BOSTON — No one has forgotten about Phil Jackson.
That much is clear as he enters this Four Seasons breakfast spot during his visit to the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference.
With that familiar frame filling the doorway, the greatest coach in NBA history makes the long and classically slow walk to a table overlooking Boston's historic Public Garden. Almost immediately, the heads start to turn. The waiter, who has apparently forgiven Jackson for beating the Boston Celtics in the 2010 NBA Finals that was one of his many crowning moments, approaches as if addressing royalty.
"Good morning," he says. "What can I get you, Mr. Jackson?"
ON SHAQ: 'Clown' broke up Laker run
ON RODMAN: Last player Phil wanted
He'll have a salmon bagel and a latte at the moment, thank you very much. But as the 68-year-old 11-time champion coach would discuss with USA TODAY Sports in the 45 minutes that followed, he may still have an appetite for much more when it comes to a possible return to the NBA.
As Jackson knows better than anyone, he can't poke his head out of his retirement hole without re-sparking the conversation that has surrounded him for more than two decades now. So when he made an appearance as a guest speaker at the Sloan Conference over the weekend, granting the request of his bride-to-be (Los Angeles Lakers executive Jeanie Buss) and squeezing it into his schedule ahead of the bachelor party getaway in Montana with his youngest son this week, the chatter began anew about when and where we may see the Zen Master in action again.
There are several opportunities that intrigue and await him, ongoing discussions about a possible return to the NBA that are real enough that he won't reveal which teams he might be talking to and what the timeline might be. But lest anyone think we'll see him sitting in that padded throne on the bench anytime soon, think again. His twice-a-week sessions with a trainer and chiropractor have worked wonders for his health after all those hip and knee replacements, but it appears he's eyeing a bigger prize these days.
"I don't want to be on the sidelines," Jackson says with a grin as he heads for the elevator and disappears yet again. "That's for damned sure."
Here's a transcript of USA TODAY Sports' exclusive interview with Jackson:
Q: So I have to admit that this isn't the type of event I expected to see you at. What's the story here?
A: Jeanie said, let's go do something together. It's kind of a basketball thing. I have not been traveling really in the last two years — very rarely. Just public transportation stuff. It's tough because I get patted down everywhere I go, have to take my shoes off. Now it's not quite so bad.
Q: So where are you spending most of your time these days?
A: I spend it in L.A. I split my time, but I spend more of it in L.A. The winter's a little bit daunting in Montana. I'm going up there this week though, this coming week. My youngest son is getting married in June, and he's having a bachelor party up there. They've invited me to the bachelor party.
Q: You got invited, huh? That's usually where we keep the dads away.
A: I know. He's a different guy, a poet. He teaches at San Francisco, USF, and he just wants to have some elders, so he asked a couple of older guys to come. But he and his twin brother, who's running the thing, went to college in Colorado, so they're very at home on the slopes so they're going up. Their guys, the eight of them or so, not all of them are as efficient or as good on the slopes as they are.
Q: Safe to say you won't be able to join them on the skiing part of the excursion?
A: No, I won't. But it should be fun.
Q: So how are you feeling these days, physically? (Jackson has had numerous health problems in the past.)
A: Pretty good. I have to work at it. I have a trainer, a physical therapist-trainer. I have a chiropractor that I use a lot, so it's kind of a continual thing for me two times a week working. I don't run, but I can get some things done.
Q: You'd mentioned regenerative tissue in the past. Are their scientific options medically that can help you out?
A: I replaced three joints in my hips and one in my knee. I'm hoping that other knee doesn't have to be done. It's one of the toughest things to overcome. They haven't scheduled me yet, but they're like, "You'll be back" (he says with a Darth Vader-esque voice and a chuckle).
Q: Anyone I've ever talked to who has done that says it's just brutal. I believe (former Sacramento Kings owner) Joe Maloof had both knees done.
