's Henry Bibby appears to have an interest.

The next coach's first duty will be to work away from Friday, June 18. It was the day a handful of reporters stood at the team's facility in El Segundo as players came and went, some sitting to answer questions, Bryant offering a clipped, "All right, you guys take care," over his shoulder. Of the players who had attended exit meetings, only Bryant brought his agent.

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