Rejuvenated Jackson Fits Well in L.A.

Share via

Before these last few harried, endless months, Phil Jackson says he never dreamed of basketball.

He never visualized Michael Jordan breaking loose in the middle of the lane, or formulated the perfect passing drill. His mind relaxed, and drifted down other paths.

But now, for reasons he can only guess, basketball is all he sees: Eyes closed, eyes open, eyes on the prize.


“Even in my down time, whether it’s rest time or sleep time, my subconscious is occupied with basketball thoughts,” Jackson said Tuesday after wandering down from his room at the team hotel for an afternoon interview in an empty meeting room.

“I’ve never had basketball dreams or intrusive kind of thoughts or reflections. And there’s something really lively about it. . . . But it seems like the months of May and June are lost.”

In the middle of the NBA finals, before today’s crucial Game 4 at Conseco Fieldhouse, with the Lakers only two victories away from what would be his seventh NBA championship as a coach, what does Jackson dream of?

Ways to motivate his players. Strategies to hide the Lakers’ weaknesses and highlight their strengths. An open path to glory.

“You know, yeah, we think that we should win this,” Jackson finally said. “We’re here now, we should win it.”

It is all part, Jackson says, of his evolution as a man and a coach, and his team’s progression from underachiever to regular-season dominance to the edge of the Lakers’ first title since 1988.


He was hired almost exactly a year ago to turn this franchise back in the right direction and nudge Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant away from competing with each other and toward a common goal, and Jackson, 54, has done that, with a strong, authoritative hand, and touches of meditation, yoga and other contemplative endeavors.

But, as much as his time in Los Angeles has changed the Lakers, Jackson says he, too, has been changed--literally, and in deeper ways.

“I’m definitely a different person,” Jackson said. “They say you change completely every seven years, you regenerate, or whatever. The same person who stepped in the coaching water in Chicago, is not the same person who’s bathing in the ocean, for sure.

“It’s just a really different time in my life. For example, [during his nine years as Chicago Bulls’ coach,] I had kids that were in grade school, junior high, went through high school. Here, I have [five grown children] that come in . . . spend time with me, but they’re not an active part of my life. That part has very much changed.”

The most direct change for Jackson is that, when he moved to Los Angeles, his wife, June, did not come with him, preferring to stay in Woodstock, N.Y. He filed for divorce in August.

Jackson declined to speak specifically about his separation, other than to say that it is generally amicable--June, he says, has visited him several times in L.A., including the couple’s 25th wedding anniversary in October.


But Jackson, in general terms, said that, after leaving the Bulls in 1998, he felt compelled to return to basketball, and that June did not feel compelled to join him.

“Everything seemingly came to a stop [when he quit the Bulls]--the kids graduated from high school, all the kids moved out of the house,” Jackson said.

“There was a serious opportunity for my wife and I to kind of come to terms with the next move. And after spending a year away from it, I chose to come back to basketball.

“And I did it alone.”

Even after the stress of the Bulls’ championship runs and ego clashes, there was something about NBA coaching--and especially coaching the Lakers, whose playoff failures seemed to cry out for his methods--that was impossible to resist, Jackson says.

“I made this choice because I felt like it was an opportunity I didn’t want to miss,” Jackson said. “There was something that was inspiring in it for me. I was kind of destined, almost, to come back. . . . It was almost visionary in some form or fashion.

“Although I never pursued [the Laker job], ever, although I alluded to it at one time in my life, I never really had anything . . . just an outside kind of vision.


“The consequence is that . . . I had to come to this alone.”

Jackson, though, does not deny that he has begun a close relationship with Jeanie Buss, the executive vice president of the team and daughter of owner Jerry Buss.

He again refused to discuss the matter specifically--”that’s involving another person, it’s not fair to her,” Jackson said--but Jackson pointed out that he has not been secretive about anything, to his wife or to anyone in the Laker organization.

Jackson concedes, though, that he is a happier man, for many reasons, now than he has been in several years. That he feels renewed, by life and by basketball and by Southern California.

“Well, yeah,” Jackson said quietly. “My kids see a real change in me. I had a real tough year and a half. I mean . . . really . . . there were some tough times for us, basically.”

Said Laker assistant Tex Winter, Jackson’s friend and mentor: “I think he enjoys it. I think he enjoys L.A. very much. He has a very nice place [in Marina Del Rey], of course, on the beach. I think he likes the lifestyle.”

With the Lakers, the No. 1 priority, Jackson has said almost from the beginning, was to fashion a working relationship between O’Neal and Bryant, two superstars who often thought about splitting apart.


Though there was a brief flare-up during the team’s 3-6 slump in January and February, the two players seemed to have grown closer and closer with every passing day, and Jackson says he has noticed it too.

“Some of it was just their own doing, and some of it was encouragement to do it, more than anything else,” Jackson said.

“The problem was addressed in terms of, ‘If we don’t get over this thing, we’re not going to make it. We’re going to spoil each other’s best efforts.’

“That message got through. I think a lot of it maybe came along with maybe just my personality, pretty much relaxed and accommodating in many ways. . . . A certain sense that we’re going to accomplish this, a certain sense of determination.”

Even in the playoffs, Jackson says he has seen little reason to be overly concerned about his team’s mental makeup.

He admits that he was worried about Game 7 against Portland in the Western Conference finals--”it was a tremendous moment of ‘Oh my God, here it is,’ ” Jackson said--but not since.


“You know, Glen [Rice] took the first shot [of Game 1 of the NBA finals against Indiana], and he was wide open, he missed it pretty badly,” Jackson said. “I think he was surprised he was so wide open.

“First shot of the game, and I looked at the other coaches and said, ‘Naw, I don’t think that was nerves.’ I think they’re OK. I think they stepped right into the finals with just a great appetite.”

So here he sits, in a hotel meeting room, with a back that hurts, but also with a certainty that he is in the place he ought to be at the time he ought to have arrived there.

“This is what it’s all about, doing this,” Jackson said. “And it was L.A. There was something about L.A., coming to L.A. and the West Coast . . . a different pace of life and a different lifestyle it permitted.

“It seemed to go together. Otherwise, I didn’t know. I didn’t see myself in a suit . . . you know, doing a corporate business job, vice president of basketball operations or something like that.

“That’s not what I wanted. I wanted to be in the action . . . rubbing shoulders with these players and the basketball staff, which I really enjoy.


“In some ways, it’s kind of selfish at some level, but it’s something that maybe I do well enough that I should pursue it. I had to accommodate that.

“I wasn’t just being selfish to have my own career and my own lifestyle, what I get pleasure from and what I do. . . . I had to accommodate it. I had to give myself the distance and room to do that. So I made this choice.”