A: That's a bitch. ... I've always had rather warm feelings towards the Maloof boys, just from their background and their hustle and what they've had to do. They were maligned tremendously, and obviously I worked on the other side of the Seattle situation with Chris Hansen. I like the enthusiasm they have for the game, and I know they have tremendous disappointment, but when I came back from the South Pacific in 2004, they asked if I would come coach.
Q: To which you responded…
A: You have a good coach in Rick Adelman. But they were looking.
Q: Were you as surprised as the rest of us when the Seattle thing didn't go through?
Q: How come?
A: I have inside information.
Q: But was there a point when you thought it was leaning that way?
A: Yes, when Chris was able to purchase the Maloofs' interests. I was (convinced it would happen) until I was told there was that opening in the buyout where somebody else could come in and purchase it from a local group. And being a guy who likes (Sacramento Mayor and former NBA All-Star) Kevin Johnson — even though we had a lot of run-ups against Kevin when he was playing — I highly respect what he tried to do and how he was able to save that for the community. Whether that's a good deal or not is still to be determined.
GALLERY: Phil Jackson, from short-shorts to Shaq
Q: A good deal in what sense?
A: Can they sustain a team? Will it be a sustainable thing? They're charged with getting an arena. The NBA has (said), have them get a plan, get an arena. And they provided a plan. But we know how hard the Maloofs had to work to try and get one and couldn't get it done.
Q: You can't speak for Chris, but I never had clarity on that buyout portion of his deal with the Maloofs. Why was that allowed in their deal (by Hansen)?
A: It did nothing but increase the amount of money the Maloofs received. The bidding pushed that thing right up. I don't know.
Q: That chapter sent the message to fans all over that Phil wanted back in some capacity.
A: Well it was a great opportunity to start fresh with an organization. I mean obviously a move like that would precipitate a lot of changes — front office. The chance to put together a team of player personnel director, trainers, right down to video guys and everything in between really sets a cultural change for a team. This team in Sacramento is getting one now — it looks like they're trying to do their best at changing the parameters and how they look at the players and how they deal with it.
Q: With that in mind, the natural question is what does that mean going forward? That was a unique situation, but do you see opportunity elsewhere that you like?
A: There are a few (opportunities), but I shouldn't name them. It wouldn't be right to talk about it, name anything. But yeah, there are some. There are winners and losers in the NBA, and a lot of people are trying to reclaim their position or change their culture or whatever. So yeah, there is. I've had conversations. Some of them are feelers. "Are you interested?" type of thing. I did go out to Detroit last year and sit with (Pistons President) Joe (Dumars). I guess we weren't successful, but I really encouraged (Pistons owner) Tom Gores that the general manager has to be able to pick his coach so they can win it together. And Joe wanted Maurice, so it didn't work out, unfortunately for Maurice. I developed a relationship with the owner, who lives in LA. We have conversations.
Q: So is that still an ongoing relationship?
A: I'm just like an adviser, an unpaid adviser. So far, my advice hasn't been too great (laughs).
Q: Well at least they're not wasting their money on you…
A: Tom is a generous guy, but I really don't want to make him feel like it's more than it is. It's a professional kind of opinion that I have. But I like their chances as they go forward. They had some curious free agent (selections) but I like their young guys. (Andre) Drummond is good.
Q: Talk about the coaching ranks. People are always curious how you see that landscape. Who's unemployed at the moment, besides yourself, who shouldn't be unemployed?
