Phil Jackson is not about hypothetical situations, so for him to go back and wonder what if he had decided immediately Saturday that he wanted to coach the Lakers again is not his style.
Yet it is painful for Lakers fans who longed for Jackson’s return to know now that the odds were that Jackson would indeed be back in place if he had told Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak and executive vice president Jim Buss right away in his initial interview with them Saturday that he definitely wanted the job.
After my column detailing the events and miscommunication that led to Jackson being turned down and Mike D’Antoni hired as the new Lakers coach, Kupchak spoke to a small group of reporters Tuesday afternoon about how it all went down.
“When we decided to make the change (from Mike Brown) and we talked about a couple of possibilities, Phil — although he was mentioned — was not lumped in as one of the possibilities that we thought would be a reality,” Kupchak said. “He had retired on his own a year and a half ago, and he told me two months ago that he never wanted to coach again, he was done coaching, but he wanted to stay involved in basketball in some capacity.
“And when we made the change, we discussed in advance, ‘Listen, guys, although we don’t think he wants to be a part of it and we’re not looking to go in that direction, there’s going to be a firestorm of support (for Jackson). And of course, on Friday, that started. And by Friday night, I was talking with ownership about ‘We’ve got something on our hands right now that we’ve got to talk about and consider and look into. So the decision was made Saturday morning to meet with Phil and to see exactly his take on it, what his condition was, his mental approach, his physical approach, and that’s what we did.
“I would say up until that point, it remained percentage-wise more of a possibility that we would ask him if he said yes to coach, although it never got there Saturday morning. The groundswell of support … there was a lot of pressure — there was a lot of pressure — to seriously consider bringing Phil back or asking him to consider to come back.”
I asked Kupchak that if Jackson hadn’t asked for two days to ponder and instead had said he did want to coach the Lakers again, would it have changed the entire course that shifted back to D’Antoni.
“It’s hard to say,” Kupchak said. “But we would’ve gone back immediately and huddled up with Dr. (Jerry) Buss and decided what we were going to do that day.”
The Lakers, even then, had to make a decision not to settle for Jackson and await his decision.
“We sorted through the P.R. backlash and decided ultimately that we could withstand it,” Kupchak said. “We thought about the way we wanted to play and the personnel and became more and more convinced that we were doing the right thing.”
Asked about the feeling that the Lakers were essentially saying no to Jackson (though he had not said he would take the job), Kupchak said: “Yeah, we had to come to grips with that. Absolutely. Late Saturday and all day Sunday, that was something that we had to come to grips with, especially after watching all the coverage on TV that it’s his job to lose and the perception is that it’s a fait accompli.”
About the miscommunication with Jackson about whether he had two days to consider the job with the belief that another hire wouldn’t be made in the meantime, Kupchak said:
“Much has been made of the perceived agreement to wait until Monday. The actual way it took place after the basketball discussion was kind of, ‘Where are we now?’ And Phil said he needs some more time. I asked him, ‘How much more time?’ And he said, ‘I will get back to you on Monday.’ ”
“At that point, I said, ‘Phil, I have a job to do and I’m going to have to continue my search and interview candidates,’ and he nodded that he understood.”
Kupchak added: “Our feeling was there was no agreement to wait for your response on Monday. He told us that’s when he would get back to us. Now, I could see where he might interpret that as ‘You guys will wait for me,’ but I thought when I said I had to go on and interview other candidates, it was clear that we had a job to do.”
After the Lakers decided to go with D’Antoni around 5:30 p.m. Sunday, they finalized the deal via fax with him in the New York area and then Kupchak decided it would be better to notify Jackson at midnight than wait until Monday, when he might be coming to the Lakers to say he did indeed want the job.
Kupchak also acknowledged that there were no tremendous demands about missing road trips or salary discussions with Jackson, even though reports indicated Jackson had outlandish requests.