Tomjanovich May Quit; Jackson ‘Mulling’ Return

Times Staff Writers

A reeling Laker franchise may have suffered its latest blow Tuesday, when Coach Rudy Tomjanovich informed team officials he might resign because of health concerns and the pressures that accompany his position -- a move that sources said could prompt the team to ask former coach Phil Jackson to return.

Tomjanovich, hired as Laker coach in July, is suffering from symptoms of exhaustion and fatigue, and he has missed the last two games because of a stomach virus, according to Laker spokesman John Black.

Tomjanovich, 56, is in the first year of a five-year, $30-million contract. The deal includes a clause that allows the Lakers to terminate it at the end of a season if Tomjanovich’s performance is affected by health issues. He was diagnosed with bladder cancer in March 2003, a condition from which he has recovered fully.


Laker owner Jerry Buss, General Manager Mitch Kupchak and sidelined star Kobe Bryant met privately for half an hour during the first quarter of Tuesday’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers -- “just chatting,” Kupchak said afterward.

But Laker sources said Bryant was asked in the meeting what he would think if Jackson were approached about returning, and Bryant said he would agree to it.

Jackson is vacationing in Australia with Luc Longley, who played center for him with the Chicago Bulls. When asked in an e-mail about any possible scenario in which he would return to the Lakers, Jackson said: “[I am] mulling that over in my mind. Luc and I are going for a swim this p.m. [in the] Indian Ocean.”

Bryant sat on the Laker bench after the meeting and appeared to be in a playful mood, smiling and talking with teammates. Bryant has been sidelined since Jan. 13 and has sat out nine games because of a severely sprained ankle.

The Lakers are 24-19 this season, including wins the last two games in which assistant Frank Hamblen has filled in for Tomjanovich. The Lakers defeated Portland on Tuesday, 92-79.

The sources said Buss told Bryant that Jackson’s hiring would reduce the pressure on the Laker star since the departure of Jackson and center Shaquille O’Neal, who was traded in July to the Miami Heat.


The sources also said that Buss contemplated telling Bryant that the one person most irritated by the rehiring of Jackson would be O’Neal, who has referred to the Laker franchise only in acrimonious terms since being traded.

Jackson and the Lakers abruptly parted ways in June, with Buss suggesting that Jackson’s “triangle” offense had run its course. Jackson guided the Lakers to three championships in five seasons. He won six championships in the 1990s as coach of the Chicago Bulls. Laker officials reportedly were in contact Tuesday with Jackson in Australia.

Jackson portrayed Bryant as an uncoachable enigma in his tell-all diary that hit bookstores in October. At the same time, Jackson said he wished the best for Bryant and sympathized with the constant scrutiny the young star had faced.

Bryant and Tomjanovich have had a generally cordial relationship. Tomjanovich has complimented Bryant numerous times throughout the season, which passed the halfway point last week. But there have also been disagreements.

Bryant and Tomjanovich met early last month to discuss the offense. Bryant recommended installing another offense, and Tomjanovich recommended they return to the triangle.

Bryant said Tuesday he was stunned to hear of Tomjanovich’s condition, but he declined to discuss Jackson, saying, “I just want to play.”

“He thought [Tomjanovich] was a great coach and a great person,” said Bryant’s agent, Rob Pelinka. “They’ve had nothing but a positive experience mutually.”

Privately, some players have questioned Tomjanovich’s long-term plans. The offense was expected to be up-tempo, but it has evolved into more of a long-range shooting experiment, with several team records set or nearly set for three-point shots.

The Lakers have won nine championships since moving to Los Angeles in 1960, but the franchise seemed to spin out of control last season, when Bryant faced a rape charge, the team lost to Detroit in the NBA Finals, O’Neal was traded, and Jackson’s contract was not renewed.

Now, a Tomjanovich chapter may be added to that.

“He’s had some health issues,” Black said. “This had nothing to do with cancer. It’s not back. There are other health issues. He is contemplating his options on whether to continue coaching or not. When he does make a decision on that, it will be announced at the appropriate time.”

Friends of Tomjanovich were stunned by the developments.

“This has blindsided me,” Rocket General Manager Carroll Dawson said. “I’ve been trying to call him for the last 24 hours and haven’t gotten through. Until I talk to Rudy, I don’t know what to say except that I am shocked.”

Tomjanovich, who spent his entire 11-year playing career with the Rockets, paid his dues for almost nine years as a Rocket assistant coach before getting a shot as the Rockets’ head coach in February 1992, more than halfway through the 1991-92 season.

In his first full season, Tomjanovich was coach of the year in 1993. He guided the Rockets to NBA titles in 1994 and 1995.

In December 1977, Tomjanovich almost died after getting punched in the face by Laker forward Kermit Washington during an on-court fracas at the Forum. Tomjanovich, a four-time All-Star at the time, suffered compound facial fractures, and his playing career was never the same. He retired in 1981.

Tomjanovich was diagnosed with superficial bladder cancer in March 2003, ending his string of 2,601 games with the Rockets as player, assistant coach and head coach. He returned that fall as a personnel consultant.



Rudy Tomjanovich file

* Full name is Rudolph Tomjanovich, born Nov. 24, 1948, in Hamtramck, Mich.

* Averaged 25.1 points and 14.4 rebounds at the University of Michigan, including averages of 30.1 and 15.7 to earn All-America honors as a senior in 1970.

* Averaged 17.4 points and 8.1 rebounds in an 11-season NBA career with San Diego and Houston.

* Came back from a life-threatening injury when punched by the Lakers’ Kermit Washington on Dec. 9, 1977, to average 19 points the following season.

* Compiled a 503-397 record in 12 seasons coaching Houston, with Midwest Division titles in 1993 and 1994.

* Coached Houston to a 4-3 victory over New York in the 1994 NBA Finals and a four-game sweep of Orlando in the 1995 Finals.

* Coached the United States to a third-place finish in the 1998 World Championships, and a gold medal in the 2000 Olympics.

Los Angeles Times