A: Interesting question, because I just saw the piece on Larry Brown in (HBO's) Real Sports. And although Larry likes to get paid to coach, he's the kind of guy that would probably end up coaching somewhere else. One of my former assistants was coaching — Johnny Bach in Chicago — in his mid-80s, was coaching a paraplegic group, a basketball team. You know, people coach. That's what they do. It's an interesting thing, because there's only so many jobs in the NBA. There are 30 jobs, and then assistants, and a lot of teams have older guys as assistants. I don't know if George is a candidate, George Karl, whether he's a health risk or whatever but I would expect that he probably comes back. And Avery Johnson, Byron Scott. I'm sure I'm leaving some names out…
There are some guys out there who are, I think, looking at the game and trying to figure out how they'd make an approach to it, licking their wounds and getting ready to get back and get in the hunt. There are new guys that are looking for an opportunity. (Owners) are always kind of scolded by the media for retreading guys, but a lot of owners and a lot of general managers, it's that you know them and it's your relationship and the idea that you're handing over something as important as this to someone that you can trust or someone that you know has done it before, so they're not going to get sidelined. I applaud (Celtics general manager) Danny (Ainge) for bringing someone in to the NBA who I think is probably a pretty good coach — well who has a chance to be a good coach.
Q: To whatever degree that you feel like sharing on the Detroit thing, and now that it didn't work out with Maurice Cheeks, anybody you were trying to get that job?
A: No, I wouldn't want to do that, but (Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike) Budenholzer came and interviewed. (Former Seattle SuperSonics and Portland Trail Blazers head coach and current Indiana Pacers assistant) Nate McMillan was there — another guy who's not a head coach right now. Bernie Bickerstaff's son (J.B. Bickerstaff) who's in Houston (as a Rockets assistant). One other candidate I can't recall off hand. I was able to listen and talk to some younger coaches who have an idea what they want to do when they get head coaching jobs. Maurice isn't that young, but that was nice. That was interesting.
Q: What's your latest view on your old stomping grounds, Laker Land, and where it's headed?
A: Well really, there's a limited free agent market this year. Luol Deng, and Pau Gasol is going to be a free agent — they can resign their own guy, which I don't know if Pau would want to re-sign with them or not. Maybe he feels that's not the best place, but he likes LA, he likes the fans. Who else is in the free agent market besides Luol that jumps (at you)?
Q: Well, you've got the fluid Miami Heat situation. (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all have the ability to opt out of their contracts this summer.)
A: Yeah, they're still a couple years away, unless (the New York Knicks') Carmelo (Anthony) opts out. So that's one of the ways where you can say, "We can't tell you what the blueprint is because there are so many options that are out there."
Q: But you've been candid in the past about some of the lack of direction there. So if you're Joe Blow Laker fan, is there still reason to believe that this franchise can figure it out like they always have?
A: Um, you know, they're just great options. They're going to have, what, a top five pick — maybe top four? Everybody is looking at those odds and what those odds mean. ... It's a chance of getting a tremendous pick and then they have to go from there basically. Now you've got to raise a 19-year-old, and the last one that we had — Andrew Bynum — was limited in physical limitations in his game and we were able to get him through a number of seasons. But in itself, that was monitoring playing time and therapy time and workouts at the end of the season. Andrew worked really hard to be able to play in the two championships — well he didn't play in the first one, he just came back for basically a little bit of that series, but in the second one he played a lot and contributed a lot. So that's the first thing that comes along, and then July 1 you have the free agent march, and who sees any of those guys from Miami leaving if they have an opportunity to win. And right now, they're looking like the best team in the league still.
Q: So you don't see that changing?
A: I don't see that changing at all.
Q: Well, I ask you that because you're probably the only game-changer out there when it comes to that narrative that some team can convince Phil to recruit LeBron and shock the world and take this whole thing a different direction. Plus the fact that with (Dwyane) Wade and how he's still a tremendous player but how health wise, if you're LeBron — as tight as they are — if you feel like he'll have to skip every other game how does that change things.
A: Oh, there are all kinds of possibilities. That's true. But knowing what that's like to be on a team like that, this is their fourth season in a row playing together and playing at a high level and feeling pretty good about how to go on the court every night, what's going to happen to your chances? You've got to remember, Dwyane went through losing seasons in Miami. And even though he won a championship early with Shaq, he had some hard seasons of losing, mediocre seasons, and (Heat forward) Chris (Bosh) had some seasons that were a struggle up in Toronto. This deal is pretty damned good if you're there. It's something that you don't easily run away from and say, 'Oh, there's greener grass on the other side of the fence.'
