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Jackson’s Options Are Limited if He Doesn’t Return to Bulls

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The outcome he had expected--for the season--had just arrived, and Phil Jackson was sitting at the postgame press conference Sunday night, his salt-and-pepper hair mussed and wet with champagne, a towel over his right shoulder, a beverage in the paper cup in his right hand, a freshly lit stogie in his left hand, a smile never more than a few seconds away. There was cigar smoke in the air, and there was an air of accomplishment.

“How sweet it is, isn’t it?” he said by way of an opening statement.

Jackson was basking in the moment, for what it meant to the Chicago Bulls, the team he has coached for the last nine seasons, and what it will mean in the weeks ahead. It was as if one game had just ended, the 87-86 victory over the Utah Jazz that produced a third consecutive NBA title and a sixth in the last eight years, and another was just beginning, the one in which he playfully answered questions about his future.

“Phil, there have been reports in Seattle, Denver and L.A. that all those teams wanted to talk to you as soon as the season is over. If they approach you, will you have conversations with them?”

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The cat swiped at the ball of string.

“I think they want to congratulate me for the sixth championship,” Jackson said. “And I’ll accept those calls, thanks.”

It’s a grand view from the catbird seat, and Jackson surveys the coaching horizon as a free agent-to-be--one of the many among the Bulls--and contemplates a future that may not be solely his to determine.

The Lakers most appeal to Jackson, but there is no sign they will be accepting applications.

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The Clippers have an opening, but also know that Jackson will price himself out of their range, that he has no interest in them, anyway.

The Seattle SuperSonics could hire Paul Westphal soon, perhaps beating the Clippers to the punch.

The Denver Nuggets, with a geographic advantage, since Jackson is a Montana native who still has a home there and an appreciation for the Rocky Mountain lifestyle, are also the furthest away when it comes to making the playoffs.

The options are not exactly plentiful, strange as that sounds for someone with such an impressive resume. Which is why he begins the off-season leaning toward simply sitting out 1998-99, although a return to the Bulls is not out of the question.

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“I’m going to get on the airplane tonight and celebrate, and worry about the future in the future,” the Bulls’ operations chief, Jerry Krause, said after the victory at the Delta Center, dodging the free-agency issue.

That’s how it will apparently be left for now, because of the league’s probable lockout this summer. He cleaned out his office at the United Center? Yeah, that must mean it’s the end of the line, since no one in this organization has ever offered blunt commentary about ending the relationship and then talked another day of remaining in the fold. That goes for management too--the one-season contract Jackson signed last summer came with the statement that the parties would sever ties after 1997-98, and now chairman Jerry Reinsdorf says he would like to keep the whole lot together.

Michael Jordan will be waiting to see what Scottie Pippen does, and vice versa. Jordan will be watching to see if Jackson comes back, though Jordan has also eased off on his previous stance that he wouldn’t come back if it meant breaking in a new coach. Jackson will be waiting, even during his fly-fishing in Big Sky country, to see who calls.

So many decisions, so much time to flip-flop. And again and again and again. “You pretty much have an idea what your mind frame is,” Jackson said. “I know what I feel like right now, and I’d just like to get away from the game a while, step back, and enjoy reflecting about the situation.

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“We’ve done it. We’ve had our chances. We’ve won our championships. The generosity of this board of governors that have run the Bulls’ organization and Jerry Reinsdorf, it took deep pockets to bring this team back together again. I don’t know--can you say it cost $50 million to bring this opportunity back to Chicago and our team? It would be probably close to that kind of money to support this team in another effort.

“And I think that we know that and we appreciate the fact that we got an opportunity to come back here again. I don’t know if they made money off it or not, but we’ll hope we did. That response is, here we are, having this opportunity to maybe do it again. The talk of continuing on, that’s their decision, and they’ll have to make that decision and we haven’t anticipated anything more than just this.”

NBA Notes

Predrag Stojakovic, 21, a 6-foot-9 forward whose 40% accuracy from three-point range made him one of Europe’s top players, signed a three-year contract with the Sacramento Kings--the team that drafted him in 1996. The deal is reportedly worth $3.9 million. A native Serbian who lives in Greece, Stojakovic was named MVP in the Greek League after leading PAOK to the finals last season. The Kings drafted him 14th overall in 1996.

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