Dinner with Phil Jackson here, a huge mistake for the big guy because I know now he’s capable of giving more than one-word answers.
It’s Friday night at a highly recommended Mexican restaurant, 16 regular-season games remaining in the career of the greatest all-time NBA coach, and we’re talking Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.
It begins with a question that has nothing to do with either superstar: Is there a chance he might regret retiring while the Lakers remain capable of winning again?
“I hope I have no regrets about coming back this year. When I saw how Kobe was struggling physically last year, Fish [Derek Fisher] was getting older,” and then he stops himself and brings the conversation back to Bryant.
“Kobe was really hurt; people don’t give him enough credit. He’s a remarkable person, remarkable.”
“Do you like him?” I ask.
“It’s not about liking him,” he says. “It’s about admiring his courage. There’s only one individual I know that’s like that, and that’s Michael Jordan.
“Kobe has patterned himself after Michael, and there are a lot of identical things there, but it’s one thing to hope to be like him, it’s another thing to be like him.”
So when Jackson’s next book comes out, and it will, will Jackson reveal who he thinks was best — Jordan or Bryant?
“I’m with [ESPN’s] Bill Simmons on this,” he says. “We have to take Michael Jordan out of the equation. Stop comparing anyone to Michael Jordan. It’s just not fair. He was remarkable. Kobe’s in his own sphere.
“He doesn’t shoot the same percentage [.455] as Michael [.497]. He has the same characteristics as Michael, but he’s not the same player. It takes nothing away from him — he’s a great player in his own right.”
Jackson then tells a story about Jordan playing 27 holes of golf before a playoff game against Miami — in which he scored 56 points.
“He had this unbelievable amount of energy that I’ve never seen anybody have,” says Jackson, who wasn’t thrilled with Kobe’s late-night extra practice in Miami. “We’d play three games in four nights on the road and he’d be better the third night than the first. Remarkable.”
He likes the word “remarkable,” which works well in describing his own journey. As he says, he was 28 hours into postgraduate work before he concluded he could make more money in coaching than psychology.
He was the kid in the back of the classroom, he says, “who liked to crack wise.” So he’s got to love Page 2, but he declines to talk with food in his mouth.
A grandfather of seven now, he says he finds his BMW motorcycle seems to ride best at 90 mph. It’s frightening to think how he knows this.
“I’m a speed freak,” he admits, while saying the roads he drives in Montana and Nevada do not have speed limits. And so he’s driven them at 100 and 120 mph — Brian Shaw is closer to becoming the Lakers’ head coach than he ever knew.
The third party and referee to this dinner, Lakers PR guy John Black, interrupts to say he believes Nevada has speed limits.
“They do,” Jackson says, “but nobody is on the roads.”
He has a rule, Jackson says: No freeways traveled west of the Mississippi if he can find a back road.
“I’m a different cat,” he says, as if the obvious really needs to be stated.
His nickname in school was “Bones.” As a sophomore, he weighed 150 pounds. He was 6 feet tall, he says, for a minute.
He sang the lead part in a school opera production, “one of the most harrowing experiences in my life,” he recalls, which explains so much more about him now as the reluctant interviewee.
“I developed a severe case of athlete’s foot at the time. I missed three weeks of basketball. I’d wake up in the night, my feet bleeding. It was mostly because of the tension [from being the lead singer].
“After that I knew what I could and couldn’t do. I was still in the plays, but didn’t take the lead role. I liked standing in the back, not standing in the front leading.”
Hard to explain why he chose a career that puts him in front of thousands as a leader, but he can.
“I’ve been able to set a tone to what I do so I haven’t had to be the guy standing in the front,” he says. “Michael, Shaq and Kobe did it.”
A restaurant manager interrupts to fawn all over Jackson, although he’s not the one picking up the tab.
“Who has the best Mexican food?” he asks, “California or Texas?”
Jackson says, “Arizona,” the restaurant manager now understanding what it’s like to interview the guy.
So many restaurants over the years, and after Saturday there are only four more road games and whatever in the playoffs.
“It’s a matter of knowing internally when it’s time,” he says, needing a cane for his sore knee when not wearing a brace. “It all revolves around health issues.”
In the past, a year off has done wonders to rejuvenate. And he’s already heard the speculation he will return, broadcaster Mark Jackson the latest to say so. Some have him linked to Miami.
“A year is a long time,”’ he says, knowing he will be 67 if the time does come to consider a return.
“I know I have to be engaged,” he says and he’s not talking about Jeanie Buss. “There’s a book I wrote that seemed to touch a lot of people — ‘Sacred Hoops.’ A number have asked me to do another book beyond that. It’s kind of a goal now.”
One more basketball objective first, a challenging one, he admits, if it means playing series after series after series without the home-court advantage.
But what a perfect way to go out for a cat who likes to be different.