Q: No, you're right. You can make the argument for why he may have some concerns about…
Q: Yeah, and the longevity of that group. But then you ask the question, "If not that, then what?" it's tough to see anything better out there.
A: Right, so I think the Lakers will probably stay pretty pat, make another extension of the year that they had this year with the younger players and players coming in that they can look at and see if they can't get a core group of young players playing together. Trust the fact that Mike can kind of blend a gun and run and run and gun team.
Q: Is there any scenario where you get back in that mix? I've heard some chatter that you could become even more involved there, and there's this idea that time heals all wounds and even though the way the coaching situation went down was botched that you could play a role, whether with (general manager) Mitch (Kupchak) in the front office or something else. Is that plausible at all?
A: I don't think so. I have a good relationship with the vice president in business affairs (Jeanie Buss) — at least it has been pretty good (laughs). She's dedicated to their family running the business and trying to feel what that's like. Their father's memorial service is not a year old, but he has been gone for a year now and they're still just kind of figuring out, 'How are we going to do this?' So I think they want to have an opportunity to do it. And Mitch, obviously, has a relationship with (Lakers executive vice president of player personnel and Jeanie's brother) Jimmy that has been going on since, I think, 2004 or so, when he started becoming really involved. So for the last 10 years, he and Mitch have been pretty much working together. (Late Lakers owner) Dr. (Jerry) Buss came in on things. We had a few issues. Kobe (Bryant) had an issue one year. We had an issue getting Pau (Gasol). Some of the major moves, Dr. Buss was still there. But the other stuff Jimmy and Mitch have been working on. They've got a relationship, so I don't see that happening.
Q: You just took the wind out of the Lakers' fans sails there…
A: I know, I'm trying not to gin up any hope in that direction. I don't go to games. I keep encouraging them as fans to follow their team, and they're having a hard time doing that. They're not used to being in the position they're in, so it's tough.
Q: Did you ever get complete clarity on whose decision it was to back out of what seemed like an agreement (when the Lakers hired Mike D'Antoni in Nov. 2012 after it appeared Jackson was returning)?
A: You know, it was something that has bounced from spot to spot. When I left (the interview), Jimmy was pretty happy about it and Mitch was still saying, "We're going to keep interviewing people," and I think the ultimate (decision) kind of rested with Dr. Buss and he made the decision in the hospital the day after. I haven't chosen to bite on that. I've just let that go. I'm real comfortable with it. I don't have any trouble. I think Jesus could probably coach this team pretty well, but outside of him maybe Mohammed, maybe Gandhi, someone like that.
Q: Maybe Liu Bang, the Chinese emperor who you once said would be a good coach?
A: Yeah. (Laughs.)
Q: Then what's the human experience like for you just in terms of watching this team flounder?
A: I watch the progress of the young players. I watch how teams are doing, defending, you know the details of the game. One of my staff guys, Kurt, is still there — Kurt Rambis. We don't talk as much, but I know that he has a hand in a lot of the defensive machinations they're trying. And they've struggled as a team defensively. So I watch them. I didn't get League Pass until maybe February, maybe this past month. Maybe January.
That's about the only channel I could see was the Clippers and the Lakers, and that was it. Local cable covers those two teams at Time Warner, and Fox, but I didn't get League Pass so I didn't see a lot of the other games in the league but I'd see who was playing against the Clippers or who was playing against the Lakers. I saw some of the games, but I tried to do a little bit of withdrawal, to get away from it, but I still have (connections). (Former Lakers assistant and current Denver Nuggets head coach) Brian Shaw is out there, (former Lakers assistant) Jim Cleamons is in Milwaukee (as an assistant). So forth and so on.
