If it looked like Phil Jackson, talked like Phil Jackson and walked like a wounded buck, then that must have been the past-present-future Laker coach who stood in front of Los Angeles mid-afternoon Tuesday, adjusted his glasses and said something along the lines of, "I'm back," only longer and without the Jordanian flair.
He was gone a year, out experiencing life away from the game, on beaches in Australia and New Zealand, on a lake in Montana, on a veranda in Playa del Rey. He returned in a charcoal suit and sandals, T-shirt and beads, soul patch and poise, still the man who pushed and prodded and rankled the Lakers for five sometimes glorious seasons.
If something had changed in the disposition of the coach who'd come in with dexterity and gone out with a flamethrower, it was evident in neither his words nor his gestures. After all, he'd already embraced Zen, already divorced, already found Jeanie, already won and, ultimately, already lost. He had already been cast from a franchise he helped deliver, already molded superstars into champions, already balanced unwieldy egos atop colossal expectations. Twice.
What he'd never done was return to the scene and smudge the fingerprints. He'd not taken a job in an organization that spurned him, in a building whose halls he walked, hand in hand, with the owner's daughter. Indeed, he'd been run out at the wrong end of a shotgun, only to return in time for dinner, in possession of the same thin grin and the same strategic designs on love, happiness and triumph.
So, the questions arrived for the coach whose face fell from the city's billboards but remained in souls of Laker fans: How've you been? Where've you been?
"More than anything, the lessons were about stress," he said, "in particular the stress that you get and how the release from that changes personalities. My kids, who have all weighed in on this, all wanted to talk about why I wanted to come back to this stressful job."
He assured them, he said, "I can manage the stress that comes along with this game."
Once, Jackson's heart nearly gave out from it. What was manageable became overbearing. His energy lagged and he once coached a playoff game with his cardiologist sitting across the floor, an ambulance backed to the tunnel that led to the gym. The Lakers lost twice when they were supposed to win. Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant could hardly look at each other anymore. Karl Malone and Gary Payton came and went without a championship. The media circled, the Detroit Pistons won, the parts scattered, some, like Jackson, to distant continents.
Not two weeks ago, Jackson called his agent, Todd Musburger, and told him, "I won't coach again."
"For the next 48 hours, I can't tell you how gloomy he was," Musburger said. "Then he called back and said, 'Maybe this is the job for me. That's how I'm thinking now.' "
"In the end, I think we have to accept that this is where he belongs," he said.
Jackson required that period -- five days short of a year -- before he could stand again and call himself a Laker, before he was sure he could return to what he was. It is not as he left it, of course. But his old lessons will find new ears. And the followers will no longer wonder whom to follow -- the coach or the star.
Horace Grant, retired, raising children, thinking of coaching college kids and living near Santa Maria, could hardly believe the news. He thought it best for the franchise, however, and hoped it would be best for the coach.
"Phil, it's that mystery thing again," he said. "He does a lot of things unconventionally. I think this is one of the most unconventional that I've seen him do. The parting, coming back, the book and everything, it's all a mystery to me."
Grant paused and laughed again.
"Maybe there wasn't much trout fishing in Montana," he concluded.
Yeah, he just walked back in as if none of it had ever happened. He'll hang that old Indian feather off the sprinkler nozzle in his office, gather that familiar coaching staff, push that offense Jerry Buss came to despise, and maybe see if Shaq wouldn't mind changing coasts again.
It began in the days after Buss asked him to leave. Jackson rebuilt his body, groped for his own pulse, and found he had energy again.
He asked, "How can I push myself to get back at a strength level I can be happy with?" and Jeanie asked, Aren't you a little young to retire?
"Not winning a championship was difficult," he said. "It was very difficult. Not to be competitive in a championship round, that was very difficult for us."
A year later, he said it's about "reconciliation, redemption and resiliency," the three Rs of his return. They could use another, as in "rebounder." And another, as in "remodel." And, maybe, "rest."
"I hope in the month of March you don't see me at a different level," he said, "with the kinds of bags under my eyes I was carrying around while I was in Australia."
Yeah, he's back. Who else would be wearing the sandals?
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