LOS ANGELES -- It might not rank among the great mysteries of the universe, but it's been a nagging question of mine for the past six seasons: What's it like inside "Phil's Place," the room Phil Jackson disappears into after every Lakers home game?
With a dwindling number of regular-season games left at Staples Center in what sure looks like the last season of Jackson's coaching career, he agreed to let me accompany him recently after a game against the New Orleans Hornets. Instead of rushing past him and into the Lakers locker room after Jackson finished his postgame news conference, I followed him into the big room between the Lakers' locker room and the Clippers' locker room, the locker room formerly used by the Avengers of the Arena Football League. It's also used by visiting hockey teams. For Clippers home games, coach Vinny del Negro conducts his postgame news conferences in that space. But when the gold-and-purple-trimmed Lakers court is in use, the room belongs to Jackson, as has been the case ever since he returned to coach the Lakers in 2005 ("the second coming," as he called it).
"Jeanie's made it available to me because the kids have been around," Jackson said. "It feels good."
Guess that's another benefit of dating Jeanie Buss, the Lakers' executive vice president and team owner Jerry Buss' daughter.
It's a place where Jackson can unwind with his family and friends, a place where he doesn't mind talking basketball even after he's addressed the team and the media. Inside, black curtains hang in front of the locker stalls. "Like a funeral parlor," Jackson said.
A few tall circular tables and chairs are set up. There's a tray of soft drinks, water and beer, and bowls of chips and other snacks. An attendant pours the drinks.
The fact Jackson allowed me in is probably another sign that he's nearing the end and willing to let some of the walls down. He was nostalgic on this evening, reminiscing about when I first broke into the NBA world covering his Bulls for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1994. We shared stories about those teams and players, and the Chicago-Washington first-round series that I covered for The Washington Post in 1997. The Bulls completed a sweep of three very close games when the ball flew out of Michael Jordan's hands and sailed to Scottie Pippen, who drove the baseline for a dunk and was fouled.
Neither of us could remember who fouled Pippen. (I found the play on YouTube and saw it was Harvey Grant.) Jackson has never been big on getting people's names right, even for opponents that the Lakers are about to face. He also hasn't been concerned about running with the rest of the crowd in the NBA, something that dates to his nontraditional coaching path through the CBA.
"I was always kind of branded as a person from the outside, that just kind of came in," Jackson said before a recent game.
Because he isn't a networker he hasn't placed assistant coaches and former players in new jobs throughout the league the way, say, Larry Brown has through his North Carolina-Kansas web or Gregg Popovich has out of San Antonio.
"There's not a lot of legacy," Jackson admitted.
What he's more concerned with is having a chance to spend more time with his kids in recent years. He missed the birth of one of his children when he was a player because of an out-of-town playoff game that day. Coming to Los Angeles in 1999 meant leaving his wife because, as Jackson's son Charles said, "My mom said, 'I'm not going to be away, I'm not going to be a basketball coach's wife.'"
So now Jackson carves out a little time for his children and grandchildren, now that they're older, out of college and able to see him. He's come to value the 15-20 minutes they spend in privacy after games.
Jackson warned me this would be a smaller group than usual. This gathering consisted of Charles Jackson, his wife, her brother and a friend.
Charles likes going through the box scores and asking his father for the unique insight he gets from his extra-high chair on the Lakers' bench.
"There's always a funny story that he sees that you don't see on the court," Charles Jackson said.
And Phil often has a funny quip. When Charles marveled about Shannon Brown's dunk in which he switched the ball from right hand to left in midair, the coach sniffed, "He should have used it in the dunk contest." It was a reference to Brown's disappointing last-place finish last year.
Charles thought the dunk was reminiscent of Michael Jordan's hand-switching layup in the 1991 NBA Finals. For Charles, it keeps going back to Chicago, where his father started his NBA coaching career and won his first six championships.
"It's tough because I love the Lakers, but I LOVED those Bulls," Charles said. "There's something so special about that crew of guys."
If Jackson wins his sixth championship with the Lakers his ring collection will be evenly allocated between the two teams. He already has coached more seasons with the Lakers (11) than the Bulls (nine). And should he stick around and win a seventh championship in L.A. he would have to be considered more of a Laker than a Bull, right?
"Personally, I kind of assume he's a Laker," Charles said with a tone of resignation.
"I talked to Jeanie last night. I was like, 'Has he got it in him for another year?'
I don't want to make a Brett Favre out of him or something."
But Phil keeps saying that this will be his last season, and no one is doubting him.
"He's done," Charles said. "I think so.
"He keeps joking about good things coming in three. I think there's just a sense or feeling of completion. When he goes to these cities in these last three weeks, you can tell it's kind of a farewell trip. That's just my sense."
Regardless of the outcome of this season. Phil Jackson's place in NBA history is secure. "Phil's Place," on the other hand, is about to close up shop.