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Jackson Not Ready to Commit

Times Staff Writer

Phil Jackson says he is healthy enough to coach next season but hasn’t decided whether to return to the NBA, much less to the Lakers, an assessment to be determined more on his timetable than anyone else’s.

Jackson talked Saturday about a Laker roster that is currently “not appealing at all,” and spoke of awaiting a vision of what his future holds while acknowledging teams will want an answer from him in early or mid-June.

Jackson, who characterized Laker guard Kobe Bryant as uncoachable in a book he wrote after last season, said he hoped to talk with Bryant soon, declining to disclose further details. He also declined to comment on whether he and Laker owner Jerry Buss have spoken recently.

Cognizant that the Lakers finished 34-48 and tied for 11th in the Western Conference, Jackson indicated there was work to be done on the Lakers beyond a trade or two and a possible mid-level free-agent acquisition.

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They are more than $20 million over the salary cap for next season, not including the cost of signing their first-round draft pick, No. 10 overall (or possibly higher, depending on the draft lottery), and the possibility of picking up a $5.4-million option for aging center Vlade Divac.

“Their current roster is not appealing at all,” Jackson said. “It’s obvious they have a roster that’s limited because it’s capped out. It’s going to take a while to clean that up. They had performers that were paid big money that were incapable of performing.

“Brian Grant didn’t earn his lunch money this year. Vlade didn’t earn his lunch money this year. Those really hurt when that happened.

“They haven’t got a lot of wiggle room to get better in a hurry. They underachieved this year. There’s no doubt this team was much more talented than their record showed.”

Jackson, 59, who underwent an angioplasty procedure in May 2003 to repair a blocked artery, has been bothered by arthritis in his knees and hips, as well as back and shoulder pain, but he passed a recent series of exams to gauge his health.

“Everything checked out right, diagnostic tests checked out fine, that part’s good,” he said Saturday before speaking at a fund-raiser in Beverly Hills for the Positive Coaching Alliance, a national organization that encourages youth-sport coaches to use athletics as a vehicle to teach life lessons.

With health a lessening concern, Jackson’s attention will shift to other, more intellectual, aspects.

“Emotionally, am I ready to do it?” he said. “And then mentally, do I have the patience to see that through?”

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Buss said May 4 he hoped to contact Jackson within a few days, a guideline that was shrugged off as Jackson and the Lakers enter into a stalemate of sorts.

Buss and Jackson met socially over dinner -- Buss’ daughter, Jeanie, is Jackson’s longtime girlfriend -- but the Lakers have not offered the job.

Buss, who leaves today or Monday for a six-week European vacation, is not entirely sold on rehiring Jackson at a potential $10-million annual investment, and Jackson is not yet committed to returning to basketball.

“I don’t have a driving urge to come back to coach,” he said. “I’m willing, I have the mind-set that I can still do it, but it’s not deeply ingrained in me. As I tell my family and my friends, I haven’t quite got the vision yet. It hasn’t really come in that there’s a plan in my head, waking me up at night.

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“It’s not something that I have to do tomorrow or next week. I feel real comfortable just taking my time.”

He also took time to compliment Bryant, placing the seven-time All-Star in the league’s upper echelon.

“I know from firsthand experience what he’s capable of,” Jackson said. “I’d like to see him return to that dominance of that position that he had before.”

Jackson was being courted most heavily by the Lakers and New York Knicks, although the Knicks have interviewed other candidates as well.

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The Sacramento Kings reportedly are interested in Jackson after winning only one playoff game. The Portland Trail Blazers have narrowed their list to two or three candidates, none of whom are believed to be Jackson, a league source said.

Jackson’s nine championships are tied with the Boston Celtics’ Red Auerbach for the most by a coach, and his 175 playoff victories and .725 winning percentage are the highest in league history.


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