It’s hard to upstage Phil Jackson when it comes to talking. Jackson’s whimsical ruminations have a way of turning into national news. I’ve seen him top a 10-minute Gary Payton rant with a mere two words. That’s why it’s unusual that the takeaway from an evening with Jackson and current and former Laker players at Staples Center Thursday was the emcee’s repeated references to Brian Shaw as Jackson’s eventual replacement.
Bill Macdonald, the pre- and postgame host for Laker broadcasts on FSN West, introduced Shaw as “the next coach of the Lakers” and made a point of asking Jackson and players Derek Fisher and Luke Walton about Shaw’s ability to take over for the most successful coach in NBA history.
Jackson said “I really shouldn’t answer that question because it would a be presumptuous thing for me to do”, adding that it would be up to Laker owner Jerry Buss to make the decision on the next coach.
“But I will tell you that people around the league respect Brian, and he’s going to get a job, if it’s not with the Lakers,” Jackson said.
Jackson thought Shaw’s greatest challenge would be trying to coach two guys he played with, Fisher and Kobe Bryant. “You need some distance,” Jackson said.
Jackson said Shaw’s greatest attributes are “Brian’s a really good communicator, and his basketball knowledge is impeccable.”
The crowd at the event, dubbed “Lakers All Access” by the L.A. Sports and Entertainment Commission, got a chance to see Shaw talk X’s and O’s when he utilized the players, some children from the crowd and rapper/producer Ice Cube to demonstrate how the Lakers prepare to defend opponents’ bread-and-butter plays (in this case a Clippers’ screen-and-roll set).
Shaw, a member of the Lakers’ three-peat teams from 2000-2002, is in his sixth season as an assistant coach. In some ways he’s been better served as an understudy with the back-to-back champions instead of racking up losses elsewhere as two other oft-mentioned candidates have done. Kurt Rambis, who served as the Lakers’ interim coach before Jackson was hired in 1999 and later joined Jackson as an assistant, went to Minnesota to get some more head coaching experience and has been frozen in the Timberwolves’ rebuilding project over the past season and a half. Byron Scott, a player from the Showtime era like Rambis, already had a coach of the year award on his resume, but had the misfortune of taking over the Cleveland Cavaliers just before LeBron James made his Decision to go to South Beach and currently is suffering through an 18-game losing streak. It didn’t help that the Cavs took a 112-57 pounding when they visited the Lakers on Jan. 11.
When Macdonald asked Derek Fisher about the prospect of Shaw coaching, Fisher said, “I think Brian’s perspective on how to play the game and coach the game, and being a father and understanding today’s children and kids that are entitled, that’s a rare combination that a coach has. I think he’ll be a great coach.”
Jackson maintains that he will retire after the season.
“What can you possibly say that will make it worse or better than ‘this is what I plan to do’?” he said.
He used the template established by his father, a minister who felt the need to move every five years because “My message gets old.” He saw it happen to his coaching mentor, Red Holzman, when younger players came along and acknowledges it is happening to him with the latest generation that’s entering the NBA.
“My hip-hop is not hopping,” Jackson said. “There’s a little disconnect there.”
To me the surest sign Jackson is leaving isn’t his own word, it’s the opinion of Jeanie Buss, the Lakers’ vice president and Jackson’s girlfriend. Jackson admitted that when he returned to coach the Lakers a year after being let go in 2004, “The only reason I came back to take this job is because Jeanie asked me” and Buss was optimistic then that he would take it and optimistic that he would come back for this season even while Jackson sent signals that he wouldn’t. Now Buss is saying that Jackson will retire after the season.
Jackson revealed that while he was away from the Lakers for 2004-05 season he had discussions with Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert about coaching the Cavaliers, but he passed on the job because he thought LeBron (who was in his second year) “still had a way to go before he won a championship.” Jackson believes that “a championship is going to come” to LeBron but read his joining forces with Dwyane Wade as “a signal I need help.”
Jackson touched on a number of other topics, from his favorite TV show (“Dexter”) to the secret of his paella (it’s all about getting the rice properly crispy). He said the Boston Celtics are the best team in the Eastern Conference, while the Heat have the best individuals. He believes the Lakers can catch the San Antonio Spurs, who currently have a six-game lead over the Lakers in the Western Conference, for the No. 1 playoff seed, but is confident the Lakers are experienced enough to win a series if they have to play the Spurs or Celtics or Heat without homecourt advantage.
He said he’s “doing really well” physically despite having two hip operations, but that he’ll eventually need a knee replacement and laments the restrictions on his outdoor activities which will follow.
Jackson still enjoys the competitive aspect of coaching, but dreads the “mucky-muck” which can include the drudgery of the NBA regular season. His words and reminiscent tone Thursday night brought home the reality that there are only 36 regular-season games left in his remarkable career.