Q: I hear you, but there's still this puzzling dynamic that's out there relating to you. For all the success you had, guys who worked for you don't always have the red carpet rolled out like you might think when it comes to getting jobs.
A: No. Well, the game has moved on to another level. Three-point shooting has become like the (pauses). Really the analytics people have taken it to the point of saying, 'The worst shot in the game is a 20-foot jumper, a two-point jumper that's 20 (feet).' And the best shot might be the corner three. Efficiency, OERs (offensive efficiency ratings), all these efficiency ratings are pointing to how many points per possession you generate from certain types of shots. ... But there's so much more to the game.
Q: But at your panel (at the Sloan Conference), you seemed to play it down the middle and seemed pretty receptive to all of this stuff.
A: I like the analytics. We were always on the forefront of that. I'm not going to go after that. I think that it's a really important movement. I think a lot of owners have turned the game, the general managers' jobs, over to people who are more analytic-minded than basketball hierarchy or guys who have been around the league. I mean it seems to be the pattern, and I think they speak their language because a lot of these guys are financial guys. You give them statistics — this stock has done such and such over the past three months, and this is up. This is a language that they can talk, and a statistical language that's pretty good. So I can understand that penchant. I do think that it's still about that being able to look a guy in the eyes and kind of understand that this one is going to go in the fox hole with you and this guy is going to be one of the guys who's on board with what we're doing. Yeah, he's going to be on the line when it comes to that time that's the challenge. And then the rest of the stuff kind of falls in together.
So I know that the penchant for following a lot of the things that are happening in the league is that as humans we kind of run with the pack a lot. I've been a Maverick, and that's just who I am. But I certainly follow what's going on and make a decision about what can I use and what's efficient for me and what's good for me.
You know, the offense that I instituted is not what the NBA was doing in the late '80s and early '90s, and the game has moved on by that and a lot of people like to point at the Triangle as antiquated and (say) it works well in women's basketball etc. etc. But it takes a lot of skill. And to coach skill, you have to spend a lot of time teaching skills.
Q: You talked about that yesterday, with the idea that (Allen Iverson) famously said practice wasn't important and how much you disagreed.
A: Yeah, and you know my basketball practices look like a junior high school start-up league. You dribble the ball and stop. You pivot with the ball. You learn how to pivot. You take time and teach passing — how to pass the basketball. Just ultimately keys to how to run an offensive system. You need footwork, you need ball handling skills, you need to pass the ball. And it's not a guard, just a guard, who does that for you. Everybody has an opportunity to play a role, a playmaking role, so it makes it harder to coach. It takes a little more time. Maybe you can't spend as much time on defense. But the process is that if you're fundamentally running a game right, you should have two offensive rebounders on every shot. And the shooter should have an offensive rebounding opportunity if he wants it. He knows where the shot's going, right? Maybe a three-point shot from the corner you're not going to chase down if you're shooting that shot. But any other shot, you have an opportunity to maybe step in and get a long offensive rebound, or a short one even. One of the best offensive rebounders on his own misses is Carmelo — he's one of the guys where you (say) "Make the first shot, don't miss." Anyway, (analytics) doesn't count for (that). It's like, "OK, maybe that shot wasn't efficient, but when you get 12, 15 offensive rebounds in the course of the game, those are 15 more possessions." Basketball is about more possessions. Turnovers, blocked shots, steals, offensive rebounds, those are the things that make the difference in games.
So that's what you have to teach, and you teach those things in a system. It's one of the principles of an offense is that you've got to have offensive rebounds, you've got to have defensive balance. And those two things work together, they go together, so everybody knows their roles on those shots. And then we have so many situations where we have opportunities less and less to coach these kids, because now you can't have two-a-days, you can only have two-a-days for, what, three days or something before you have to start doing single day practices. There's less opportunity all around for coaching.
