- Ramona Shelburne, ESPN Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
LOS ANGELES -- It began with an introduction, not an agenda. Phil Jackson was looking for a job befitting a man of his stature. New York Knicks owner James Dolan was in the market for a basketball man to help give his team direction and credibility. Music mogul Irving Azoff was a friend of both and just happened to be throwing a holiday party at his house in Los Angeles.
Who knew if they'd find some common ground to make small talk about, much less want to work with each other?
But Jackson has always been open to new possibilities that might stir a creative fire. And Dolan had been through enough with the Knicks over the years to recognize, and ultimately accept, that his mind was best suited for business, not basketball. So they both approached the relationship with cautious optimism. Cautious, because both had been down this road before and knew it didn't always end well. Optimistic, because, man, what if this was a match? What if Jackson could reinvent himself as an executive in New York, the place where his NBA career began in the late 1960s? What if Dolan finally bet on the right guy?
Yes, for Jackson, the job was 3,000 miles away from his fiancée, Lakers president Jeanie Buss. Of course it would've been nice to live and work alongside her and most of his children and grandchildren in Los Angeles. But sometimes arranged marriages are more functional than those based on love. Blood is thick, but it's also messy.
Even when it's over, even when the Lakers and their fans see Jackson's Knicks at Staples Center Tuesday night, it will still feel like things could have and should have gone differently.
To understand why they didn't, why Jackson has signed on to try to save the Knicks and not the Lakers, you first have to understand what Azoff seemed to immediately grasp about Jackson, but he, himself, never could.
For all the self-reflection Jackson has done in his 68 years, there was one image he was never going to be able to see clearly. His own. The way he's seen by others, that is. Not what stares back at him in the mirror, or what's inside his heart and head. On some level, Jackson understands that he is an intimidating man. His 6-foot-8 frame casts a towering shadow. His 11 NBA titles, Hall of Fame résumé and status as the coach who got the best out of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant walk into any room five minutes before he does.
It's more than that, though.
The job he wanted for himself, the role he envisioned for the autumn of his basketball life -- as a team president with final say over basketball decisions and the authority to create and shape the culture of a franchise -- is a large one.
Pat Riley holds a role like that in Miami. So does Larry Bird in Indiana. Jackson certainly has the credentials for a role like that, too. But it's a big ask of any owner. That kind of power is why an owner spends hundreds of millions of dollars to buy a professional sports franchise. So he can have the power. It is inherently threatening when an employee has even a little bit of it. It is kind of terrifying when that employee is a legend like Phil Jackson.
Azoff understood that instantly. He is a legendary deal maker in Hollywood. While he made his name as a manager of bands such as the Eagles, he has long since crossed over into movies, real estate and business. Azoff and Dolan met through the Knicks owner's band, JD and The Straight Shot, but have recently partnered on several megadeals, including the rejuvenation of the Lakers' ancestral home, the Forum in Inglewood, Calif. He is also a longtime Lakers season-ticket holder, who sits along the baseline, next to Dyan Cannon, within earshot of the Lakers bench. He has known Jackson and Jeanie Buss for many years through his association with the team.
For a marriage between Jackson and Dolan to work, Azoff knew it could never feel as if either of them was asking for anything. They each had to realize on their own it was in both of their best interests.
"Deals are deals, but they don't work unless relationships do," Azoff said. "The reason it took so long is I think all the parties wanted to make sure that there was a real relationship and bond before they entered into the marriage."
And so over the course of the next few months there were at least three face-to-face meetings involving Jackson, Dolan, Knicks general manager Steve Mills, Azoff, Jackson's agents, Todd and Brian Musburger, and several other key figures on both sides. They talked philosophies and beliefs. They talked contracts and decision-making processes. Who would have the final say over basketball decisions? Who would deal with agents and general managers? How would they recruit free agents? How would they scout? It was like signing a prenup. But the process was absolutely necessary.
And when Jackson finally signed on, both sides felt like they won.
"I always find that in every deal," Azoff said. "Both parties have to win."
It seems so simple, right? Like if the Buss family and Jackson could have gotten together for a holiday party -- or a boys weekend like Jackson and Dolan had at Azoff's residence in Palm Desert, Calif., earlier this year as they were building their relationship -- history might have unfolded differently. Jackson might be scouting the Lakers' next lottery pick and readying a free-agent pitch for Carmelo Anthony instead of trying to persuade him to stay in New York. But asking to play that role for the Lakers and for the Knicks is a very different thing, and Jackson never seemed to realize how threatening his mere presence -- both as a Lakers legend, and the fiancée of the person who'd been given final say over the organization -- was to the Buss family. Or if he did, he never did much to allay those fears.
If anything he continued to stoke them with occasional public swipes at vice president of player personnel Jim Buss, and in interviews that made clear he would have handled things with Dwight Howard very differently.
Then there were the angry statements Jackson and his representatives made at the undignified way the Lakers spurned him as a coaching candidate in 2012. Even if you believe Jackson was justified in saying any or all of those things, it is still a bold thing for someone trying to establish trust with an ownership group to do. But instead of meeting to hash out their issues, there was very little communication between Jackson and any of the members of the Buss family besides his fiancée. What did he ultimately want? Was there a way for him to run basketball alongside Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak, the way he will with Dolan and Mills in New York? Would he even consider it?
