- Ramona Shelburne, ESPN Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
He said goodbye in May of 2011 with a wry smile, not a tear. Whatever emotion Phil Jackson had on the day he officially retired as the Los Angeles Lakers coach had long since been felt. His last words were ones of gratitude, not nostalgia.
"I said what I wanted to say, so I don't want to belabor this at all," Jackson said then to the assembled media at the Lakers' training facility. "Just wanted to come down and thank the L.A. fans. The Laker fans particularly have been generous to me. When I first came here they thanked me for coming to L.A. I hope they thank me for leaving."
Three years have passed since that day, and until he finally signed on to be the new president of the New York Knicks, it never really felt like Jackson had left.
Over the past three years, he's been neither coach nor consultant. His fiancée, Jeanie Buss, is the one still receiving Laker paychecks, not him. But in his absence, Jackson's presence has only grown larger among the Lakers and their fans. By remaining in the shadows, his enormous shadow has hung over the franchise.
People got used to it that way. It was comforting to know Jackson was still there, close by. Just a tweet away. That also made it hard for other things to grow, but it was better than the alternative.
When legendary owner Dr. Jerry Buss passed away last February, Jackson was still the one subsuming that patriarchal role in this very strange, dysfunctional saga. The Lakers and their fans never really had to stare into the abyss in front of them.
Now they do. That it took a full week for Jackson to formally sign on as the Knicks president after word of their serious mutual interest leaked only prolonged the torture for Laker fans.
They don't want to say goodbye. This does not feel good. There is no relief now that it's finally over.
There is a whole lot of anger and desperation and hurt. There will be for a while. Most of it will be directed at executive vice president of player personnel Jim Buss, who was positioned by his father's last will and testament to become the reason there is no room in Lakerland to give Jackson the kind of power and influence he has been promised with the Knicks.
The rest will be scattered into the cosmos.
There are a number of theories as to why Dr. Buss set things up the way he did for his six children. He could've chosen one of them as king or queen. He could've looked outside the family for a conservator of the flame. Magic Johnson or Jerry West or Jackson would've gladly accepted.
Instead he told them to work together. That plan had been discussed in detail with the Buss children for many years. There were no surprises at the end. This was always how it was going to be.
Palace courtiers couldn't help but wonder how long that arrangement would last. Would one sibling stage a coup? Would the others be forced to choose sides? Maybe that's what Dr. Buss actually wanted to happen. He couldn't, as a father, choose any one of his children above the others so he constructed a framework to encourage ruthlessness. The Lakers should be taken, not inherited.
It's a great theory. Full of intrigue and written like a "Game of Thrones" script.
But it's just not true. And the ones who know that the best are his own children. Dr. Buss didn't just bequeath the Lakers to his children. He spent a long time auditioning and testing them for roles within the franchise. All the Buss kids apprenticed for a number of years, selling tickets at the Forum or running the minor franchises in the Buss empire -- the WNBA's Sparks, the L.A. Strings of World Team Tennis or the L.A. Lazers indoor soccer team.
It meant something to him that he'd made his children earn the roles he left to them. It meant something to him to leave the Lakers to them. All six of them.
If he'd wanted to involve Johnson or West or Jackson, he would've. Which is why down to the very last moment, even as influential courtesans and fans lobbied her to stage a coup, Jeanie Buss stayed silent and remained loyal to her father's wishes. She believes that's what he wanted. And she believes in supporting her brother Jim and general manager Mitch Kupchak no matter what, even if it means her fiancée is destined to leave and live in another city.
"I enjoy hearing from the fans, but they have to understand I have a job already," Jeanie Buss said in an interview with ESPNLA 710 last July. "I can't take on anymore. This was something my dad set up, and I think it's important we move forward with what he put into place. And like I said, I have a great relationship with all my brothers."
Jim Buss believes in the plan and himself, too. Because his father did.
"If he didn't think I was capable of doing this, I guarantee he wouldn't have put me here," Jim Buss told ESPN in an interview last summer. "He would have arranged something else.
"But over years of dealing with him on every level and every contract and every negotiation and every thought of building a philosophy to win championships ... My dad trusted me. I know for a fact that if he didn't believe in what I was doing, he would not have just said, 'Well you're my son. Here you go.'
"No. That's not how I got this job."
Jim and Jeanie actually discussed this very moment many times with their father before he passed away. He cautioned both that this will be difficult.
"He always said, 'You have to have a shell and be able to repel water because you're going to get pelted,'" Jim Buss said. "And I said, 'Dad, I have no problem with that as long as I believe that you believe in me and we believe in this philosophy.' "
You can believe in something and still question it when things get hard. And right now, things are really, really hard.
Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson publicly questioned Jim and Jeanie on Wednesday, as hope of bringing Jackson back out of the shadows waned. There wasn't much time left on the shot clock; why not try a 35-footer to beat the buzzer?
As they expressed their concerns -- within minutes of each other, actually -- it felt like something was afoot.
But there was silence inside the palace. There were no conversations between Jackson's representatives and the Lakers. Jim never called Phil. Jeanie never called Jim. The process simply played out, with Jackson making his own decision to leave in the end and all of us still wondering what he truly wanted.
The Buss family has discussed if there was a way to make better use of Jackson's abilities and stature. In recent months, there had been more of a willingness and eagerness to engage Jackson and tap into his brilliant basketball mind. But it's been clear to all involved for quite some time that he was never going to get as much power and influence with the Lakers as he will get from New York.
Jackson's dalliance with the Knicks had been going on for months. It took some time for Jackson to finally put pen to paper and choose his final destination, but they've all had a lot of time to digest and make sense of it all.
This has been a long goodbye.
To a legend. To what might have been.
The fans in New York are wary of Jackson and how much he truly wants to be there. How much will he even live in New York? How much work will he have the appetite for? Being a team president isn't just about making decisions, it's about getting on planes and flying to Iowa to watch a Big 12 game or immersing yourself in advanced analytics. It lacks the soul Jackson is always drawn to.
But Jackson's always done things his own way. For all the talk of Zen and the Triangle offense and the way he's able to manage superstars, his genius comes from his ability to create a closed ecosystem around a team. A world where his values and beliefs rule. A bubble where a team can grow.
He is Zeus. He blocks out the sun and the rain. He blunts the noise and the chaos. Which is exactly what the Knicks need right now. So who cares about scouting in Iowa?
They don't know that yet in New York. People in L.A. do, which is why it's so hard to let him go.
The problem for the Lakers is that they haven't really been living in Phil's world these last few years. They've been living under his shadow, and it's had the opposite effect.
Now we'll see what things really look like, and if anything new can grow.
With Phil Jackson's shadow no longer looming over Los Angeles, where do the Lakers go from here?