And you have to do this under pressure. You have to do it in full court. You have to do it in half court. And you have to do all these things and, I was really fortunate because I had a drill sergeant (in Tex Winters). I had a guy who I could just sick on the players, and he was like a drill sergeant. Oblique, left, hut, and he goes through them. I'd say, "Hey Tex, that's enough. Let's move on." And we'd move on to another (drill). He believed that the body had to go through it seven times to get it in muscle memory. You don't just show the guy that this is the footwork. He has got to do it. You can think it, you can visualize it, but you've got to physically do it in this game. So basketball takes some time, and so you know some of the guys who I've had who have been coaches have not had that opportunity. They haven't had the time to teach it. Larry's is another one where — and that's why I bring him up — is because he's really a teacher. Pop has had his own guys there and he has been doing it for 16, 18 years or whatever — 16 years, 18 years? '98, '97, maybe '97 he was there, when he took over for Bob Hill in a bad year. So he's expanded it. It has enlarged. He's got five or six guys who know it, so his players can teach the other players. He has a nice system going there where he has been able to teach.
There are a few other systems that I look at and say, "They're doing something. They're doing things here and trying to get things accomplished out here," more than isolating this guy or running a screen-roll, which is the simplest thing you can do in basketball. That's what you do in an All-Star Game. "OK, we'll run some screen-rolls," and that's what our game has degenerated down to.
Q: So at the risk of connecting dots that may not exist, I noticed that (Houston Rockets general manager) Daryl Morey was the first guy to greet you after your panel yesterday, and it made me wonder if that situation might not intrigue you. You wanted to coach Dwight in LA, and it made me wonder if you might not be involved in that situation at some point. What's your outlook on Houston?
A: They're playing well. They're starting to play really well together, and it's a chemistry thing that's starting to connect with them. Dwight was able to do things to people he could manhandle in the post early on, and he'd have good games or so-so games. But now the coordination between he and (Rockets small forward Chandler) Parsons — those guys are starting to get it and to know how to use him and to know how to play in what they're trying to do now, passing well out of it and getting three points shots. You know, a lot of people say they don't see them in the Finals in the West but I think they have a chance to be in the Finals in the West.
You know, they may have a young guy at (power forward), but with (backup center Omer) Asik back they might be able to start putting a lot of things together where there will be both Asik and Howard on the floor. And in the NBA playoffs, after the first game or so everything becomes halfcourt. And then it's (about) who can grind it out and defend. And when you've got big defenders, this may be an opportunity for them to really step through that to another level. They had a good run last year against Oklahoma — didn't win, but they pressed them. And now with Dwight there, they're looking for things to go forward a little bit. I think we've all wanted to see Dwight develop a really good post-up game, and I just saw his left hand come back, he started shooting again where it looked like his left hand was back. That's been one of his strengths, where he's been able to hold off with his right and shoot with his left — that's been one of the things he's doing well now again. So I like to see that. And I think it takes a long time to get over the type of back injury he had, and I think the Lakers weren't patient. I don't think our fans understood. I had spinal fusion, a back operation, and I know that I spent one year playing a backup role and it was difficult for me. And then after that one year of kind of getting back and getting my legs underneath me and getting a comfort zone and mobility back again, I had better years. The next three years were much better for me in my career. And I think that's going to happen to Dwight. So I encouraged Daryl.
Q: He has been playing out of his mind. The last month, it looks like the Orlando Dwight.
A: Exactly. Yeah.
Q: So considering the narrative on (Rockets coach) Kevin McHale has been that people wonder how long he wants to coach, do you have intrigue with that situation? I have to admit wondering that maybe you look at that like a do-over from what didn't happen in LA with Dwight.
A: (Laughs). No, I. I'm sorry. I mean. Um, no. I don't (pauses). I like that. That's funny. I've got a (phone) call at 10 (a.m.) — how am I doing at time?
Amick: You're running late. Thanks for the time, Phil.
GALLERY: NBA photo of the day