Instead of discussing those issues, Jackson remained a threat, rather than an option.
On an even more fundamental level, though, Jackson never stood a chance. He isn't blood and Jerry Buss had been clear that he intended for the franchise to be owned and operated, in perpetuity, by his six children. In addition to Jeanie and Jim, eldest brother Johnny Buss is executive vice president of strategic development for the Lakers, sister Janie Buss Drexel manages the Lakers charities, younger brother Joey runs the D-Fenders and Jesse is one of the Lakers' top scouts.
Jerry Buss had personally groomed each of his kids for their roles within the organization before his death in February 2013. He entrusted Jeanie, a natural consensus-builder with a business degree from USC, with carrying out that vision. If he'd wanted Lakers legends and a trusted hand such as Phil Jackson or Magic Johnson or Jerry West to assume a leadership role, he would have said so. But on this point, Jerry Buss had been clear, and it was anathema to the Buss kids to go against his last will and testament so soon after his passing.
On a matter as important as this, just a year after her father's death, there was no way Jeanie Buss would've made a unilateral decision without the support of her siblings. And not only did she not have support to bring Jackson into a prominent role with the Lakers, it really wasn't that close when the subject was brought up in family meetings. At best, the family was split.
While there was talk and support for bringing back Jackson in a more informal role, it never went beyond family meetings or reached Jackson's representatives.
"There is no role in the front office for him for what he could contribute," Jeanie said in an interview with Time Warner Cable SportsNet last week. "Maybe I could have him sell sponsorships or work security but I don't think that would be something that would give Phil the kind of challenge that he's looking for, that would fulfill him."
They say you never really know a family until you marry into it. You can have a sense of what matters to them and the values they hold on to. You can guess at their dysfunctions. But from the outside, you're really just guessing. Sit at the Thanksgiving table or around the Christmas tree. Go to a family birthday party. Then you'll know.
Over the past 15 years, Jackson has worked for the Buss family, won NBA championships for the Buss family and darn near married into the Buss family. But when the time came to create a relationship and a bond with the six surviving children of Jerry Buss who now own and operate the Los Angeles Lakers that made them all comfortable ceding enormous power over the franchise to him, he simply couldn't do it.
The most successful coach of all time, one of the greatest leaders of men the sports world has ever seen, a coach who prided himself on building a culture of selflessness and community in his locker rooms, simply didn't know where or how to even begin establishing a level of trust with the owners of the franchise he was hoping to help run.
Perhaps it's because he had a family of his own that he and Jeanie Buss had taken to spending their holidays with. Perhaps it's because being part of a family business, where the brothers and sisters socialize in the office every day, but maybe not away from it, is different from marrying into a family.
Both times Jackson had joined the Lakers in the past, an emissary had helped to broker the deal. The first time around in 1999, Jerry and Jim Buss had commanded then-general manager Jerry West to bring him in to coach the team. West had wanted to consider more options before hiring Jackson, but in a meeting on the San Clemente Pier, the Busses told him Jackson was the man they wanted, so West went out and got him.
In 2005, when Jackson returned to the Lakers after a breakup the season before, Jeanie Buss helped facilitate the conversations between Jackson and her father and brother that needed to happen.
Those conversations never happened this time. Perhaps too much had been said already.
Phil Jackson left his basketball life in 2011 with more questions than answers. With a couple of guiding principles, a childhood musing about chasing adventures around the world like Robinson Crusoe, and a mind he'd trained to embrace the possibilities of uncertainty, rather than quiver in its existential angst. He planned to get healthy and spend time with his family. He planned to write and travel. He swore he'd try many things outside of his comfort zone, just to see what happened.
But mostly he looked inward. For a purpose or a calling. To understand himself and his place in the world. To find something that mattered and was worth doing.
The first year of his retirement, he spent with his family and focusing on his health. The second year, he wrote a book, "11 Rings," with longtime friend and author Hugh Delehanty. It brought back a passion for the community and connection Jackson was so brilliant at creating on his teams. It forced him to analyze and articulate how he did it.
Still, Jackson was torn. In an interview with the New York Times Magazine last spring he seemed to have accepted that the game was in his blood, and he would likely return to it someday.
"Can you think of anything else for me to do?" Jackson asked, to which the author said he could not. "It's a shame, isn't it?" Jackson said. "I thought maybe you thought I could be the president. Something really important."
Although it reads and feels like an acceptance, it was not a resignation. Basketball has always been his love. Jackson just needed to get to a place where he didn't equate returning to the game with a failure to find a new passion. He needed to want to do it again, and do it in the all-encompassing, mind-melding way he's always done it. Then he needed to find a situation that challenged him and gave him what he needed to succeed.
You wonder if that's part of the reason he never called to rebuild things with the Buss family. If he just needed time to work through his own feelings about returning to the NBA. Jackson was always going to have to be nudged back into the game. Restless souls need to be claimed and feel wanted. It took a master deal maker to bring Jackson and the Knicks to that place.
Hard as it still is for some to accept, it is probably for the best. Marriage shouldn't be that hard.