Phil Jackson is still a part of the Lakers, through history and engagement, but the franchise is carrying on despite his Hall-of-Fame shadow.
Jackson sat with his fiancée, Lakers executive and part-owner Jeanie Buss, on Wednesday night at an event hosted by Time Warner Cable Media honoring the late Jerry Buss.
As Jeanie graciously answered questions about the team’s first year with Time Warner Cable SportsNet, Jackson sat quietly.
"[Time Warner] exceeded even beyond our wildest expectations; the amount of time and coverage that the team received was really what our fan base had been asking for,” said Buss. “I was very, very pleased.”
The Lakers had a tough season, ending in a four-game sweep by the San Antonio Spurs as the crowd in the Staples Center rafters chanted a familiar mantra: “We want Phil! We want Phil!”
Instead, the Lakers have Coach Mike D’Antoni, who, according to General Manager Mitch Kupchak, will return next year with the full support of the front office.
“Phil is part of the organization, because of me,” said Buss. “I just want Lakers fans to know, he is a part of it because he’s part of my life and my family. He’s always in Laker world, no matter if he has an official position or not.”
Jackson does have a semi-official title as “trophy"-fiancé.
“You’ve got that right,” said the Lakers’ former coach. “I’m just supporting Jeanie in the decisions that are important for the ballclub to make, whatever that is. I’m backing her, trying to find a way to bring the team back to prominence.”
Jerry Buss left the franchise to his six children, with son Jim Buss in charge of basketball operations — and Jeanie in charge of business operations.
The basketball operations department is not asking the business operations department for advice.
"[The Lakers] have a basketball management group with Mitch and her brother working on one end, and she kind of balances that off by bouncing it off my head once in a while to see what I think about it,” said Jackson.
As far as the people actually making the decisions, Jackson rarely has direct contact.
“Outside out of seeing him [in November], I haven’t seen Jim since then,” he said, although both attended Jerry Buss’ memorial service in February.
The meeting in November seemed to go well, with Jackson mulling over a possible return to coaching. Instead, Kupchak called Jackson late on Sunday night to let him know that the team had gone with D’Antoni.
“To be honest with you, I think he was upset I woke him up,” joked Kupchak at the event Wednesday, held downtown at the Vibiana. “Other than that, I don’t think there’s anything there.”
Jeanie Buss didn’t take it quite so flippantly.
“I was not happy with how things happened,” Buss said. “I just think that that was a difficult process to go through. Yeah I was disappointed, but I’m biased. I don’t think anybody would judge me to say that [Phil] is the best coach in the entire world — that’s my prerogative to feel that way.”
While Jerry Buss was the final say on D’Antoni, the only obstacle to bringing Jackson back now is Jim Buss. That and the two years D’Antoni has left on his contract.
Jackson talked briefly about the recent departures of George Karl and Lionel Hollins, noting that as teams changed management, they usually bring in new coaches.
“What’s the general manager’s relationship with the coach? What’s the owner’s relationship?” asked Jackson.
Jackson’s relationship with Jim Buss is just as relevant. It’s telling that nearly every Lakers’ tie to Jackson and the triangle offense was severed when he departed in 2011.
“Sometimes I’d leave [Jim] behind if he didn’t make the plane on time, but I’d do that to anybody who didn’t make the plane on time,” said Jackson, on one of the early years when Jim traveled with the team.
Jackson’s style has been known to be abrasive to a front office — like the night he asked then-General Manager Jerry West (and his assistant, Kupchak) to leave the team’s locker room in 2000.
Is there any reason to expect Jim Buss to have a change of heart?
“He’s always wanted to come to Montana and come and join me,” said Jackson. “I’ve always had an open door for him to come join me.”
Jackson has said he would like a position to help shape a franchise, perhaps a presidency since he doesn’t want to be on the front lines as a general manager.
“Jimmy’s obviously got a long-term contract,” joked Jackson. “I don’t see any need to have an official role right now. There may be at some point but at this point, I don’t see it happening.”
Jackson is available to consult, but it doesn’t sound like Kupchak is calling either.
“Upon the conclusion of an early exit to a season, it’s not very busy because you have some time that you didn’t expect to have,” said Kupchak about the team’s long summer.
Later, when asked about Jackson, “We don’t talk on a daily basis, things move too quickly. I can hardly keep people in my office up to date on what’s happening.”
Kupchak had a professional relationship with Jackson, but does he want to keep hearing the “We want Phil!” chant? How about the somewhat-regular slew of questions from the media about Jackson coaching or guiding the team through Jeanie?
“I’m not sure why somebody like Phil isn’t working for an NBA club right now. He’s got so much to offer,” said Kupchak, who sounds like a headhunter trying to find Jackson a job somewhere else.
Kupchak was congenial; he wouldn’t be one to bare an open animosity even if there was one.
“Even though he doesn’t have an official role with us, he’s a consultant of sorts. Jeanie, I’m sure, talks to him a lot about basketball,” said Kupchak. “I bump into him from time to time; even though it may not be official, there is an existing relationship.”
The Lakers are divided between business and basketball. Reconnecting with Jackson would probably be the best basketball decision the Lakers could make, but the business of family is a massive obstacle.
“My dad set things up for us in a system that he felt confident in, and I have complete confidence in it as well,” said Jeanie. “We’re in good hands with our front office and they know — my brother Jim and Mitch — they know that Phil is a phone call away and that he is always available. He would do whatever he can to support or listen ... It’s like we’re all family.”
Is there anything more complicated than family dynamics?
“They had their reasons for doing what they did ... but I kind of have that ‘What if?’ Like, ‘What if he had coached?’” said Jeanie. “Everybody’s got their family issues, so maybe that was what I can tease [Jim] about. It’s fine. What happened, happened.”
The Lakers have moved on from Jackson, even if Jeanie hasn’t. How could she, given that one day he’ll be her husband?
Meanwhile, the fans have their “We want Phil!” chant ready to go for opening night.